From giants to potential giant-killers, the lowdown on all 32 countries competing in Russia.
Russia - Opponents of Russia's national side might face two identical players: the “terrible” identical twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk who have been playing together in the national squad since autumn 2017. The family traces its origins back to the Cossacks, independent horsemen forces who guarded Tsarist Russia's borders and started off from the local club of their hometown, Slavyansk-on-Kuban, close to the Crimea peninsula, before joining Spartak Moscow. Russia started their preparations for their first World Cup on home soil - with a training camp in Austria's Stubai Valley. The location of the training camp is becoming well known in international football circles - France stayed there before their own European Championship two years ago. And if Russia are looking for a lucky omen ahead of the tournament, Spain stayed in the Stubai Valley before Euro 2008, which they won.
Egypt - Egypt the dominant force in African football in the last 10 years, they have appeared in only two World Cups, 1934 and 1990 but between 1938 and 1970 they competed in only one international tournament. On October 8th 2017, during a match against Congo, The Pharaohs were on the verge of blowing their changes to qualify for a first World Cup final in 28 years. However, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s star, scored a dramatic stoppage-time penalty to seal qualification with a game to spare. He was “elevated to almost mythical status” in his country: so much so that many Egyptians chose to put his name on their ballots in March national elections. After suffering a worrying injury during the Champions League final against Real Madrid, the forward was left on the bench for Egypt's first match, a defeat against Uruguay. One fan has set off for Russia on a bicycle via Jordan, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia - The Green Falcons, the 2018 FIFA World Cup's lowest-ranked team, is looking to overcome three coaching changes in as many months. Dutchman Bert Van Marwijk, who led the team from 2015 to 2017 to qualify to their first World Cup since Germany 2006, left the job over disagreement with the Saudi FA. He was replaced by Argentinian Edgardo Bauza who lasted only a couple of months, substituted by another Argentinian, Juan Antonio Pizzi, former stricker and manager of Chile. Despite having international experience as most of the squad plays abroad (Saudi sports authorities sent 9 players on a half-season loan to Spanish clubs in January) bookmakers quoted their chances of victory at 1000/1: odds that may have fallen still further following their 5-0 defeat against Russia in the first group match.
Uruguay - The favourite of the group if Russia had not been the host nation, La Celeste, two-time World Cup winners qualified in second place from a gruelling South American qualifying group. For the third-time in a row they will be coached at a World Cup by Oscar Tabarez, 71, known as El Maestro (The Teacher) and will be starring Luis Suarez as striker alongside Edinson Cavani. At Brazil 2014, the mercurial attacker was disqualified for four months after biting Italian defender Chiellini. Uruguay have never failed to get out of the group stages under Tabarez and could face a tough test in the round of 16 with Spain or Portugal their likely opponents.
Portugal - Portugal, crowned European Champions in 2016, appear to be firmly CR7-dependent. Even before his hat-trick in the opener against Spain, captain Cristiano Ronaldo contributed to 18 of Portugal's goals in qualifying (15 goals, three assists), more than any other player heading to Russia. Manager Fernando Santos left out several Euro 2016 winners (Nani, Andre Gomes, Renato Sanchez, Eder). Their best ever finish in a World Cup finals is third – at England ’66, which incidentally coincided with their debut in the competition. This year they are ranked 4th in the FIFA ranking, above Argentina, and that sounds promising.
Spain - After recent struggles at major tournaments, the remaining stars of Spain's golden generation could be facing a last stand at the World Cup. Winning two European Championships and a first World Cup, the Spanish were unstoppable from 2008 to 2012. But they began to falter at the 2014 World Cup - failing to advance from the group stage - and were eliminated from Euro 2016 in the round of 16. Former coach Julen Lopetegui, who took Spain on an 18-game unbeaten run before he was sacked just before the tournament, has left his mark. However, the exclusion of big calibers from the list of players going to Russia (among them: Cesc Fabregas, Alvaro Morata, Jose Maria Callejon and Juan Mata) has drawn some criticism. This is likely to be the last World Cup for a number of Spain's veterans: Iniesta and Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, who even made up his own flamenco version of the WC hymn.
Morocco - Morocco had been hoping for a World Cup victory off the field.
However, on the eve of the tournament, FIFA announced that the north African country had lost out in its bid to host the 2026 World Cup finals, which went to a joint bid from the USA, Canada and Mexico. Twenty years after being eliminated from the group stage at France ’98, the Lion of the Atlas scored a pass for the World Cup without conceding a goal in 6 qualification matches. Qualification was secured when Morocco beat Ivory Coast in a winner-take-all encounter.
Intriguingly, only one of the 11 players who started that game against Ivory Coast was born in Morocco. Their first appearance in the final stage of the competition dates back to Mexico ‘70 but their most glorious moment in the World Cup has been a 3-1 win against Portugal in Mexico ‘86, when the side managed to qualify for the second round (where they lost to West Germany). At that time, most of the current squad wasn’t even born. On June 20 they will face Portugal for a historical revenge match.
Iran - This is the first team to qualify from Asia, unbeaten in 18 qualifying games across two rounds. It has the strongest defence in Asia, only breached by Syria once a place in Russia was already secure. Contesting back-to-back World Cups for the first time, Iran will be aiming for a first appearance in the knockout stage in their fifth attempt. Veteran Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz promised that Iran “will not go to Russia as tourists”. The World Cup campaign will provide him an emotional reunion when 'Team Melli' faces his native Portugal in the team's final group stage game.
France - The French began the competition in Russia as one of the tournament favourites, despite having lost some key players for injury. Coach Deschamps, who captained France to World Cup glory as a player in 1998, has advised his squad to adopt a full-blooded approach. "No, there is no control, there is no calculation. We must do our best individually but also as a team, I repeat myself, we go for it!". France built their 1998 World Cup-winning squad around a rock-solid defence but 20 years on they could do just the opposite, with their dazzling array of creative, attacking talent ready to make all the difference at the 2018 edition. Such is Les Bleus' firepower up front that manager Didier Deschamps even has the luxury of not missing Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who has not been selected ever since being involved in a sex-tape blackmail scandal in 2015. France have weapons which should see them at the very least progress from Group C, where they face Australia, Denmark and Peru with a potential quarter-final against Spain or European champions Portugal on the horizon.
Australia - Australia needed a playoff win against Central Americans Honduras to book their ticket, after having made hard work of qualifying against lightly regarded Asian opponents.
A spot in the last 16 was the “Socceroos”' best-ever performance at the global showpiece in 2006. They were laden with players in Europe's top leagues but the current crop are a shadow of the so-called 'Golden Generation', and toil mostly in the continent's second-tier competitions. Australia's struggles to regenerate are encapsulated in the retention of Tim Cahill, who remains their biggest goal threat at the age of 38.
Peru - Qualified for their first World Cup finals since 1982 after dispatching New Zealand in the playoffs in front of 40,000 people. Fireworks were set off outside the New Zealand hotel at 3am: after the win, just like in Panama, the following day was declared a national holiday. Ahead of the kick-off, Peru sent a video to their French opponents “to remind them who we are”.
Denmark - There are two reasons why Denmark should not be completely written off at the World Cup. Firstly, remember 1992? The Danes won the European Championship, having been told they were playing in the tournament only a week before it started after Yugoslavia was excluded while in a state of civil war. It remains one of the most unlikely title triumphs in international football. Secondly, Christian Eriksen. With its midfield maestro healthy and in form, Denmark believes anything is possible. Eriksen is one of the standout performers in the English Premier League with Tottenham and scored 11 goals in World Cup qualifying - third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski in the European zone.
This will be Denmark's fifth appearance at a World Cup and the team has got out of its group on three of the previous four occasions, reaching the quarterfinals in 1998.
In goal will be Kaspar Schmeichel, son of Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel, who etched his own place in football history as part of the Leicester City team that won the Premier League in 2016 at pre-season odds of 5,000-1 in one of sport's most sensational underdog stories.
Argentina - Without Lionel Messi, would Argentina even be going to the World Cup?
The team's destiny is more closely tied to the Barcelona forward than ever before. Messi’s side were at risk to miss out from the continental playoffs but a hat-trick for the captain sent Argentina to heaven against Ecuador in the decisive qualifying game, after being down 1-0. Much of the squad carries the burden of mass disappointment, following three successive losses in finals: the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario. The deficiencies in the team were underscored in a stunning 6-1 international friendly loss to Spain in March. While doubts remain over "La Albiceleste"’s form ahead of Russia 2018, the expectations for the two-time champions remain high.
Iceland - With a population of little more than 300,000 people, it is the smallest nation to qualify for a final stage of World Cup after becoming the mascot team at Euro 2016. A record that is unlikely to be broken. Its league is semi-professional and when they began qualification for Brazil 2014 they were ranked alongside San Marino and Andorra. However, at the turn of the century, Iceland began an ambitious project building indoor facilities, subsidising professional coaching and moving promising talents quickly to more competitive leagues in Europe. One of the players, goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson, has been the director of the video for Iceland entry to the Eurovision song contest 2012. His employer before leaving to Norway to become a fully professional footballer has promised him his job back when he returns to Iceland after his expatriate footballing career. Their famous thunderclap celebration is copied by fans all around the world.
Croatia - The first time the Croatia national football team attended the World Cup, after the dissolution of Jugoslavia, they claimed a shocking third place finish, sharing with Portugal the imaginary best-debutant award. Ever since then, subsequent generations have been under pressure from the country's fans and media to emulate the feat. Victory in their opening match against the Nigerians has boosted Croatia's hopes before they take on group favourites Argentina.
Nigeria - They qualified unbeaten from the “Group of Death” featuring Cameroun, Zambia and Algeria, and were the first African side to book a plane ticket to Russia. Surprisingly, Nigeria have been drawn alongside Argentina in five of the six World Cup’s they have qualified for. They were ranked 5th in the world in April 1994, the highest ever ranking for an African team.
Brazil - When Brazil walked out to start their campaign in the 1-1 draw against Switzerland, it was the final step in the country's four-year journey to overcome a humbling 7-1 defeat to Germany in their home World Cup four years ago. Since Tite took over as coach in 2016, the five-time world champions have become a winning machine again and were the first nation to qualify for Russia. Striker Neymar, who missed the German humiliation through injury, has recovered from a broken foot to claim his World Cup place in the side. However, Brazil aren't as reliant as they once were on the world's most expensive player.
In the six games they have played without Neymar in the side, Brazil won four times, including a 1-0 victory in a friendly against Germany in Berlin in March.
Switzerland - Sixth in the FIFA World Ranking, Swiss football is reaping the rewards of the hard work done in youth development a decade ago which tapped into the potential offered by second-generation immigrants, many from the former Yugoslavia. Coach Vladimir Petkovic, who himself boasts a Yugoslav league winners' medal from his playing days with FK Sarajevo, has tried to establish a new attitude in the team, telling them they are no longer "little Switzerland" - holding the record for the most consecutive games without keeping a clean sheet at the World Cup finals - and must look to dominate in matches. They are hoping to capitalise on a talented generation of players at the peak of their careers but have been drawn in a rather tough group. But the encouraging draw against Brazil has set them up nicely to take on Costa Rica and Serbia.
Costa Rica - Costa Rica were one of the surprise packages of the 2014 World Cup: 'Los Ticos' defied all predictions by finishing top of a group featuring three former World Cup winners in Italy, England and Uruguay, emerging unbeaten in all three games. Inspired by goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the Central Americans battled past Greece on penalties to take their place in the last eight for the first time. Their quarter-final shootout ended in a loss to the Netherlands. The 4-0 crushing of the United States during their qualification campaign showed Los Ticos are not to be under-estimated, despite their 1-0 defeat to Serbia in the opening match.
Serbia - The heirs to the Yugoslavia national team still struggle to live up to the legacy of "The Plavi". Serbia - one of seven national teams created after the break-up of Yugoslavia - is yet to make it past the group stage at a World Cup. Yugoslavia disappeared from the world football map in 1993 after a decade of bitter conflict, but had reached the World Cup semi-finals on two occasions in the past and were also runners-up in the European Championship twice. Serbia combined with Montenegro between the years of 1998 and 2006, and then emerged onto the football stage on their own in 2010. Russia 2018 will be Serbia's second appearance at a major international tournament. At the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 they finished bottom of a difficult group containing Germany, Ghana and Australia.
Germany - There is only one thing on Germany's mind going into the World Cup and that is to defend their title and become the first team in more than half a century to do so. Brazil are the last side to have successfully defended their title - winning in 1958 and 1962.
Before their shock 1-0 defeat to Mexico in the opener they were in great form: the Germans had lost just once in 23 games since their Euro 2016 semi-final defeat, cruising through the qualifiers with 10 wins in 10 matches and conceding just four goals in the process to advance to the World Cup. They are coached by Joachim Low, in charge for his third World Cup. Among the players, Thomas Muller has the most World Cup goals (10) and assists (six) of any other player out in Russia. However, the 2014 World Cup final winner, Mario Goetze, was left out of the preliminary squad and will not travel to Russia.
Mexico - A year after playing at the Confederations Cup, Mexico return to Russia hoping once again to break through to the latter stages of a World Cup. Their victory over Germany gives them the best possible start.
Only when the Mexicans hosted the World Cup did they make the last eight: in 1970 and 1986. It has been 32 years since Mexico last reached the quarter-finals of the tournament, and head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has been utilising an unconventional selection approach to try and end the pattern. Under Osorio, who replaced fan favourite Miguel Herrera in 2015, Mexico are never quite sure who will be playing for the national team.
Before the tournament, a different line-up was deployed by Osorio in all 44 games in charge, leading to questions about the coach's tactical tinkering going into the World Cup.
Midfielder Rafael Marquez, nicknamed El Kaiser, is featuring in his fifth World Cup finals tournament in the 2018 edition - equalling the record currently held by Antonio Carbajal (Mexico) and Lothar Matthäus (Germany). Last August, Marquez was among 22 people named on a sanctions list by the U.S. Treasury Department. He was accused of acting as a frontman for the Raul Flores Hernandez drug trafficking organisation in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. He has denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to clear his name.
Sweden - Sweden will have to cope without Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the superstar isn't coming back for the World Cup. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker, who retired from international duty in 2016 after scoring a record 62 goals in 116 games for his country, will be a spectator from California when Sweden head to Russia for the 2018 finals. The Swedes, it seems, have moved on and, from having a line-up defined by one player, Sweden are now a team without superstars.
South Korea - After enduring three poor performances from the team in Brazil four years ago, fans were waiting at Incheon International Airport to make their anger felt.
If collecting a solitary point in a group containing Russia, Algeria and Belgium was tough to take, the challenge looks even more daunting this time around as they face World Cup holders Germany, Mexico and Sweden. Despite having an attack that is led by Tottenham striker Son Heung-min, South Koreans are uneasy about how the national team will perform at the 2018 World Cup. Coach Uli Stielike was fired during the qualification campaign and former international Shin Tae-yong was drafted in as a replacement to get the team over the line, with two tense goalless draws against Iran and Uzbekistan. As the players celebrated in Uzbekistan, there was criticism at home that the party was undeserved, given the nature of the performances. The country has become accustomed to World Cup qualification since the failure to get to Spain in 1982 and there is a strong desire to see more appearances in the knockout stage. Only twice have the Taeguk Warriors advanced from their opening phase group - in 2002 when they famously made the semi-finals on home soil and in 2010 when they reached the round of 16.
Belgium - On paper at least, Belgium have all the ingredients for success at the World Cup but have to guard against their perennial habit of being underwhelming at major tournaments.
Ranked third in the world by FIFA, the Red Devils boast top-level Premier League performers in their side and will be one of the firm favourites to lift the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow. They have indicated they are capable of attaining that, cruising through their World Cup qualification group and becoming the first European nation to secure their spot for the finals. Belgium finished as Group H winners in European qualifying, winning nine games and drawing one, and scoring an astounding 43 goals in the process. The perennial dark horses, however, arrived in Brazil four years ago with similar expectations but could progress only to the quarter-finals, where they lost 1-0 to Argentina. Their best performance remains their semi-final appearance in 1986 when they again fell to Argentina, the eventual champions.
Panama - This is the first-ever World Cup qualification for the only country in the world to have a rainforest within its capital city (obtained also thanks to the contemporary and astonishing win of Trinidad and Tobago against the US). The historical result prompted Panama’s president Varela to announce a national holiday on the day after the decisive game against Costa Rica. Midway through the campaign, one of the team’s player, Amilcar “Mickey” Henriquez, was shot dead. There is still no explanation to his murder and the qualification is dedicated to Henriquez’ memory. Experienced manager Hernán Darío Gómez, who has lead four teams at World Cup finals, got the job after he was filmed punching a woman outside a pub in Bogota while serving on the bench of Colombia’s national team - which he later quit under mounting pressure.
Tunisia - Unbeaten in their qualifying group, Tunisia are making a return to the World Cup after a 12-year absence. Despite being drawn in such a tough group, head coach Nabil Maaloul, who took over the job for a second time last year, has high hopes for his squad, even saying he believes Tunisia "can go through the group stages and perhaps reach the quarter-finals".
England - There's been the hand of God, a 'phantom' goal, a winless group stage exit and a humbling at the hands of Iceland. Then there was the sacking of a manager caught up in a corruption scandal. In 2018, England will be attempting to break a cycle of heartache and humiliation at major tournaments that has plunged the birthplace of modern football to its lowest ebb. Defender Kyle Walker has even acknowledged it would be a "miracle" if England won football's biggest prize this year. England did win a World Cup, back in 1966 World Cup, but they have only reached the semi-finals of a major tournament twice since then.
The 23-man squad for Russia 2018 contains 449 caps, making it the most inexperienced World Cup squad selected by England this century. Only two players are over the age of 30, and only one player has more than 38 caps. One example of the changing face of England's national team is Harry Maguire. Two years ago was watching England in France as a common fan, with his mates. Now he will be on a plane to Russia with the squad.
Poland - Poland's hopes at the 2018 World Cup depend on Robert Lewandowski.
The Bayern Munich forward scored 16 goals in 10 games - a European qualifying record - to propel Poland to its first World Cup in 12 years. Former international Adam Nawalka has crafted a hard-working cohesive unit since taking over as coach from Waldemar Fornalik in 2013. Poland was 69th in the FIFA rankings when Nawalka took over, and it is now ranked 10th. Russia will be Poland's first appearance at a World Cup since 2006, when they failed to progress beyond the group stage.
Senegal - Senegal’s top moment at the World Cup has been beating the holders France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. At the end of Russia 2018 qualification campaign, “The Lions of Teranga” suffered a 2-1 defeat to South Africa in November 2016 which was a decisive game. The match was later annulled due to suspected match manipulation and Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey, who was found guilty of match-fixing and banned for life by FIFA. The match was replayed and Senegal seized the second chance to qualify for their second ever World Cup final stage. Aliou Cissé, the manager, was the captain of the 2002 side.
Colombia - With a scintillating counter-attacking style and salsa-dancing celebrations, Colombia became the darlings of the 2014 World Cup where they shimmied their way to the quarter-finals. But the "cafeteros," as they are known in honour of the Andean country's rich Arabica coffee, lost some of their swagger in the qualifying campaign for this World Cup. They scored just 21 goals during the gruelling two-year, 18-match South American qualifiers and limped over the line with three points from their last four games to claim fourth spot. Luckily for Jose Pekerman’s canary-yellow-shirted squad, Colombia will face manageable rivals in Japan, Senegal, and Poland -- with Group H the only one to lack a World Cup winner. "It's a level group, we have to compete very well to get through the first round," Rodriguez, whose first name is pronounced "Hamez" in his adoring home country, said recently on Twitter. "Difficult, but nothing is impossible."
Japan - Japan’s coach Akira Nishino, 63, has been given a mere two months to prepare Japan for the 2018 World Cup finals after the sudden dismissal of Vahid Halilhodzic in April.
The Bosnian secured qualification for Russia with a game to spare, but his Japan side was not always convincing and the Japan Football Association (JFA) feared there could be a repeat of the 2014 World Cup finals when they collected one point from three group games against Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast. "Even if it only increases the chances of winning at the World Cup by 1 or 2 per cent, we had to act," JFA president Kozo Tashima said at the time. The Samurai Blue's best performances at the World Cup came while co-hosting the 2002 tournament and also in 2010 in South Africa, when the national side reached the Round of 16. Ranked 60 in the world by FIFA, Japan are, on paper at least, the lowest-ranked team in Group H. Poland are ranked 10th, Colombia 16th and Senegal 28th.
Sources: ESPN, The Guardian, Tifo Football, AP, Opta