Germany Does Not Have World Cup Locked Down

The biggest sporting event in the world is finally here. People from all around the globe will be tuning in on June 14 for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where 32 national teams will compete for international glory. Germany — the team that clinched the Cup back in 2014 — is still a favorite, but if the qualifying tournament showed us anything, the World Cup is still going to be full of surprises.

Right now, there are only a handful of nations that seem to pose a strong threat. Germany, who will compete with much of the same roster as they did in 2014 — with noteworthy exceptions like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm — is likely the most intimidating team to arrive in Russia. Following in their wake is Brazil with, perhaps most notably, their star forward Neymar Jr., who made news headlines last fall for a record-breaking transfer price of $263 million from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain. Aside from Neymar, however, the squad boasts the talents of defenders Marcelo Vieira and David Luiz and midfielder Philipe Coutinho. In 2014’s World Cup, they had a lot of pressure to succeed as hosts but fell short of their goals due to the team’s unusually high proportion of young players. The team has since bulked up over these past four years.

France is also a seasoned contender, having made it to the World Cup finals in 2006 with legends Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. This year, their roster has promise all across the pitch, starting with forward Antoine Griezmann, midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, and defenders Laurent Koscielny and Raphaël Varane. And one cannot forget Lionel Messi and Argentina, who, after a tumultuous fight to merely qualify for the Cup in the most competitive conference in the world, will probably prove their worth as contenders and provide the audience with their unique style of play that the world has grown so accustomed to after five World Cup finals appearances and two wins.

While these four national teams are strong candidates for the trophy, there are a few teams that may catch the world by surprise this year, especially with the qualifiers leaving a few countries out of the event. The competition will not be seeing the United States, the Netherlands, Chile, Cameroon, and — most shockingly — the former 2006 World Cup winner, Italy. Without these teams, other nations might get some well-deserved attention. During the last World Cup, we saw the early elimination of former champion Spain. On the other side of the tournament, Colombia had a surprisingly long run that created a rise in acclaim for their star midfielder, James Rodríguez. That same year, Costa Rica somehow made it to the semi-finals. As always, soccer fans worldwide should expect the unexpected.

The first of these potential dark horses is Croatia. Not only does this squad feature one of the strongest midfielders in the world, Luka Modri, but his fellow Real Madrid teammate Mateo Kovaiwill also be joining him out on the pitch. With the addition of midfielder Ivan Rakiti, Croatia is boasting one of the strongest midfields in the Cup. They have the chemistry and experience to take down any team that stands in their way.

In a similar vein, the Belgian national team has even more talent on their roster. Individuals like former Professional Footballer’s Association Player of the Year winner Eden Hazard, the midfield dynamo and scoring sensation Kevin De Bruyne, and arguably the best goalkeeper in the world: Thibaut Courtois. On paper, the squad is stacked. But previous international play appearances suggest that they lack the necessary on-field chemistry to be as dominating a force as expected. However, if the players manage to bring themselves together, they could sack much of the competition.

The last team to keep an eye out for is Nigeria. The team went on a tear during their qualifying campaign to clinch the trip to Russia. Their midfield features John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, both of whom pose strong threats out on the pitch. Nigeria has been a contender in recent years, as they’ve only missed one World Cup appearance since their first qualification in 1994.

Even though it is possible to make predications, the fun of the World Cup always extends beyond the victor. In 2014, it was watching Ángel Di María’s masterful technique on the field for Argentina. In 2010, it was reading the newspaper clippings that my parents mailed me while I was at a sleepaway camp without electricity or access to the outside world. In 2006, I was first introduced to my favorite player of all time, Thierry Henry. Just four years removed from Tim Howard’s excellence between the pipes for the U.S. and Germany’s dismantling of Brazil, anticipation is at its highest for myself and many others around the world who share similar experiences. The one aspect of the World Cup that never fails is its guaranteed exhilaration, regardless of the level of one’s interest in soccer or team allegiance.