Manuel Veth –
This summer, the attention of 32 nations and a global audience of billions will be focused on Russia as the 21st World Cup gets underway. As it is the case with any tournament there will be massive favourites and underdogs that will grap most of the attention.
Reigning champions Germany are the clear favourites to lift the famous golden trophy and couldn’t have had better preparation for the summer extravaganza. Joachim Löw’s side cruised through their qualifying section winning all ten games and scoring 43 goals while conceding only four. They’ve also done their homework ahead of this tournament, winning last year’s Confederations Cup, which was also staged in Russia.
While Germany will be the favourites, there are a host of nations hoping to topple them. Brazil head to Russia with one of the most exciting squads ever to travel to a World Cup, while Spain came through a tough qualifying group and have a depth of talent to call upon. Euro 2016 champions Portugal and runners-up France are both preparing to mount a strong challenge, and both Belgium and Argentina have more than their share of match winners.
However, the World Cup is also about lesser footballing nations, some of which will be playing in the competition for the first time. From this year’s cast of 32, we’ve plucked five teams with the potential to upset the odds this summer.
2018 FIFA World Cup here are the underdogs:
Panama will be making their World Cup debut in Russia, and for this small Central American nation, qualification itself is a triumph. Competing in the CONCACAF tournament, they managed to finish above Honduras and USA, courtesy of a victory over Costa Rica, achieved with an 88th-minute winner scored by Román Torres.
However, though Panama have been drawn in a tough group – and fans who bet online with Stakers will be able to back them at odds as high as 18.9 to win their opening game against Belgium – the team should not be underestimated. Their coach is the highly experienced Hernán Darío Gómez, who has led three nations to the World Cup, and in recent months they’ve pulled off draws with Wales, Mexico, and the USA.
It’s almost an insult to describe Iceland as an underdog. Having reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, beating England along the way, they were drawn in a tough World Cup-qualifying group with Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey, but made light work of it, winning the section by two clear points to set another record as the nation with the smallest population ever to reach the World Cup finals. Though they’ve ended up in a tough section with Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria, Heimar Hallgrímsson’s side won’t be there just to make up the numbers.
Saudi Arabia have a good record of qualifying for the World Cup. This will be their fifth appearance, having qualified for 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006 editions, and they will be bidding to emulate their best performance of reaching the last 16 in 1994. Their route to the finals came through a tough qualifying group in which they earned a famous 1-0 win over Japan and held off the challenge of Australia. They used three managers along the way, with Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi landing the job of guiding them in Russia.
The Egyptians qualified for the World Cup thanks to a last-minute penalty from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in their final home game against Congo. Egypt were, in fact, the first African team ever to qualify for the tournament, and after a 27-year wait, the nation will be desperate for Héctor Cúper’s side to make an impact. They may get their wish. The Pharaohs are ranked as high as 43 by FIFA, and in Salah, they have one of football’s most exciting forwards. Having landed in one of the easier groups in the tournament, it would not be a huge surprise to see Egypt reach the knock-out stages.
Sixteen years after they first made it to the World Cup, Senegal are back and will be hoping to emulate or even exceed the achievements of the 2002 side, which famously shocked the football world by beating France before reaching the quarter-finals.
They reached the finals after coming through a tricky qualifying section that included South Africa and Burkina Faso and will be a threat in Russia thanks to their star forwards Sadio Mané and Moussa Sow. Manager Aliou Cissé deserves the credit for sparking the team’s revival, and having risen up the FIFA rankings to 27; they have the potential to cause a shock or two along the way this summer.
This year’s World Cup promises to be a feast of football and a compelling clash of sporting cultures. Every four years, the competition throws up an underdog team that goes further than anyone expected, and this year the fans of Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Senegal, and Egypt will be hoping that it’s their country’s turn to make World Cup history as an underdog.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth. Or contact him via email: [email protected]