There is no clear-cut favorite to win soccer’s ultimate prize ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The draw, which takes place Dec. 1, can certainly make the road to the final in Moscow harsher for one contending nation over another should they draw the “Group of Death”, for example. Or it can pave a favorable path for a Cinderella story to make a run.
At this point ahead of the draw, the nations with the best odds to win are the usual suspects: Germany (the reigning champions), France, Brazil, Spain, and Argentina.
Former France international Louis Saha believes Les Bleus, led by Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappé, will be contenders this summer in Russia based on their recent form.
“It’s very exciting because the last four to six years you can say France didn’t have a chance to win a World Cup,” Saha said at a recent Manchester United FC viewing party in New York City. “They were far away and had a lot of issues inside.”
France had a successful 2014 FIFA World Cup, winning Group E with seven points (2-1-0)—one point ahead of Switzerland (2-0-1; six points). Les Bleus defeated Nigeria 2-0 in the Round of 16 before falling to eventual champion Germany, 1-0, in the quarterfinals.
France carried that success into the 2016 European Championships as the host nation, winning Group A—again with seven points and ahead of Switzerland—and advancing all the way to the final against Portugal. France lost 1-0 to Portugal in extra time.
“This competition is a great platform for them to show they’ve improved from a talented team to a potential winner,” Saha said of the 1998 World Cup winners and 2006 World Cup runners-up.
Former England international Andy Cole agreed with Saha that the usual suspects will again be the top contenders in Russia, but the draw will play a major role in determining the champion. Look at the 2014 World Cup. Brazil was in a two-horse race in Group A with Mexico, while Spain was in a tough group with the Netherlands and Chile. Brazil finished atop its group based on goal differential, while Spain came in third and didn’t advance past the group stage.
“There’s never a surprise for me when it comes to this tournament,” Cole said. “It all depends on the draw as well with the groups. It’s the usual suspects at this point.”
The biggest surprises from the 2014 tournament came from Group D where Costa Rica (winners) and Uruguay (runners-up) advanced ahead of Italy and England. Portugal, which would later go on to win EURO 2016, couldn’t advance out of Group G, with Germany (winners) and the United States (runners-up) coming through.
Saha said there is more parity in international soccer, especially at major tournaments, so there are more and more teams outside of the usual suspects making runs as so-called Cinderella stories. Iceland, Wales, and Hungary played those roles at EURO 2016 with the Welsh advancing to the tournament semifinal.
While he is unsure of which nation will make a surprise run in Russia, Saha has high expectations for Belgium, who continue to disappoint at international level despite featuring a plethora of young-yet-experienced talent including Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku.
“With Romelu up front and the other guys they have, they have a really good squad,” Saha said. “I wouldn’t be surprised by Belgium doing well.”