There is a popular feeling among prominent critics and podcast contributors that two-time winners and three-time runners-up, ARGENTINA wont make it out of the group stages. “But they have Messi,” I hear you say, “and Aguero, Higuaín, Di Maria and Dybala.” That maybe true but when you consider their 3 goalkeepers have only 9 caps between them, their defensive line has been a carousel of trial and error, and a recent 6-1 drubbing by Spain caused fractions in the dressing room, it’s not hard to fathom. But yes, they do have Messi. The diminutive, enigmatic Barcelona captain is coming off a season where he has scored 45 goals in 54 matches for his club. He was also solely responsible for dragging his country over the line in qualifying. A brilliant solo hat-trick in Quito against Ecuador in the last round of games saw his nation jump from 6th (and outside the qualifying spots) to 3rd and on the plane to Russia. Coach Jorge Sampaoli (who was considered a coup when poached from Sevilla after guiding them to 4th in La Liga and Champions League qualification) said of Messi after the win at the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa: “Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi.” Sampaoli will be aggressive with a 3-4-3 system that gives freedom to Messi and Dybala to support Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero. Cue shots of, in my opinion, the best front man in world football looking solemn on the bench – Gonzalo Higuaín. I think Argentina do progress, and probably in some style. CROATIA enjoyed a phenomenal start to their campaign in France two years ago, beating both Turkey and Spain after a wonderful goal by Ivan Perišić. A disappointing exit to eventual Champions Portugal in the second round clipped their promise and disappointed many neutrals. An unconvincing qualifying campaign was salvaged by the appointment of Zlatko Dalić, who was called in after a catastrophic run (including successive defeats to Iceland and Turkey) and the unpopular feeling from fans, players and ex-coaches towards then-coach Ante Čačić. Reaching the finals after a comfortable play-off victory over Greece, Dalić goes into the tournament with the fateful “I don’t know my best eleven” tag. The elite triumvirate of captain Luka Modrić, Perišić, and Barcelona’s talented roaming midfielder Ivan Rakitić will be the mainstay but the other three forward positions are anybody’s guess at this stage. Such uncertainty could leave the the door open for every neutral’s favourite, ICELAND – SKOL! After surprising the footballing world by knocking off in England in France two years ago, Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys) continued their success in qualifying. Topping the group after convincingly defeating Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine, with the perennial talents of Gylfi Sigurðsson driving them forward with 5 goals, Heimir Hallgrímsson takes one of the most unified squads in the tournament to Russia with no fear. Much will rely on the defensive solidarity of veterans Kári Árnason and Ragnar Sigurðsson, who sit in front of underrated stopper Hannes Halldórsson, who was fantastic in the European Championships and kept 6 clean sheets in 10 qualifying games. NIGERIA spark fond memories for many who remember the great team of USA 94 with the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini, and the wonderful Finidi George. Unfancied and unpredictable once again, this group of players could surprise and delight once again. Littered with young talent such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Wilfred Ndidi, the Super Eagles can also boast a wealth of top flight experience – captain John Obi Mikel, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa have all won their domestic leagues and featured in the Champions League. German Coach Gernot Rohr is highly spoken of by compatriot Arsène Wenger – the two had many tussles as the Bordeaux and Monaco bosses respectively in the early 90s. Rohr also earned praise for reaching Russia out of the so-called Confederation of African Football “group of death” alongside Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria. A result in their opening game against Argentina could put the eagle among the pigeons in Group D
Players to watch: Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala and Cristian Pavón (all ARG), Luka Modrić & Šime Vrsaljko (CRO), Gylfi Sigurðsson, Björgvin Magnússon & Albert Guðmundsson (ICE), Wilfred Ndidi & Alex Iwobi (NGA)
Fun fact: Up until the Euro 2016 tournament, Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrímsson served as a part-time dentist in his hometown of Heimaey. Now solely is charge of the most successful national football team in Icelandic history, he has had to make further sacrifices en route to Russia. He was abroad with the team and could not dress up as his favorite mythological character, Gryla the child-snatching troll, at the Christmas party in Heimaey this winter. An Icelandic tragedy.