By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jun 19, 2017) US Soccer Players – The World Cup is only a year away. The party in Russia began this past Saturday with the Confederations Cup. The tournament, a dress rehearsal for next year’s month-long bonanza, serves a dual purpose. It gives organizers a chance to iron out any problems as well as get the marketing hype going. For the teams participating, it’s a chance to play world-class talent in a competitive setting. For the rest of us, it’s a chance to assess the overall field at Russia 2018. It is an opportunity to take a step back and assess.
International soccer is a lot like US presidential elections. We measure everything in four-year cycles. A team that was great in 2014 may not be so fantastic four years later and vice versa. The World Cup is the bar by which we measure all National Teams. Qualifying for the tournament, getting out of the first round, and winning the title are the bars depending on who you are.
For the United States, qualifying was once considered the major challenge. Fast forward some 25 years later and it’s getting out of the first round. The bar gets higher as you get better and the years go by. Other CONCACAF nations are in a similar position. Take Mexico. The perennial regional giants are still trying to find a way to reach the quarterfinals. Last time that happened was at home in 1986. For El Tri, the Confederations Cup and next month’s Gold Cup is the place to start working towards that goal. An exhilarating 2-2 draw versus Portugal at the Confederations Cup on Sunday is a sign of a great start.
“If we just go on results, I think results are there to be analyzed, to be seen by everybody,” Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio recently told the Houston Chronicle. “At the end, I think this is a great opportunity for me to grow and to prepare for the future, whether it is here and I continue in this great position or I move on.”
With the European club season behind us, June is always a time for National Teams to go into overdrive. With 12 months to go before Russia ’18, there are many teams looking to either qualify or set the groundwork for a title run come next summer. Here is a look at three teams currently in pole position to win the World Cup next year and three others likely to miss out on the party.
Brazil: The last time we saw Brazil at a World Cup, the team lost to the Netherlands 3-0 in the 3rd-place game. That came on the heels of the country’s most-humiliating defeat ever. Nobody will forget that stinging 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals on home soil. Nonetheless, this is a team that has been able to turn its fortunes around. Over the past year, Brazil has hit the restart button again – this time with some success. They’re in first place in the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying standings and the first team aside from Russia to qualify for the finals. Under coach Tite, Brazil have gone 9-0-0. In addition, the program – and country as a whole – received a shot in the arm after capturing the gold medal at the Rio Olympics last August. With Neymar one of the world’s best players, this Brazil team is for real.
Germany: The team currently playing at the Confederations Cup is in no way the Germany team that won the title three years ago or the one that will defend it next summer. Loaded with second-tier players, this is a collection of players looking to impress coach Joachim Low. In World Cup Qualifying, Germany has put in a strong showing. They’re currently in 1st-place in Europe’s Group C. With a 6-0-0 record, the Germans once again look like a team that can go deep in any tournament. Defending a World Cup title is no easy task. With Manuel Neuer still outstanding in goal and players such as captain Sami Khedira marshalling the midfield, this outstanding group centered around Bayern Munich players should be strong enough to put on a sturdy title defense.
France: A year ago, Les Bleus dazzled the home fans by reaching the European Championship final. They lost to a tough Portugal. That heartbreaking defeat, however, took nothing away from a France side that has consistently put on great performances over the past few years. Heading into Russia ‘18, France is in second place in Group A with a 4-1-1 record. They lost in bizarre circumstances to Sweden in their last game due to a blunder by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Head coach Didier Deschamps, a member of the team’s only World Cup triumph in 1998, can rely on several stars to lead his team. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, and Dmitri Payet have had some of the most success on club level in recent years. This could be the time they do the same for France.
Risk of missing out
Argentina: This is a team that has the fortune of having some of the world’s best players on its roster, but that has not translated into success. Argentina has lost three straight finals in as many years – the 2014 World Cup (to Germany), 2015 Copa American (to Chile) and 2016 Copa America Centenario (again to Chile). The bleeding doesn’t stop there. In World Cup Qualifying, the Albiceleste find themselves of either having to compete in a playoff game or missing out on the tournament altogether. This is a team seemingly plagued by both misfortune and an inability to accomplish anything as a group. Lionel Messi may be a wonder to watch, but this is a team that has relived defeat like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.” There is still a chance for them to flip the script, but time is running out.
Netherlands: The days when the Netherlands reached the 2010 World Cup final and finished 3rd in 2014 seem to be a distant memory. The team failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship. It’s the same scenario in the quest to reach Russia ’18. Missing out on the World Cup would be another black eye for the inventors of Total Football. Holland – coached for a third time in its history by Dick Advocaat with Ruud Gullit as his assistant – are fourth in Group A, six points behind leaders France. A 2-0 loss to Bulgaria in March led to the firing of coach Danny Blind. The duo of Advocaat-Gullit have the next few months to try to turn things around. It’s an unlikely scenario as the Dutch continue to plunge further into soccer obscurity.
Cameroon: The Africans have delighted fans at World Cup level since 1990 and the days of the legendary striker Roger Milla. Like the Dutch, Cameroon risk missing out on the World Cup finals in Russia. The team currently sits second in Group B behind Nigeria, another African powerhouse. While the Indomitable Lions have been the standard bearer for the continent in recent decades, it was a surprise winner at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. However, some of Cameroon’s biggest flaws – such as inexperience at international level and the inability to defend – have recently been on full display. The latest example was Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Chile at the Confederations Cup.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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