Rank­ing the field, from hope­less to hope­ful

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Martin Rogers

The soccer com­mu­nity has waited four years for its great­est tour­na­ment to roll around again, but once it be­gins, the World Cup has an un­for­giv­ing habit of im­me­di­ately sort­ing out the con­tenders from the pre­tenders.

Com­ing into the World Cup on the back of sparkling form isn’t al­ways a pre­cur­sor to suc­cess, as the best-laid plans can swiftly fall apart un­der the mi­cro­scope of the planet’s most­watched sport­ing event.

That said, some teams will be feel­ing bet­ter about their chances than oth­ers as fes­tiv­i­ties in Rus­sia start Thurs­day.

Here is a look at how the teams stack up.

32. Panama

Bet­ter than the USA — ac­cord­ing to the CONCACAF qual­i­fy­ing ta­ble at least — but not good enough to make any im­pact in Rus­sia. De­stroyed 6-0 by Switzer­land in a re­cent friendly game.

31. Saudi Ara­bia

Crept through the weak Asian qual­i­fy­ing re­gion with a se­ries of un­con­vinc­ing per­for­mances. Low enough on tal­ent that the Saudi fed­er­a­tion had to pay sev­eral Span­ish teams to take their play­ers on loan.

30. Aus­tralia

Likely to be the fall guys in a com­pet­i­tive group af­ter suf­fer­ing through plenty of dis­ar­ray in qual­i­fy­ing. Sur­vived a play­off against Hon­duras, but then head coach Ange Postecoglou quit.

29. South Korea

Progress from the group stage would be a huge achieve­ment, and it is hard to see a re­al­is­tic path to the last 16. Son Hyung-Min is elec­tri­fy­ing at times, but Korea’s play doesn’t al­ways max­i­mize his best at­tributes.

28. Ja­pan

The stan­dard of Ja­panese soccer con­tin­ues to rise, but the na­tional team has had a mis­er­able time over the past year, summed up by the dif­fi­culty it had in even reach­ing the tour­na­ment. Shinji Ka­gawa’s bril­liance is sorely needed.

27. Iran

Gen­er­ally dull to watch, with coach Car­los Quieroz sac­ri­fic­ing flair and pri­or­i­tiz­ing or­ga­nized de­fense. The Ira­ni­ans don’t score much, and they have a hor­ri­ble group, up against Spain and Por­tu­gal.

26. Tu­nisia

Four ap­pear­ances at the World Cup, 12 matches, but one vic­tory. Will be given tough tests against Eng­land and Bel­gium, but an early up­set could of­fer a real chance of go­ing through from the group.

25. Rus­sia

Grate­ful for the top seed­ing that comes with be­ing host na­tion and will be boosted by rau­cous sup­port. Igor Ak­in­feev is a great goal­keep­ing stal­wart but could see plenty of ac­tion in this tour­na­ment.

24. Ice­land

Ev­ery­one’s “sec­ond-fa­vorite” team — the Cin­derella story of Euro 2016 and its won­der­ful group of friendly, pas­sion­ate fans — is back for an­other crack at a mir­a­cle. Might find things tough now that the el­e­ment of sur­prise is gone.

23. Morocco

Get­ting stuck in the same group as Spain and Por­tu­gal was cruel for a team that im­pressed in qual­i­fy­ing. Best chance of sum­mer suc­cess might come on the ad­min­is­tra­tion side, if Morocco beats USA/Canada/Mex­ico for the right to host the 2026 Cup.

22. Costa Rica

The run to the quar­ter­fi­nals in 2014 was no fluke, but there’s no ex­pec­ta­tion that it’s re­peated. Will come in as the un­der­dogs in a tricky group headed up by Brazil.

21. Swe­den

No Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic and no great buzz around the team or its chance of go­ing deep. Emil Fors­berg is a su­perb winger who can make waves, and the sched­ule, with South Korea up first, is a boost.

20. Sene­gal

A team of real qual­ity with Liver­pool’s Sa­dio Mane up front. Only one pre­vi­ous ap­pear­ance (in 2002), but what an ap­pear­ance it was, with a thrilling run to the quar­ter­fi­nals. An easy stroll through qual­i­fy­ing has built con­fi­dence.

19. Switzer­land

Euro­pean qual­i­fy­ing is no joke. The Swiss won nine out of 10 group games and still had to bat­tle through a tense play­off. The squad al­ways goes about its busi­ness with min­i­mum fuss but has looked great in re­cent friendlies.

18. Egypt

Mo Salah has blos­somed into one of the best play­ers in the world, but it is ask­ing a lot to ex­pect him to lift this team onto his shoul­ders. How­ever, there’s a chance of pro­gress­ing from the eas­i­est group.

17. Peru

Qual­i­fi­ca­tion was a real feel-good story for a hard­work­ing and de­serv­ing group. Forty years have passed since the team last won a World Cup game, and the opener against Den­mark could de­ter­mine who emerges from the group.

16. Ser­bia

Ex­tremely phys­i­cal, re­silient and full of ex­pe­ri­ence, but much will hinge on whether things click un­der new head coach Mladen Krsta­jic. Ne­manja Matic holds the key to the mid­field, which holds the key to the Ser­bian style of play.

15. Nige­ria

Prob­a­bly Africa’s best chance of get­ting a team into the knock­out round and fur­ther af­ter strolling through what looked like be­ing Africa’s tough­est qual­i­fy­ing group. Look out for light­ning-fast at­tacks.

14. Den­mark

Solid rather than spec­tac­u­lar dur­ing the group stage of qual­i­fy­ing, but then burst into life by crush­ing the Repub­lic of Ireland in a do-or-die play­off. Strug­gled for goals at cru­cial times of the cam­paign, but de­fen­sively re­silient.

13. Croa­tia

Nearly missed out af­ter some wob­bles late in qual­i­fy­ing and isn’t be­ing tipped as a long shot by so many this time. Real Madrid’s Luka Mo­dric is a shin­ing light, and the draw has been kind.

12. Colom­bia

James Ro­driguez was a joy to watch in the last World Cup, where Colom­bia pro­vided fun and style be­fore los­ing in the quar­ter­fi­nals. James’ form re­turned while he was on loan at Bay­ern Mu­nich this sea­son — watch out for him.

11. Mex­ico

Faced with the daunt­ing task of fac­ing de­fend­ing cham­pion Ger­many first but has enough tal­ent to over­come that in­con­ve­nience. Six con­sec­u­tive trips to the knock­out round is an im­pres­sive stat, six con­sec­u­tive de­feats in the Round of 16 is less so.

10. Poland

It has been a long time since Poland did any­thing of note in the World Cup, but a semi­fi­nal spot in the Eu­ros was en­cour­ag­ing and Robert Le­wandowski’s goal-scor­ing ex­ploits make them dan­ger­ous.

9. Eng­land

The old say­ing of “Eng­land ex­pects” doesn’t ap­ply any­more. The English pub­lic no longer sali­vates with op­ti­mism, hav­ing been burned so many times. Harry Kane is world-class, but any­thing past the quar­ter­fi­nals would be a shock.

8. Por­tu­gal

The Euro­pean cham­pion re­lies on Cris­tiano Ronaldo for quite a bit, a lot, er, pretty much ev­ery­thing, and the big star with the big ego would love to add a World Cup ti­tle to his bulging tro­phy cabi­net. Is his sup­port­ing cast strong enough?

7. Ar­gentina

Lionel Messi’s in­ter­na­tional tro­phy drought con­tin­ues, and he’s run­ning out of chances. Nearly made a mess of qual­i­fy­ing, but Messi res­cued things with a fi­nal day hat trick. The mae­stro is des­per­ate to erase the mem­ory of los­ing the 2014 fi­nal.

6. Uruguay

Packed with big-time ex­pe­ri­ence and the X fac­tor that is Luis Suarez, don’t be sur­prised if Os­car Tabarez’s team ben­e­fits from be­ing the best team in the weak­est group and pow­ers its way deep into the tour­na­ment.

5. Bel­gium

A true golden gen­er­a­tion of tal­ent that is start­ing to be­lieve it has what it takes to beat any­one. Plays force­ful soccer at a high tempo and with no short­age of in­ten­sity and de­sire. The best hope for a first-time cham­pion.

4. France

Came within a whisker of win­ning the Eu­ros on home soil and has the abil­ity to beat any team. An­toine Greiz­mann is pure class, Kylian Mbappe is the best teenager on the planet, while any team would love N’Golo Kante in mid­field.

3. Ger­many

The 2014 cham­pion has barely missed a beat since win­ning it all in Brazil and strolled to vic­tory in the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup us­ing what was ef­fec­tively its “C” team.

2. Brazil

Cre­ative bril­liance has never been lack­ing for Brazil, and head coach Tite has added stee­li­ness. Un­stop­pable in qual­i­fy­ing and a gen­uine shot at be­com­ing the first South Amer­i­can team to win a World Cup in Europe since 1958.

1. Spain

Af­ter a dis­as­ter at the last World Cup, things seem to be fall­ing into place once more for the most dom­i­nant team of the past decade. An­dres Ini­esta is at the end of his ca­reer but is still as good as ever and sur­rounded by world-class tal­ent in ev­ery po­si­tion.

JAVIER ETXEZARRETA/EPA-EFE

Marco Asen­sio, left, Lu­cas Vazquez and Diego Costa plus An­dres Ini­esta, not pic­tured, play for Spain, which has world-class tal­ent at ev­ery po­si­tion.

ODD AN­DER­SEN/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Mario Goetze scored in Ger­many’s 1-0 win over Ar­gentina in the 2014 fi­nal.

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