On Thursday June 14, all eyes will be on Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium as Russia opens the 21st FIFA World Cup against Saudi Arabia. For all the issues with awarding the tournament to the Russians and the international scepticism towards the Putin regime, the quadrennial collection of the 32 best teams in the world will be sure to draw fans together.
20 of the teams in this iteration also appeared in Brazil in 2014, with Iceland and Panama the only debutants after impressing in qualifying. Notable absentees include the Netherlands, Italy and the USA.
Questions about Russia’s ability to host the tournament, the political undercurrent, issues with racism and hooliganism have dominated many previews and will be sure to recur in the tournament itself, but hopefully the focus will be on the football.
At The Saint, we have opted for a group preview, bringing in the thoughts of current and former committee members about potential winners, dark horses, shock exits and of course a detailed discussion of the chances of Gareth Southgate’s England. Without out further ado, meet our team!
Meet your Previewers
Seoras Lyall: I am the former Sports editor of The Saint, and prided my tenure on deliberately covering football outside of the bubble as little as possible. My predictions should be telling of why I made that a point of my time with the paper. You can follow Seoras on Twitter @seoraslyall.
Andrew Sinclair: Andrew is currently jointly filling the role of Editor-in-Chief of this very fine newspaper. Whilst currently sceptical, he knows that by the time Russia kick off against Saudi Arabia, he’ll have worked himself into believing this will be the year England make it trophy number two. For lukewarm takes on most things, you can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AMSinclair97.
Joel McInally: I am a deputy sports editor for The Saint. As a Newcastle fan that is half-Scottish and half-English, I am used to disappointment. I also think Spain made a big mistake not calling up Joselu, Ayoze Perez and Javier Manquillo. You can follow Joel on Twitter at @JoelMcInally.
Lewis Frain: I am a deputy viewpoint editor for The Saint. Truly shocked and saddened by Scotland’s continued absence from football’s premier competition, this summer i’ll be supporting my adopted nation of Iceland and cheering on Birmingham City’s own 7 foot maestro Cheikh N’Doye for Senegal. For pessimistic musings about all things Hearts, Birmingham and Scotland you can follow Lewis on twitter at @lewisfrain
How excited are you for this summer’s tournament?
Seoras: Scotland are once again not there so I’m not more excited than I may otherwise have been. While the tournament is quite open this year, the aspect that will be most intriguing will be how well the fans behave. Much has been made of the potential violence that could break out between various hooligans, as was the case at the Euros in Marseille. It will be interesting to see if these fears are justified.
Andrew: It’s strange. Club football has quite clearly surpassed the World Cup in terms of spectacle and intrigue for fans, but there’s still that unique quality to the gathering of the best countries in the world we get every four years. With debuting nations like Panama and Iceland there, as well as some fascinating groups thrown up, I’m pretty excited. Like Seoras and Joel, I worry about the political undercurrent at the tournament, but hopefully the action on the field will shine through.
Joel: It will be a great tournament for the neutral as there are probably three or four potential winners. My main worry for the tournament is its location. The widespread racism in the Russian game, as well as the political climate, could easily overshadow the tournament. Hopefully the football will shine through, but I would not be surprised if there is trouble.
Lewis: For me the World Cup remains the pinnacle of the sport in terms of excitement and the shocks and drama it always throws up. The 2014 tournament in Brazil was a true spectacle on and off the pitch and it will be very difficult to top. That being said, I agree with the others that the main concern is the potential for violence and the political context. We don’t want a repeat of the scenes from Euro 2016 or for any racism to cloud the contest. The focus should be on the football so let’s hope the tournament runs smoothly and isn’t overshadowed.
What were your thoughts on Gareth Southgate’s England squad? Any glaring omissions or surprise inclusions, or, shockingly, were you pleased with it?
Seoras: There was not anyone in the squad who I thought should not have been there aside from Danny Welbeck. What was astonishing is the sheer lack of creativity in the middle of the park. To take neither Jack Wilshere or Jonjo Shelvey means that Southgate could be lining up with Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson in the middle of the park, a pair that wouldn’t win a kick-about, let alone top the group.
Andrew: To tell the truth, I was most shocked that Big Gareth left Joe Hart at home. I really could see Southgate taking him because ‘he’s a proven leader’ or for some other nonsense reason. He’s past it at the top level and didn’t deserve a spot. In terms of the rest of the squad, there were changes I’d inevitably make. For me, Jonjo Shelvey was a must, as was Jack Wilshere. It’s also a shame that Southgate picked the likes of Cahill, who had a poor season, leaving the impressive James Tarkowski at home. Still, in Gareth I trust.
Joel: An underwhelming squad from an underwhelming manager. It is the least creative midfield that he could have picked. Henderson and Dier will be fine for passing the ball from side to side but the squad could really have done with Shelvey who is always trying to move the ball forward. You also have to wonder if Jones and Cahill were picked on reputation ahead of Tarkowski and Lascelles who have both had better seasons. At least Southgate had the sense to leave Hart at home.
Lewis: I too was disappointed not to see a more creative midfielder like Wilshere or Shelvey picked as I think they offer something different. I also find it strange that Southgate is planning on playing with three at the back as I think that’s England’s weakest position. Not using Kyle Walker as wing-back is a bit of a waste, Stones hasn’t featured a lot in the second half of the season and Jones in particular should count himself lucky that he is included at all. Overall though, I think it’s a decent enough team with Jamie Vardy potentially being a secret weapon from the bench.
With that in mind, how far do you envision England progressing this summer?
Seoras: Based on the draw, I am confident they will reach the quarters given who is in group H. But they will face probably either Brazil or Germany after that nervy tie so I do not see them reaching the semi-finals.
Andrew: Quarter-finals. To my mind, Group H is one of the most interesting at the tournament as there’s no overwhelming favourite. I personally see Colombia topping it, followed by Senegal, with Poland and Robert Lewandowski heading home early. England’s biggest issue will be goals – I suspect they draw with Belgium but Roberto Martinez’s side will definitely put more past Panama and Tunisia. Second place for England would, according to my metrics, mean a winnable tie against Colombia and then a quarter-final with the Germans.
Joel: Given how weak group H is then England could easily reach the quarterfinals. I see England drawing with Belgium and scraping past Panama and Tunisia to qualify from the group. While group H is not the best I think England will struggle in the round of 16 but will probably make it through before falling to Germany or Brazil. Although I would not rule England going out on penalties in the round of 16.
Lewis: It’s crucial England secure maximum points from the opening games, the Belgium game could go either way so making it a play-off for progression is best avoided. Colombia are not the team they were in Brazil so even if they meet in the next round I fancy England to advance to the quarters before struggling against one of the big boys. Given their showings in recent tournaments this would be a sign of progress.
The group stage always throws up some interesting encounters and memorable goals. Are there any games or dates you think fans should be paying attention to, and do you foresee any big shocks in the opening round of the tournament?
Seoras: The big ties of the round will of course be Portugal vs Spain and England vs Belgium. The 16th of June has also been noted as there are four matches that day. One potential shocker could be when Messi meets the Icelandic wall. Likewise, any game in group H will be too close to call.
Andrew: Portugal/Spain and England/Belgium are big games, but to differ from my fellow previewers there’s a couple of games for the football hipsters. I could quite easily see Portugal going out in the group stage, so I’ll have a keen eye on their game with Morocco on June 20. Other than that, my main pick is Germany vs Sweden on June 23. The last two competitive games between these two have seen a combined 16 goals scored, including that 4-4 draw in 2012.
Joel: I agree with Seoras that Portugal vs Spain and England vs Belgium are the obvious blockbuster ties, while group H will be tight. I think Argentina vs Croatia will be a great tie in group D, which I could see Croatia winning.
Lewis: I’m excited for Portugal/Spain like the others and any game featuring Iceland and their incredible support will be worth watching. It’ll be interesting to see if Costa Rica can recreate their heroics from 2014. I’d also like to see Tim Cahill potentially become only the fourth player to score at four world cups and see the Socceroos provide some excitement in Group C.
You’ll obviously have a winner in mind, but is there a team you’ll be rooting for as a neutral this summer?
Seoras: I had Croatia down as a potential winner of the Euros in 2016, and I expect them to do well again. They may be in a challenging group, and could face France in the round of 16, but with Perisic, Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic, and Kovacic in attack, underestimate them at your peril.
Andrew: I’ve got a number of Polish friends, so I’ve got to be giving them support but there’s a couple of others teams I want to do well. I hope Panama don’t become total whipping boys, whilst Iceland have such a brilliant story it’d be impossible to not want them to succeed. Much like Lewis though, any team that plays a bit of a spicy football will get my vote once England inevitably leave me dejected again.
Joel: I would like to see Peru do well, especially with former Newcastle star Nolberto Solano on the coaching staff. I would also like to see Morocco make it out of the group at the expense of Portugal but I think that is just because I dislike Cristiano Ronaldo.
Lewis: I always like seeing the new teams or countries that have been absent for a while, Mo Salah’s Egypt would be a standout if he is fit. Otherwise, Iceland, Senegal and Panama should offer something fresh. I’ve been a neutral at every World Cup since 1998 (when I was only 7 months old) so my main wish is for an exciting tournament. Brazil and this season’s Champions League had that in spades and I would love to see that repeated this summer, whoever eventually lifts the cup in Moscow.
Now the biggie. No justification needed, just give your answer. Who’s lifting the trophy on July 15th?
Seoras: For me it has to be either Germany or Brazil. No South American team has ever won a World Cup hosted in Europe, but if Neymar gets back to his best throughout the tournament, that may change come July. Belgium and France may look good on paper, but I fear them to be perennial chokers.
Andrew: Spain. Brazil were good in qualification and look like the obvious final opponents for Lopetegui’s army of beautiful passers, but I don’t think they’ve got the quality to win the tournament. No team plays better football or looks as collected as Spain, so backing them.
Joel: I think it will be Spain, although I would not be surprised to see Brazil win it. I just think that Spain have such strength in depth and that De Gea will be massive for them. France are strong but choked in the Euros, while I think Germany are missing something.
Lewis: Like Joel I’ve fancied Spain to win for a while but Brazil were excellent in qualifying so will be one of the favourites. If Jorge Sampaoli can sort out Argentina’s problems then that squad and the super motivated Messi may provide something magical, but perhaps that’s too much wishful thinking.
Agree with the opinions of our writers? Make sure to engage with us on social media in the run-up to the tournament, making your voices heard. We will also be running a Twitter poll where you can pick your winners, and then at the end of the tournament there will be a detailed group review. Get excited!