Okay, so the World Cup’s set to kick off in Russia this week with Germany, Brazil, France and Spain more or less the favorites to hoist the trophy at the end of the month-long tournament. Those are pretty safe bets and predictions, but we’re not really trying to predict the sure things here as we’re going to delve a little deeper.
These are 12 bold predictions for the 2018 World Cup which involve both on and off the pitch activities. They may be completely off the mark, but this is fortunately or unfortunately how we see the tournament unfolding. We’re going against the grain somewhat in some of these predictions, but the World Cup’s nothing if it’s not controversial.
12. Russian Team Fails Miserably
If Russia wasn’t hosting the tournament it’s unlikely the nation would have qualified for it. The local squad is the lowest-ranked team in the event according to FIFA, as it’s at an all-time low of 70th in the world. Russia has appeared in just three World Cups since 1990 and has won a grand total of two games in them. The nation’s soccer infrastructure is suffering from a lack of investment as well as poor quality coaches and players. The Russian Premier League has a rule which allows only six foreign players at a time on the pitch, but it hasn’t helped develop homegrown talent as of yet. Just two of the squad play outside of Russia which means the majority of the team isn’t playing against world-class players week in and week out. They’re in a relatively weak group with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, but Russia won’t last long in this tournament.
11. Hooliganism Rears its Ugly Head
Thankfully the violent chaos and mayhem of 1970s and 80s hooliganism doesn’t exist anymore, but it still rears its ugly head from time-to-time, with the last major instance being the 2016 European Championships in France. With fans from Russia, Poland, Serbia, England and Croatia converging this summer there’s certainly potential for more clashes. There’s still a hooligan subculture in most of these nations and it could result in violent street clashes especially when you throw nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, religious differences and a poor Russian team into the mix. And let’s not forget some Russian political leaders basically cheered on the nation’s armed hooligans at Euro 2016. Having said that, well-known Russian hooligan groups have been threatened with lengthy prison sentences if they cause any trouble during the event, government-issued ID cards are needed for locals to enter the stadiums, and some high-risk European fans have been banned from traveling to Russia.
10. Video Replay Leads to Frustration
There were some growing pains when other sports (such as rugby, football, baseball and hockey) adopted various video replay systems, but it’s been a bit chaotic in soccer. MLS is finally getting the hang of it, but the English Premier League has put video assistant refereeing (VAR) on the back burner for another season — at least after the FA experimented with it during domestic cup competitions this season. The World Cup will be using VAR as a way to eliminate “clear and obvious” wrong calls which have plagued the event in the past. It’s the right move to make, but you can bet fans inside the stadiums are going to get quite impatient with it, since most video officials take about three to five minutes to double check a call, when it should should take less than a minute. Plus, there’s still a debate over what constitutes a “clear and obvious” error.
9. Fans Worry About Corruption
There were allegations of corruption when Russia and Qatar were chosen to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and FIFA has been caught numerous times with its finger in the pie. Getting rid of Sepp Blatter and UEFA’s Michel Platini has cleaned up the sport somewhat, but fans still worry about their teams suffering on the pitch due to ongoing corruption. They simply don’t know who to trust anymore and are afraid their teams may not get a fair shake from officials. They can’t be blamed for that, really, since a recent undercover sting in Africa revealed several referees, along with a FIFA member, were caught taking cash gifts. In other words, they were filmed accepting bribes and a Kenyan referee who was scheduled to work the World Cup named Adel Range Marwa had to resign and pull out of the tournament. Fans are rightfully wondering exactly who else has been taking bribes before the World Cup kicks off.
8. Animal Rights Activists to Protest Dog Killings
Apparently there are thousands of stray dogs over in Russia and seven of the 11 World Cup cities have been killing them off in preparation for the event. The practice was brought to light before the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 as the local governments hand out contracts to “dog hunters” to kill the homeless animals by poison darts or to catch and euthanize them. Global animal activists such as PETA want the government to catch the dogs instead, sterilize and vaccinate them and then release them. Activists point out that if the dogs were sterilized in 2014 the problem with strays wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is four years later. Russia doesn’t have any animal-welfare legislation other than punishment for sadistically torturing or killing animals. Activist groups will continue to protest the government to institute animal-welfare laws during the World Cup.
7. Mexico Crashes in Second Round for Seventh Straight Time
So far, Mexico’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup have reportedly included partying with over two dozen hookers following a 1-0 victory over soccer powerhouse Scotland in a pre-tournament game. Perhaps it’s no wonder this talented nation hasn’t advanced past the second round in six straight World Cups. This version of the team is supposedly the strongest in recent memory, but its biggest hurdle could be psychologically rather than physical skill. The team needs the mental strength to overcome its current jinx, but it’s unlikely to happen in Russia. That’s why manager Juan Carlos Osorio has hired Imanol Ibarrondo as the side’s mental manager even though he’s not a licensed psychologist. Mexico will be competing in Group F along with Germany, South Korea and Sweden. If they do manage to advance behind Germany, they’ll likely meet Brazil as winners of Group E in the second round.
6. Neymar Bounces Back From Rough 2014 World Cup
Neymar Jr. is now 26 years old and just about to reach the prime of his career. He was carried off the pitch on a stretcher four years ago against Colombia in the quarterfinals and Brazil was then spanked 7-1 at home in the very next game. Since then Neymar led Brazil to a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics at home and moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in his club career. He won the French crown, but also suffered a broken foot in February. Neymar netted 28 goals for PSG this season and is ready to lead Brazil to their sixth World Cup. He’s already ranked the fourth-highest scorer for Brazil with 54 goals in 84 games and trails only Pele (77), Ronaldo (62) and Romario (55). Look for Neymar to shine at the World Cup and also contend for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as well as possibly lead his nation to its sixth world title.
5. Mohamed Salah has Disappointing Tournament
Mohamed Salah of Egypt had a season to remember with Liverpool as he led the English Premier League with 32 goals and helped the Reds reach the European Champions League Final. However, he dislocated his shoulder in the 3-1 loss to Real Madrid and is racing the clock to be fit in time for the World Cup. Even if Salah’s 100 per cent healthy though he won’t have Liverpool teammates Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane on the pitch to help him out. Egypt is ranked 45th in the world by FIFA and simply don’t have the caliber of players to feed Salah the ball. He’ll be tightly marked by the likes of Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Salah scored 44 goals in all competitions this season and has netted 33 times in 55 games with Egypt, but even if he scores a couple of goals his World Cup performance will be underwhelming.
4. Ronaldo and Messi Continue World Cup Droughts
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are undoubtedly two of the best players ever to lace up a pair of boots, but they’ve often struggled on the world stage. Ronaldo helped Portugal win Euro 2016 and Messi played in the 2014 World Cup Final, but that’s about it. The pair have captured the last ten Ballon d’Or awards between them and one of them has been the Golden Boot winner of Europe in nine of the past 10 seasons. But at the World Cup, Messi has five goals and three assists in 15 games and four of those came in 2014. Ronaldo has played in 13 World Cup contests, with three goals and two assists to his name. Both have been a bit erratic in previous World Cups and while they may find the back of the net a few times each in Russia, neither one of them will hoist the trophy in mid-July, nor win the Golden Boot.
3. Harry Kane wins Golden Boot
Harry Kane will spearhead and captain England in Group G against Panama, Tunisia and Belgium and will find himself battling it out for the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top goalscorer. The 24-year-old will be trying to make amends for his goalless performance at Euro 2016. He’s won the Golden Boot in the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur two of the past three seasons and finished second this year with 30 goals in 37 league games and scored 41 in all competitions. He’s scored 13 times in 24 games with England and is good with both his head and feet. This is a guy who’s scored 140 times in 213 Premier league games and probably hasn’t hit his peak yet. He’ll be facing stiff competition from the likes of Neymar of Brazil and France’s Antoine Griezmann, but look for Kane to lead the scoring parade. Of course, England will have to progress into the knockout stages in order for Kane to have enough chances.
2. Poland Will Be The First Seeded Team To Go Home
Poland somehow made it into Pot 1 when the World Cup draw was announced along with hosts Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium and France. We’re not going to count Russia here since they were simply placed in the pot as tournament hosts. We see Poland, who are ranked eighth in the world by FIFA, heading Group H along with Senegal, Colombia and Japan and they could be in some trouble here. Poland possesses one of the top strikers in the world in Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich, but the rest of the squad isn’t nearly as talented, meaning the team’s results basically rest squarely on his shoulders. The rest of Group H also have plenty of attacking talent and if Poland manages to get out of the group they’ll likely have to face Group G’s Belgium or England in the second round. Look for Poland to be the earliest Pot 1 team to be eliminated.
1. England wins First World Cup in 52 Years
England are the Toronto Maple Leafs of world football as they’re trying to end a championship drought of over 50 years. The last and only time the Three Lions won the Cup was back in 1966 when they downed West Germany 4-2 in extra time at Wembley. However, the old guard is gone now, as Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshire, John Terry and goalkeeper Joe Hart etc. have been replaced with the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Trent Alexander-Arnold and goalkeepers Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford. England’s ranked 12th in the world and will be facing Belgium, Tunisia and Panama in Group G. There’s no pressure on these youngsters as they aren’t expected to go far, but if they get out of their group they’ll face Japan, Senegal, Poland or Colombia in the second round. It’s a bold prediction considering England’s weak in their own end, but they can win it all or be embarrassed by the likes of Iceland again. And speaking of Iceland, England is on a 14-game unbeaten streak since being knocked out of Euro 2016 by the tiny nation.