FIFA ranking 65
Best World Cup performance Fourth place, as the Soviet Union (1966); as Russia, it has never advanced out of the group stage in three tries
How did they qualify? Automatically, as hosts. Russia’s form over the last two years, in a slate of warmup games, has been patchy at best: the occasional creditable result, such as a draw with Spain, but sapping setbacks, too, including a heavy defeat against Ivory Coast and a disappointing display in the Confederations Cup.
What can we expect? There is a genuine fear in Russia that, whether or not the World Cup as a whole is a success, on the field it might be an embarrassment. At No. 65, Russia is the lowest-ranked team in the field.
Who’s the star? Aleksandr Kokorin, a 21-year-old playmaker, has inherited the mantle as his country’s great hope from his CSKA Moscow teammate Alan Dzagoev.
What would success look like? On home soil, with so much financial and political capital invested in the tournament, a place in the knockout round is the bare minimum.
FIFA ranking 1
Best World Cup performance Winners (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
How did they qualify? As always, with such ease that it almost renders the whole process pointless: 10 games, 10 wins.
What can we expect? It’s not just the number of high-caliber players that Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, can call on that’s fearsome; it is also the flexibility they offer. Löw has experimented with a three-man defense, as well as a system with no recognized striker, in recent games.
Who’s the star? Unlike Brazil or Argentina, there is no irreplaceable individual — Germany has too many options to be reliant on any one player — but Toni Kroos comes close.
What would success look like? Löw and his team are well aware that Germany is expected to become the first side to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
FIFA ranking 2
Best World Cup performance Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
How did they qualify? With ease, eventually: Brazil was languishing in sixth place in South American qualifying when it fired Dunga, its previous coach, and replaced him with Tite. The turnaround was astonishing. Brazil went unbeaten from then on, and finished 10 points clear of a late fight for the continent’s other places.
What can we expect? In theory, a team that strikes a balance between South American style and European tactical nous, topped off by an electric attacking trio. The only question mark hovers over how Brazil will fare when confronted with elite European opposition.
Who’s the star? Tite might have removed the burden of the captaincy from him — a bid to emphasize the importance of a team ethic — but, come on, it’s Neymar.
What would success look like? So high are Brazil’s standards and, after such a rapid improvement, expectations, that all eyes will be on a sixth title.
FIFA ranking 3
Best World Cup performance Third place (1966)
How did they qualify? The reigning European champion, Portugal somehow managed to win 9 of 10 qualifying games and only just squeeze into an automatic slot, just ahead of an equally efficient Switzerland.
What can we expect? A similar formula to the one that brought Fernando Santos’s team such success in Euro 2016: effective, rather than aesthetically pleasing; technically accomplished, if a little unexciting; and with one rather eye-catching superstar.
Who’s the star? Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously, and don’t you forget it.
What would success look like? After what happened at the Euros in France last year, Portugal’s durability should not be underestimated, but reaching the semifinals would be a triumph.
FIFA ranking 4
Best World Cup performance Winners (1978, 1986)
How did they qualify? Nervously. There was a very real prospect that Lionel Messi — who briefly retired from international soccer last year — would miss the World Cup, until the last qualifying game when his hat-trick at Ecuador ensured Argentina’s place.
What can we expect? Melodrama and disappointment, if qualifying is any guide; a wonderful attack and a porous defense, from a glance at the squad; and a genuine contender to win the tournament, if Coach Jorge Sampaoli can mold the team in his image.
Who’s the star? Everyone, apart from the nation of Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo, would have been a little sadder if Messi had missed out.
What would success look like? The presence of Messi alone will encourage Argentina to believe it could win the title, but a more sober reading would see the semifinals as an achievement.
FIFA ranking 5
Best World Cup performance Semifinals (1986)
How did they qualify? One of the first European nations to book its place in Russia, Belgium was handed a comparatively kind qualifying group and promptly sailed through it, dropping only two points.
What can we expect? On paper, Belgium has everything it might need to succeed: a tight defense, a talented midfield, prolific strikers and, in Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens, the sort of players who can win a game on their own. The issue is whether Roberto Martinez, the team’s Spanish coach, can bring his rich resources together.
Who’s the star? Kevin De Bruyne has quietly become one of the best players in Europe, but Belgium is at its best when Hazard is at his best.
What would success look like? In 2014, the feeling was that a place in the quarterfinals would be acceptable. Now, it might be a bit of a disappointment.
FIFA ranking 7
Best World Cup performance Third place (1974, 1982)
How did they qualify? Thanks in no small part to the endless supply of goals from Robert Lewandowski, Poland eased through a group containing Denmark, Montenegro and Romania.
What can we expect? Russia aside, Poland has the look of the weakest top seed. They should not, however, be underestimated: Coach Adam Nawalka has no shortage of proven talent at his disposal, though there is, perhaps, a sense that this generation is now a little past its peak.
Who’s the star? Poland has an abundance of good-but-unspectacular professionals, but it is Lewandowski that sets the team alight.
What would success look like? Having spent so long gaming FIFA’s rankings system to ensure a top seeding, it would be a waste if Poland did not make the quarterfinals.
FIFA ranking 9
Best World Cup performance Winners (1998)
How did they qualify? In the end, quite serenely, though there were a couple of blips along the way: a defeat in Sweden and, most notably, a scoreless tie at home against Luxembourg.
What can we expect? Theoretically, a wonderfully gifted team filled with world-class players in every position. In reality, it is harder to say: Few teams will relish running into the French, but the team’s performances against putative rivals — admittedly in friendlies — over the last couple of years have offered as many questions as answers.
Who’s the star? This could be the tournament in which one, or both, of Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé establish themselves as truly global stars.
What would success look like? No other team, not even Germany or Spain, has the sheer number and quality of players that France Coach Didier Deschamps can call upon. France could, and possibly should, win the World Cup. If it does not, expect Deschamps to be blamed.
FIFA ranking 6
Best World Cup performance Winners (2010)
How did they qualify? Alone among Europe’s superpowers, Spain might have felt a little aggrieved at seeing a genuine peer drawn in its group. The challenge became an opportunity, however: Spain’s 3-0 demolition of Italy in Madrid was, arguably, the most instructive result of the European qualifying campaign.
What can we expect? Spain appears to be emerging from a four-year transitional spell that took in the humiliation of 2014 and the disappointment of Euro 2016, and it will, without question, be the team in Pot 2 that everybody wants to avoid.
Who’s the star? The old guard of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets will be crucial, but success will depend on the creative spark of the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Saúl Ñíguez.
What would success look like? Spain has the talent to regain its world title, but a tough group draw could complicate matters.
FIFA ranking 11
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (1970)
How did they qualify? Condemned to fifth place, and a playoff spot, on a dramatic final day of South American qualifying, Peru clinched a place at the World Cup finals for the first time in 30 years with a relatively straightforward victory against New Zealand.
What can we expect? It’s hard to say: no one on the roster has even seen Peru play in a World Cup. But the team was a surprise at the Copa América in both 2015 and 2016, so the only fear might be that it peaked a little early.
Who’s the star? Paolo Guerrero, a veteran striker currently with Brazil’s Flamengo, is enjoying something of an Indian summer at age 33, and he will be his country’s key player.
What would success look like? Getting out of the group would be a cause for celebration.
FIFA ranking 8
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
How did they qualify? Unfortunate not to earn an automatic place — Switzerland finished tied with Portugal but fell into a playoff on goal difference — the Swiss were extremely fortunate to be given a controversial penalty in their subsequent playoff against Northern Ireland.
What can we expect? Switzerland has developed a habit of qualifying for major tournaments, emerging from the group stage, and then being knocked out in a mind-numbingly dull game.
Who’s the star? Ricardo Rodriguez, A.C. Milan’s buccaneering, free-kick-scoring left back.
What would success look like? Reaching the Round of 16 would be considered par, and anything beyond that an excellent campaign.
FIFA ranking 15
Best World Cup performance Winners (1966)
How did they qualify? Despite losing its manager, Sam Allardyce, in a newspaper sting early on in qualifying, England regrouped under the rather more understated Gareth Southgate and qualified easily from a straightforward group, without ever really convincing.
What can we expect? That remains unclear; Southgate is in a somewhat experimental phase. This England team is likely to be younger, more tactically flexible and more technically proficient than previous incarnations. Whether Southgate can find the right formula, especially in defense, is a slightly thornier issue.
Who’s the star? Harry Kane probably needs an impressive tournament to cement his status as one of the world’s best strikers.
What would success look like? A reasonable nation, looking at the bigger picture, would say the quarterfinals. England may not fit that description.
FIFA ranking 13
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (2014)
How did they qualify? Jose Pekerman’s team sneaked in to South America’s fourth and final qualification slot in the general chaos of the last round of games in October.
What can we expect? The team that was adopted by so many neutrals for its flamboyance in 2014 seems a little paler now, not quite as captivating. Pekerman’s job has been in doubt at times; James Rodriguez, the symbol of the last World Cup, has lost his way a little. There is still more than enough talent, though; Pekerman, likely coaching in his last tournament, must find a way to harness it.
Who’s the star? Radamel Falcao’s toils with injury dominated the buildup to 2014, and despite a frantic attempt to recover from an A.C.L. tear he eventually missed the tournament. Rejuvenated at Monaco, he will see this as a chance to make amends.
What would success look like? A repeat of the quarterfinal performance of 2014 may be the best that Colombia can realistically achieve.
FIFA ranking 16
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
How did they qualify? El Tri only lost once, in its final game. The result helped eliminate the United States.
What can we expect? Tenacious attacking; whatever-it-takes defending; and criticism of all of it from the comically adversarial Mexican news media.
Who’s the star? With Javier Hernandez toiling at struggling West Ham, Roma’s experienced defender Hector Moreno probably has surpassed him as Mexico’s most accomplished performer.
What would success look like? Certainly escaping the group. The chances of breaking the hoodoo of being eliminated in the Round of 16 unless the tournament is on home soil, though, will depend on the vagaries of the draw.
FIFA ranking 21
Best World Cup performance Winners (1930, 1950)
How did they qualify? Óscar Tabárez’s team managed to avoid the worst of the mayhem in South American qualifying, securing a place with a game to spare, thanks largely to a formidable record in Montevideo.
What can we expect? Uruguay’s inherent characteristics have not changed since it finished third in South Africa in 2010: a tough-as-teak defense; an energetic, aggressive midfield; and genuine class in attack, in the form of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. The issue is whether time is catching up with them all.
Who’s the star? Suárez will presumably be hoping for a rather happier ending in Russia than the ignominious ones he had in Brazil (where he was banned after biting an opponent) or South Africa (where a red card brought a win but also worldwide scorn).
What would success look like? The quarterfinals would be reasonable; if Suárez, Cavani and defender Diego Godín are in form, a little further is not impossible.
FIFA ranking 17
Best World Cup performance Third place (1998)
How did they qualify? Narrowly beaten to an automatic slot by Iceland, Croatia was a comfortable victor against Greece in a European playoff.
What can we expect? Croatia will be a popular selection when people are asked for their dark horses to win the tournament, based on the undoubted individual talent in the squad. Yet somehow it still remains a little less than the sum of its parts.
Who’s the star? Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is the heartbeat and the brain of this team; if he is on, Croatia will be a threat to beat anyone.
What would success look like? Croatia has the talent to reach the quarterfinals, at least. The last 16 should be the bare minimum.
FIFA ranking 12
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (1998)
How did they qualify? Beaten into second place in their UEFA group by Poland, Denmark trounced Ireland by 5-1 in Dublin to secure a pass to Russia.
What can we expect? That depends, to a large extent, on how Christian Eriksen — the scorer of a wonderful hat trick against the Irish and his country’s only genuine star — plays. There is plenty of up-and-coming talent around him, notably Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen, but it is up to Eriksen to make it shine.
Who’s the star? Eriksen, vastly experienced at just 25, and finally being recognized as one of Europe’s finest playmakers.
What would success look like? Getting out of the group and hoping for a kind draw is a reasonable target.
FIFA ranking 22
Best World Cup performance This is Iceland’s first World Cup.
How did they qualify? As if becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the European Championships was not enough, Iceland now can claim to be the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup. If anything, the latter was more impressive, since winning a group that contained Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey was no mean feat.
What can we expect? Indomitable team spirit and the thunderclap. The challenge for Iceland, now, is that no one will underestimate it this time.
Who’s the star? Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is Iceland’s most recognizable face, but the team’s run in Euro 2016 proved that its strength is in the collective.
What would success look like? Iceland will see no reason at all to believe it cannot make the knockout rounds, as it did in Euro 2016.
FIFA ranking 26
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (2014)
How did they qualify? The Ticos secured a place in Russia with a game to spare, having beaten the United States home and away in the process.
What can we expect? An increasingly professionalized and confident team, with more than a dozen players now employed by clubs abroad.
Who’s the star? Keylor Navas, the Real Madrid goalkeeper, is the most high profile member of the squad, and arguably its only truly world-class performer.
What would success look like? Reaching the quarterfinals seems impossible, but then that was the case in 2014, too.
FIFA ranking 18
Best World Cup performance Second place (1958)
How did they qualify? As the creators and beneficiaries of an Italian national crisis. Sweden’s 1-0 win in Stockholm, and a tortuous goalless draw in Milan — both the products of organization, grit and determination — ensured Italy missed out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
What can we expect? Sweden will not, if evidence of recent years holds true, be especially enthralling to watch. Its two performances against the Italians, however, proved that the Swedes can be awkward, uncomfortable opponents, with just enough class to cause problems themselves.
Who’s the star? Depending on what he decides, either Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself, if present, or the specter he will cast if not. The best player who most certainly is going? That’s Emil Forsberg of Germany’s RB Leipzig.
What would success look like? Not spending the eight months before the tournament, and a few weeks during it, entirely in Ibrahimovic’s shadow.
FIFA ranking 27
Best World Cup performance Group stages (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
How did they qualify? Tunisia finished the final stage of African qualification unbeaten, but still only a point ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What can we expect? Tunisia is, perhaps, the least familiar of all of the African qualifiers — the majority of its squad plays domestically — but it is recovering after a difficult decade. Still, midfielder Wahbi Khazri, one of a handful of Tunisians who play in Europe, has suggested the team should not be going to Russia simply as cannon fodder, and surviving a tight qualification campaign should infuse them with plenty of confidence.
Who’s the star? In a squad light on European experience, the Marseille defender Aymen Abdennour is the most seasoned pro.
What would success look like? It would take a very fortunate draw for Tunisia to make the knockout stages for the first time.
FIFA ranking 31
Best World Cup performance Group stages (1990)
How did they qualify? In suitably dramatic fashion, given that Egypt — a serial African champion this century — had not qualified for a World Cup since 1990. Mohamed Salah’s injury-time penalty against Congo in Alexandria sent the nation into a frenzy.
What can we expect? Egypt neither scored nor conceded many goals in qualifying, something that should not come as a surprise given that its coach, the Argentine Héctor Cúper, built his reputation with a safety-first style. There is no lack of individual talent in the squad, though, including several players in Europe’s major leagues.
Who’s the star? If Salah can carry over his early season form for Liverpool, he gives Egypt — for whom he takes on a more central, creative role — a dangerous edge.
What would success look like? Simply being there is a good start, but Cúper will be targeting a spot in the knockout round.
FIFA ranking 23
Best World Cup performance Quarterfinals (2002)
How did they qualify? Unbeaten, but not without controversy: Senegal’s defeat against South Africa was overturned after the match’s referee, Joseph Lamptey, was banned for life for “match manipulation.” Senegal won the replay, and eventually reached Russia comfortably.
What can we expect? Possibly the strongest of the African qualifiers. In Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal has one of Europe’s best defenders; in Idrissa Gueye and Cheikou Kouyate, a combative midfield; and in Sadio Mané and Keita Balde, two gifted match-winners.
Who’s the star? At his best, Mané would pose a threat to pretty much any team in the tournament.
What would success look like? A place in the final 16 should be within reach.
FIFA ranking 32
Best World Cup performance Group stages (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
How did they qualify? Efficiently. Under Carlos Quieroz, the Portuguese coach who was once in charge of Real Madrid, Iran played 10 games, scored 10 goals, did not concede any, and was one of the first nations to book its place at the finals.
What can we expect? Iran will be disciplined, intelligent and — given that so many of its players remain at home — might surprise new viewers with its technical ability. It seems a stretch, though, to suggest that Team Melli, as Iran’s side is known, will be exciting.
Who’s the star? The striker Sardar Azmoun, now of Russia’s Rubin Kazan, is known (not entirely logically) as the Iranian Messi. He will be tasked with carrying the team’s scoring load, such as it is.
What would success look like? Scoring twice in one game would be welcome; picking up a win in the group stage would be even better.
FIFA ranking 40
Best World Cup performance Round of 16 (1986)
How did they qualify? The Atlas Lions made the finals for the first time in 20 years in style, winning a group that included the Ivory Coast without losing a game or conceding a goal.
What can we expect? Morocco’s serene progress through qualifying will have bolstered the reputation of Hervé Renard, the team’s itinerant French coach. The squad is packed with creative midfield players, but its strength is its defense. Even illustrious opponents may find the Moroccans frustrating.
Who’s the star? Mehdi Benatia, the Juventus central defender, is the team’s captain and lynchpin.
What would success look like? It would look like another place in the Round of 16.
FIFA ranking 37
Best World Cup performance Semifinals, as Yugoslavia (1930, 1962); as Serbia, it reached the group stage in 2010
How did they qualify? By escaping a delicately poised qualification group that included Wales, Austria and Ireland. Despite that success, Serbia fired its manager, Slavoljub Muslin, soon afterward anyway.
What can we expect? That may depend on who is in charge; Serbia has only a caretaker manager, Mladen Krstajic, at the moment. Serbia has an abundance of gritty defenders, experienced midfielders and a bright young generation coming through, but a shortage of high-caliber attacking players may blunt its edge next summer.
Who’s the star? The Premier League veterans Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic provide the backbone of the team, but Lazio’s Sergey Milinkovic-Savic, 22, adds an otherwise absent dash of style.
What would success look like? Serbia looks the most awkward of all the Pot 4 teams. A good draw could make the knockout rounds a possibility; a bad one could finish them before they can get started.
FIFA ranking 50
Best World Cup performance Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
How did they qualify? The first African team to seal a place in Russia, the continent’s unpredictable powerhouse is in one of its sporadic good moments under the experienced (and well-traveled) German coach Gernot Rohr.
What can we expect? A victory against Argentina in November will have highlighted that the Super Eagles have the firepower in attack and the strength in midfield to pose a problem even for the favorites.
Who’s the star? Nigeria’s team will be built around the experienced John Obi Mikel, but Leicester’s Wilfried Ndidi could make a substantial impact.
What would success look like? The quarterfinals look like a stretch, but getting out of the group stage should not be impossible.
FIFA ranking 39
Best World Cup performance Round of 16 (2006)
How did they qualify? A series of disappointing draws effectively ended Australia’s hopes of automatic qualification, and a place in Russia was only secured after playoff victories against Syria and Honduras.
What can we expect? Given that Ange Postecoglou, the coach who eventually guided Australia to Russia, stepped down in November, it’s hard to say. Australia will be industrious and dogged, but this team lacks the pedigree of previous incarnations.
Who’s the star? The apparently immortal Tim Cahill, who turns 38 next week, was a key figure in qualification, but Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy is the standard bearer of Australia’s current generation.
What would success look like? Give that the Socceroos have no coach, avoiding any embarrassing losses, and producing any moment that even resembles Cahill’s screamer of a goal in Brazil, would be a good start.
FIFA ranking 55
Best World Cup performance Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
How did they qualify? Japan’s presence at the World Cup is now almost a given: by winning a group that contained Australia and Saudi Arabia, Vahid Halilhodzic’s team secured a place at its sixth successive finals.
What can we expect? Sadly for Japan, all too many of those appearances have followed the same pattern: creditable performances, but a slight lack of quality that tends to mean an exit at the group stage. This generation, a number of whom play professionally in Germany, offers a little more promise.
Who’s the star? In a team with plenty of experience in Europe’s top leagues, Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa is the most proven performer.
What would success look like? As ever, Japan will be hoping to get out of the group stage.
FIFA ranking 56
Best World Cup performance This is Panama’s first World Cup.
How did they qualify? Few teams had such a dramatic, emotional road to Russia. Panama qualified on a tense final day in Concacaf’s Hexagonal tournament; Roman Torres’s winning goal against Costa Rica was rewarded with a national holiday as celebration.
What can we expect? No team will be as unfamiliar to a worldwide audience as Panama, with a squad largely drawn from its own league as well as Major League Soccer. Panama’s qualification was painted as a collective success for a team devoid of individual stars; that, combined with the sheer delight at being in Russia, could make Panama dangerous.
Who’s the star? It’s hard to single one out, but Torres, the linebacker-sized Seattle Sounders defender, has the potential to be a cult hero.
What would success look like? Merely having a place in Russia already counts as a noteworthy success.
FIFA ranking 59
Best World Cup performance Semifinals (2002)
How did they qualify? South Korea has been to every World Cup since 1986 and tends to be Asia’s most consistent entrant, but it stumbled to Russia. Coach Uli Stielike was fired midway through qualifying after the team lost to Qatar, and Korea only narrowly beat off competition from Syria by drawing its last two games.
What can we expect? Should the Koreans find a little form — recent friendlies, despite a 2-1 win against Colombia, have been inconclusive — they are a neat, attractive side, with just enough stardust to prove decisive.
Who’s the star? Son Heung-min, the multipurpose Tottenham forward, is the man most fans will know.
What would success look like? Given the way South Korea qualified, a respectable showing in the group stage may be the ceiling.
FIFA ranking 63
Best World Cup performance Round of 16 (1994)
How did they qualify? In a tight group, Saudi Arabia edged Australia on goal difference to qualify automatically. It came at a cost, however: both Bert van Marwijk and Edgardo Bauza, the former coaches of the Netherlands and Argentina, were fired during the campaign. Another Argentine, Juan Antonio Pizzi, has taken over — for now.
What can we expect? Pizzi is something of a coup as the new coach; he won the Copa América Centenario with Chile in 2016. But friendly results in the last few months have shown he will not have nearly as rich a crop of resources with Saudi Arabia as he did in his last job. Only two Saudi players play outside their homeland, and that lack of top-level experience is limiting.
Who’s the star? Mohammad al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualifying, making him the joint top scorer worldwide in the 2018 cycle. He now has 28 goals in 33 international appearances.
What would success look like? Returning to the tournament after a 12-year absence should, really, be enough.