This will be a World Cup to remember for so many reasons. First, there are five, count them, five true contenders for the championship—France, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil. There are also four pretenders to the throne whose time might just come up if every star aligns just right—Belgium, Uruguay, Portugal, and Croatia, all quality teams.
There are teams with reasons to be optimistic this year—Colombia with a healthy Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, and a James Rodriguez looking to lead his team again, and England with a new and younger generation of hungry talent. Finally, there are teams with something to prove, such as Costa Rica making sure their 2014 outing was no fluke, and Mexico looking to finally live up to its potential, or Peru, Senegal, and Egypt ridding charismatic leaders to higher ground.
It will be the swan song of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who have jointly commanded the globe’s attention in our sport for the past decade. Regardless of how their teams fare, the former will go down in history as one of the top five players to have ever played the sport, a starter on anyone’s dream eleven, and the latter will enter that next level down in the pantheon, the one reserved for the very, very nearly there, perhaps the second top eleven. And…2018 will be the cup that helps crown the new best player on the planet.
But when the dust settles, and in a World Cup a lot can happen before it does, it will be Uruguay, Portugal and France (if they can find a stretch of consistency) fighting for one semifinal berth, and Brazil, Mexico and Belgium contesting for the other member of that pairing. On the other side of the bracket it will be Spain and Argentina (if they make it out of their group of death) contesting for one slot and Germany and one upstart contesting the other. If no major, unforeseen catastrophe befalls any team, then France and Brazil will meet in one semifinal and Germany and Spain will meet in the other.
France may have to get through golden-generation-laden Croatia and Ronaldo’s Euro-champion-Portugal to get there, Brazil through Mexico and the up-and-down Belgium (who are currently on an up). Spain will need to get past the star-crossed Messi-only Argentina and Salah’s Egypt, and champions Germany, with the pre-tournament easiest route, through the likes of Switzerland or Costa Rica and either England or Colombia. And then either the Iberians will get their mojo back over their uber rivals or Germany will grant Brazil a rematch of 2014, but for higher stakes. In either case it will be Brazil awaiting someone in the final.
On July 15, 2018 Brazil will exorcise some of their long-festering World Cup demons, those of the cups they honestly thought they were going to win and had reason to so think. The one in 1978 spoiled by Argentina’s government-sponsored 6-0 win over Peru, or their trio of debacles against France’s two greatest generations led by Platini and Zidane, the stylish loss in Spain 1982, the incomprehensible self-immolation/sleepwalking performance in France 1998, and the error prone one of Germany 2006. No one who understood Felipe Scolari’s misguided strategies and roster choices, or the manner in which his team progressed in that home tournament, really thought Brazil would, could, or should win it all in 2014. They got what they deserved then.
If the final is Brazil against Germany it will be a rematch of World Cup 2002 but with two more evenly matched sides. It has the potential of being the most competitive World Cup final in history. It would be a titanic battle of skill and wit among some of the top players on the planet playing at their peaks and between two super coaches with different styles but who are both exemplars of their country’s sporting heritages and very attuned to their charges. The match, though, will be decided by the pitting of a slow-burning Teutonic passion against an unbridled Amazonian lust. A game in which Germany will run over anyone to win but in which Brazil will go through anyone and win.
If it is a game between Brazil and Spain, the mix of the old and new Spanish guard will be bowing out stylishly, this time, to that insatiable Amazonian juggernaut.
But in either case, the three losers of 2018 will have the upper hand in 2022, as the Spaniards, French, and Germans are today the ones with the stronger upcoming classes of young talent.
Let the cup begin!