World Cup Qualifying

World Cup Qualifying slideshow

Italian Football Federation (FIGC) President Carlo Tavecchio resigned as Italy's World Cup qualifying fiasco saw the four-time champions miss the finals for the first time in 60 years

Italian Football Federation (FIGC) President Carlo Tavecchio resigned as Italy's World Cup qualifying fiasco saw the four-time champions miss the finals for the first time in 60 years

Italian Football Federation (FIGC) President Carlo Tavecchio resigned as Italy's World Cup qualifying fiasco saw the four-time champions miss the finals for the first time in 60 years (AFP Photo/Alberto PIZZOLI)

Italian Football Federation (FIGC) President Carlo Tavecchio resigned as Italy's World Cup qualifying fiasco saw the four-time champions miss the finals for the first time in 60 years

FILE - In this file photo taken on Nov. 13, 2017, Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, left, and Federico Bernardeschi react to their team's elimination in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio resigned on Monday, a week after the Azzurri failed to qualify for the World Cup. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Italy soccer chief resigns after failure to reach World Cup

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 file photo, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is comforted by Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, right, at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has been fired Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 following the Azzurri's failure to qualify for the World Cup. Ventura leaves in disgrace, widely criticized for his tactical decisions that left Italy out of football's biggest competition for the first time in six decades. A football federation statement says Ventura is "no longer coach of the national team." (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 file photo, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is comforted by Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, right, at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has been fired Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 following the Azzurri's failure to qualify for the World Cup. Ventura leaves in disgrace, widely criticized for his tactical decisions that left Italy out of football's biggest competition for the first time in six decades. A football federation statement says Ventura is "no longer coach of the national team." (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 file photo, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is comforted by Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, right, at the end of the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg soccer match between Italy and Sweden, at the Milan San Siro stadium, Italy. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has been fired Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 following the Azzurri's failure to qualify for the World Cup. Ventura leaves in disgrace, widely criticized for his tactical decisions that left Italy out of football's biggest competition for the first time in six decades. A football federation statement says Ventura is "no longer coach of the national team." (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

Elias Syrja of Finland performs during the men's snowboard freestyle World Cup qualifying session in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

FIFA leaves playoff controversy referee off World Cup list

Referee Ovidiu Alin Hategan speaks to Switzerland's Granit Xhaka during the World Cup qualifying play-off first leg soccer match between Northern Ireland and Switzerland at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday Nov. 9, 2017. (Brian Lawless/PA via AP)

Referee Ovidiu Alin Hategan speaks to Switzerland's Granit Xhaka during the World Cup qualifying play-off first leg soccer match between Northern Ireland and Switzerland at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday Nov. 9, 2017. (Brian Lawless/PA via AP)

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 A banner in the colors of the Peruvian flag and a sign reading "I love you Peru" hangs outside a house after Peru qualified for the World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 A banner in the colors of the Peruvian flag and a sign reading "I love you Peru" hangs outside a house after Peru qualified for the World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca, Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz, Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and the soccer team meet after Peru qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz, Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and Defense Minister Jorge Nieto meet with the soccer players after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 People observe the arrival of Peru's soccer team to meet Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 People observe the arrival of Peru's soccer team to meet Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after Peru qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 People observe the arrival of Peru's soccer team to meet Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca and the players leave the Government Palace after a meeting with Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meets with Peru's soccer team after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca, Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz, and Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meet after Peru qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca, Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz, and Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meet after Peru qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's goalkeepers Carlos Caceda and Pedro Gallese arrive at the Government Palace to meet Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

How CONCACAF League of Nations Alters Competitive Landscape for USA, Region

Global soccer is getting a lot less friendly.

Europe, the source of most of the sport’s financial and competitive innovations, also is the birthplace of this unfriendly trend. The pursuit of more product, competition and revenue—the same impulse that led to the creation of the Confederations Cup, the International Champions Cup, the Carabao Cup and a 48-team World Cup—is at the root.

Whether the motivation is competitive or financial, the rush to maximize is real. In that environment, the international friendly has become a relic. Put the lucrative club game on pause and risk players’ health and fitness on matches that don’t matter? That’s not an easy product to sell to anyone—club teams, federations, networks, players or fans.

UEFA recognized this and devised its Nations League, a complex competition that will replace most friendlies with competitive games across a two-year cycle. It kicks off after next year’s World Cup. The concept, which UEFA has claimed will lead to “the rejuvenation of national team football," will see the confederation’s 55 members divided into four “leagues” based on ranking. From there, teams will play home and away inside intra-league groups during FIFA windows. Group winners in leagues B, C and D will be promoted. Group winners in the top tier will play off for the title. Relegation and additional tickets to the the 2020 European Championship are supposed to raise the stakes.

Regardless of whether anything is rejuvenated, there’s a ripple effect. European teams now have limited friendly opportunities—which was the idea—but that means the rest of the world does as well. Exhibitions against talented or high-profile UEFA sides, the sort in which coaches form other continents might find value, now will be harder to schedule.

Former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann certainly felt those games were worth something. During his tenure, he took his players to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere in order to expose them to something different. It’s far from a World Cup, but it’s still a new and potentially rewarding experience for many.

The devaluation of friendlies and UEFA’s Nations League commitment (not to mention the marathon South American qualifying process that occupies CONMEBOL members for most of each World Cup cycle) has prompted CONCACAF to act in kind. The North and Central American and Caribbean governing body on Thursday announced the creation of its own League of Nations, which also will kick off with a preliminary, seeding competition next fall.

CONCACAF’s 41 members eventually will be divided into three tiers and although the final structure won’t be unveiled until early next year, it’ll likely be similar to UEFA’s: home-and-away games within a group, promotion and relegation between leagues A, B and C (or whatever they’re called) and a playoff to determine the champion. The CONCACAF League of Nations will replace Central American and Caribbean qualifying for the Gold Cup, which is expected to remain on a biennial schedule. There will be prize money and a trophy, and games will be considered official, meaning participation will cap tie a player. CONCACAF also said it plans to use LoN results to seed future World Cup qualifying competitions.

The benefit for the vast majority of CONCACAF countries is obvious, and that's important. After all, the confederation's constituency consists of more than just the USA, Mexico and a couple Central American powers.

“The League of Nations will allow for CONCACAF member associations to create, cultivate and capitalize on a truly comprehensive national team development program through regular competition. Rather than many teams playing on a sporadic basis—maybe only competing in two matches during a World Cup qualifying cycle and a handful of games in a regional tournament every two years—they will play regularly,” CONCACAF said. “For many smaller member associations, the League of Nations promises to offer needed opportunity among those that historically have lacked the tools and structure to develop at the national team level.”

More games, more development, more revenue: it makes sense for most members. But does it make sense for the USA, which is facing its own reckoning following last month’s failure to qualify for the World Cup? How does the League of Nations, and the extra games against regional opposition required, fit the U.S. national team’s needs?

First, some data. From the beginning of 2014 until now, which includes a World Cup cycle’s worth of qualifiers and two Gold Cups, the USA has played 73 senior international matches. That total includes 34 friendlies (10 against CONCACAF teams) and 40 games overall against CONCACAF opponents. The number of games against regional foes likely will rise thanks to the LoN.

“While the opportunities for friendlies within the FIFA international match calendar will be limited, there will still be space for these types of encounters,” CONCACAF said.

So some of those 34 friendlies (like the ones during FIFA windows) will become LoN games and some will remain free, although the options on those unscheduled dates will dwindle thanks to the UEFA tournament and what CONCACAF called, “the general movement in the world of international football away from low-stakes friendly matches.”

Those stakes are in the eye of the beholder, however. The benefit to most of CONCACAF is obvious. But for the USA, it’s unclear whether another game against Costa Rica or Cuba and the pursuit of this new regional title will be more productive than a game in Paris, London or Amsterdam. Different stakes and environments energize different players. Only time and a few LoN cycles will tell.

The best-case scenario for U.S. Soccer likely can occur only over the long-term. If the League of Nations really does provide the sort of competition that helps second-tier CONCACAF countries improve (like Panama has, for example), then the USA will find more difficult games closer to home. That’s a good thing at all age levels, and that sort of environment is why UEFA is content to close (almost) its doors. But that’s a ways away here, which makes the LoN feel like a bit of a risk in the short term.

It’ll be up to CONCACAF to ensure a variety of opponents (it will factor the rate of repeat meetings into its format), sensible scheduling and the right incentives are in place to make the LoN worthwhile in the region’s biggest markets. And it’ll be up to U.S. Soccer to figure out how to make the LoN work in its interest, whether it’s to give younger, less-proven internationals meaningful games or to return its competitive focus to its own backyard following last month’s disaster.

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca, Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz, Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and player Alberto Rodriguez meet after the team qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meets with Peru's soccer team after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meets with Peru's soccer team after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's soccer coach Ricardo Gareca and player Alberto Rodriguez arrive at the Government Palace to meet Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 17, 2017 Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski meets with Peru's soccer team after they qualified for the 2018 World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Canada to tipoff World Cup qualifying with mixed group of veteran, young players

Altidore suspension for 1st leg of conference final upheld

United States' Jozy Altidore celebrates in front of fans after scoring a goal against Panama during the first half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 People rest at a park during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 A man reads a newspaper during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 A woman with a Peruvian soccer T-shirt walks her dog during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 A man with a T-shirt that reads "Peru", sits on a bench during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 People with Peruvian soccer T-shirts pose for a picture with a replica of a soccer ball, during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs

Soccer Football - Peru v New Zealand - 2018 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs - Lima, Peru - November 16, 2017 A man with a Peruvian soccer T-shirt walks past a replica of a soccer ball, during a holiday for public workers and all schools, after Peru qualified for World Cup. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

FILE - In this March 29, 2016, file photo, Mexico fans shout anti-gay chants during a World Cup qualifying soccer match against Canada in Mexico City. FIFA was judged wrong to fine Mexico's soccer federation for fans chanting gay slurs at opposition goalkeepers at World Cup qualifying games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport judges hearing Mexico's appeal accepted the chants were "insulting words," even if fans did not intend to offend, the court said on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, when it published the verdict. (AP Photo/Christian Palma, File)

FILE - In this March 29, 2016, file photo, Mexico fans shout anti-gay chants during a World Cup qualifying soccer match against Canada in Mexico City. FIFA was judged wrong to fine Mexico's soccer federation for fans chanting gay slurs at opposition goalkeepers at World Cup qualifying games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport judges hearing Mexico's appeal accepted the chants were "insulting words," even if fans did not intend to offend, the court said on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, when it published the verdict. (AP Photo/Christian Palma, File)

Fun With World Cup Pots: The Many Group Draw Scenarios, Intriguing Combinations in Play

After 32 months and 872 games contested by 210 nations across six continents—not to mention Chile filing a protest that ultimately led to its elimination, some last-gasp hat-trick magic from Lionel Messi, Italy’s historic impotence in Milan, terrible tactics by the USA and, on Wednesday evening, the end of Peru’s long wait—we have our 2018 World Cup field. Thirty-two teams have booked their place in Russia next summer. They now await the draw on December 1 in Moscow.

There will be two debutants, Panama and Iceland, and Italy is the only former champion that failed to qualify. Peru’s 36-year drought is the longest, followed by Egypt’s wait of 28 years. Four of the six reigning continental champs—USA, Chile, Cameroon and New Zealand—will miss out. So will the Netherlands, the 2010 silver and 2014 bronze medalists.

The survivors will be placed into four pots based on their FIFA ranking. They’ll be drawn into eight groups of four teams, comprising one nation from each pot. Only European sides can be drawn with a confederation rival.

Russia is seeded because it’s the host, and that knocks 2010 winner Spain down to pot 2. There’s a 50/50 chance we’ll see Spain play Germany, France, Argentina or Brazil in the first round, and something close to a zero percent chance the other two teams in that potential quartet will be staying in Russia beyond the group stage.

The permutations obviously are almost endless, but it’s fun to pick through a few of the possibilities. Here are several.

The FIFA ranking group of death

At first glance it looks like the toughest potential group based only on the FIFA ranking would include No. 2 Brazil and No. 8 Spain, and then either No. 19 Denmark and No. 41 Nigeria or No. 22 Costa Rica and No. 38 Serbia, which ranks above only Russia among European participants.

Brazil and Spain met in the 2013 Confederations Cup final—a 3-0 win for the Seleção—and have played each other at five World Cups. The most recent meeting was back in 1986. The group-stage opener ended 1-0 in favor of Brazil.

A real group of death

Argentina is a talented and flawed team. We saw both sides during its qualification run. A genuine group of death needs big names, but no certainties. Argentina fits the bill as the top seed.

Joining them are the top teams in each of the next two spots, Spain and Denmark. Spain, as we’ve seen over the past seven years, can win it all or be the first team eliminated. Denmark’s potential was on display in this week’s demolition of Ireland. Rounding it out is Nigeria, which has players at many of the top European leagues and just beat Argentina on Tuesday.

This is a real group of death. Any team could advance, and any team could stumble and go home.

The bottom of the barrel group

And here’s the worst possible foursome according to the rankings. Russia is the seed everyone else will hope to draw. The hosts are ranked No. 65 in the world. They conceivably could be joined by No. 18 Croatia, No. 32 Senegal and No. 63 Saudi Arabia in a group that won’t excite many neutrals (and that Croatia would win in a walk).

The continental crown group

Germany has won the European Championship a record-tying three times and has appeared in a tournament-high six finals. Pot 2 teams Uruguay (15) and Mexico (10) lead the all-time title race on their respective continents. Egypt has won the most African Cup of Nations crowns (seven) and Japan leads Asia with four championships.

Uruguay edges Mexico on the tiebreaker, so this Confederations Cup tribute group comprises Die Mannschaft, La Celeste, the Pharaohs and the Samurai Blue.

The golden boot group

Robert Lewandowski (16), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (16), Edinson Cavani (10) and Mohamed Salah (5) each led their respective continents in World Cup qualifying goals (Salah and Al-Sahlawi tied for top spot). And they could lead their teams into the same group next summer.

The golden boot group features Lewandowski’s Poland, Cavani’s Uruguay, Salah’s Egypt and Al-Sahlawi’s Saudi Arabia.

It’s worth noting that none of the top 10 CONCACAF scorers will play in the World Cup. That unfortunate list includes Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. No one on Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama scored more than four goals in qualifying.

The drought's over group

A group comprising teams that have had the longest combined wait to play in a World Cup would be topped by Poland, which hasn’t qualified since 2006 and is the only seeded team ending a long wait. They’d be joined by Peru (first since 1982), Iceland and Panama. The latter two are making their maiden appearances.

The Real Madrid group

Members of the current club world champs (and they’ll be favored to repeat in December and hold the crown next summer) can reunite at a World Cup in Russia. It starts, obviously, with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric’s Croatia, Keylor Navas’s Costa Rica and defender Achraf Hakimi’s Morocco round out the foursome.

The Seattle Sounders group

We have to cheat a bit, but a group representing the current (and possible repeat) MLS champs is possible as well. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Sweden’s Gustav Svensson and Panama’s Román Torres all should see time in Russia. Toss in Germany—the native land of former coach Sigi Schmid and the ancestral homeland of current manager Brian Schmetzer—and you have an entertaining Cascadian quartet.

The build on Brazil group

Here’s a group featuring the team in each pot that had the best World Cup performance four years ago. They’ll be hoping for similar next summer. There’s the champion, Germany (pot 1), followed by quarterfinalist Colombia (pot 2), Cinderella quarterfinalist Costa Rica (pot 3) and round-of-16 loser Nigeria (pot 4).

The demographic overachievers group

It’s not about population. The top five most crowded countries in the world have a total of one World Cup semifinal appearance combined, and that was the USA’s run back in 1930 (Brazil ranks sixth, and they’ve done quite well. But the point stands).

Here’s a group with four smaller nations punching above their weight. It starts with Portugal, the European champion, two-time World Cup semifinalist and home to the reigning world player of the year that’s accomplished all that despite having just over 10 million people. Uruguay has won two World Cups and is a consistent producer of top talent with only 3.5 million. Iceland, with just 350,000 inhabitants, now is the least populous team to qualify for a World Cup. And Panama which has made great strides in recent years and become a CONCACAF contender, is the smallest pot 4 nation at around 4 million.

Memorable World Cup hosts group

Twelve countries traveling to Russia will have had the privilege of hosting a previous World Cup, and there are a bunch of ways those 12 could form a group next summer. So to narrow it down, we’ll go with tournaments that are remembered for transcendent individual performances and personalities.

Despite its industrial-strength talent production, France has won only one World Cup. And that title was inspired by the great Zinedine Zidane and came on home soil in 1998. Twelve years earlier, Diego Maradona staked his claim as the sport’s top player with his mesmerizing play in Mexico.

Sweden ’58 served as the planet’s introduction to Pelé. The 17-year-old scored six goals, including two in the final outside Stockholm. And although Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002, it was in Yokohama that Ronaldo escaped the shadow of his 1998 failure and struck twice to lift Brazil to a record fifth title.

American rivals group

The USA won’t be at the World Cup, but there still be rivals to root against if you’re so inclined. The hosts are an obvious choice as the seeded team. Joining the Russians are Mexico—the USA’s great soccer rival—as well long-time geopolitical nemesis and 1998 World Cup foe Iran, and 2026 World Cup bid counterpart Morocco.

Fun With World Cup Pots: The Many Group Draw Scenarios, Intriguing Combinations in Play

After 32 months and 872 games contested by 210 nations across six continents—not to mention Chile filing a protest that ultimately led to its elimination, some last-gasp hat-trick magic from Lionel Messi, Italy’s historic impotence in Milan, terrible tactics by the USA and, on Wednesday evening, the end of Peru’s long wait—we have our 2018 World Cup field. Thirty-two teams have booked their place in Russia next summer. They now await the draw on December 1 in Moscow.

There will be two debutants, Panama and Iceland, and Italy is the only former champion that failed to qualify. Peru’s 36-year drought is the longest, followed by Egypt’s wait of 28 years. Four of the six reigning continental champs—USA, Chile, Cameroon and New Zealand—will miss out. So will the Netherlands, the 2010 silver and 2014 bronze medalists.

The survivors will be placed into four pots based on their FIFA ranking. They’ll be drawn into eight groups of four teams, comprising one nation from each pot. Only European sides can be drawn with a confederation rival.

Russia is seeded because it’s the host, and that knocks 2010 winner Spain down to pot 2. There’s a 50/50 chance we’ll see Spain play Germany, France, Argentina or Brazil in the first round, and something close to a zero percent chance the other two teams in that potential quartet will be staying in Russia beyond the group stage.

The permutations obviously are almost endless, but it’s fun to pick through a few of the possibilities. Here are several.

The FIFA ranking group of death

At first glance it looks like the toughest potential group based only on the FIFA ranking would include No. 2 Brazil and No. 8 Spain, and then either No. 19 Denmark and No. 41 Nigeria or No. 22 Costa Rica and No. 38 Serbia, which ranks above only Russia among European participants.

Brazil and Spain met in the 2013 Confederations Cup final—a 3-0 win for the Seleção—and have played each other at five World Cups. The most recent meeting was back in 1986. The group-stage opener ended 1-0 in favor of Brazil.

A real group of death

Argentina is a talented and flawed team. We saw both sides during its qualification run. A genuine group of death needs big names, but no certainties. Argentina fits the bill as the top seed.

Joining them are the top teams in each of the next two spots, Spain and Denmark. Spain, as we’ve seen over the past seven years, can win it all or be the first team eliminated. Denmark’s potential was on display in this week’s demolition of Ireland. Rounding it out is Nigeria, which has players at many of the top European leagues and just beat Argentina on Tuesday.

This is a real group of death. Any team could advance, and any team could stumble and go home.

The bottom of the barrel group

And here’s the worst possible foursome according to the rankings. Russia is the seed everyone else will hope to draw. The hosts are ranked No. 65 in the world. They conceivably could be joined by No. 18 Croatia, No. 32 Senegal and No. 63 Saudi Arabia in a group that won’t excite many neutrals (and that Croatia would win in a walk).

The continental crown group

Germany has won the European Championship a record-tying three times and has appeared in a tournament-high six finals. Pot 2 teams Uruguay (15) and Mexico (10) lead the all-time title race on their respective continents. Egypt has won the most African Cup of Nations crowns (seven) and Japan leads Asia with four championships.

Uruguay edges Mexico on the tiebreaker, so this Confederations Cup tribute group comprises Die Mannschaft, La Celeste, the Pharaohs and the Samurai Blue.

The golden boot group

Robert Lewandowski (16), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (16), Edinson Cavani (10) and Mohamed Salah (5) each led their respective continents in World Cup qualifying goals (Salah and Al-Sahlawi tied for top spot). And they could lead their teams into the same group next summer.

The golden boot group features Lewandowski’s Poland, Cavani’s Uruguay, Salah’s Egypt and Al-Sahlawi’s Saudi Arabia.

It’s worth noting that none of the top 10 CONCACAF scorers will play in the World Cup. That unfortunate list includes Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. No one on Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama scored more than four goals in qualifying.

The drought's over group

A group comprising teams that have had the longest combined wait to play in a World Cup would be topped by Poland, which hasn’t qualified since 2006 and is the only seeded team ending a long wait. They’d be joined by Peru (first since 1982), Iceland and Panama. The latter two are making their maiden appearances.

The Real Madrid group

Members of the current club world champs (and they’ll be favored to repeat in December and hold the crown next summer) can reunite at a World Cup in Russia. It starts, obviously, with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric’s Croatia, Keylor Navas’s Costa Rica and defender Achraf Hakimi’s Morocco round out the foursome.

The Seattle Sounders group

We have to cheat a bit, but a group representing the current (and possible repeat) MLS champs is possible as well. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Sweden’s Gustav Svensson and Panama’s Román Torres all should see time in Russia. Toss in Germany—the native land of former coach Sigi Schmid and the ancestral homeland of current manager Brian Schmetzer—and you have an entertaining Cascadian quartet.

The build on Brazil group

Here’s a group featuring the team in each pot that had the best World Cup performance four years ago. They’ll be hoping for similar next summer. There’s the champion, Germany (pot 1), followed by quarterfinalist Colombia (pot 2), Cinderella quarterfinalist Costa Rica (pot 3) and round-of-16 loser Nigeria (pot 4).

The demographic overachievers group

It’s not about population. The top five most crowded countries in the world have a total of one World Cup semifinal appearance combined, and that was the USA’s run back in 1930 (Brazil ranks sixth, and they’ve done quite well. But the point stands).

Here’s a group with four smaller nations punching above their weight. It starts with Portugal, the European champion, two-time World Cup semifinalist and home to the reigning world player of the year that’s accomplished all that despite having just over 10 million people. Uruguay has won two World Cups and is a consistent producer of top talent with only 3.5 million. Iceland, with just 350,000 inhabitants, now is the least populous team to qualify for a World Cup. And Panama which has made great strides in recent years and become a CONCACAF contender, is the smallest pot 4 nation at around 4 million.

Memorable World Cup hosts group

Twelve countries traveling to Russia will have had the privilege of hosting a previous World Cup, and there are a bunch of ways those 12 could form a group next summer. So to narrow it down, we’ll go with tournaments that are remembered for transcendent individual performances and personalities.

Despite its industrial-strength talent production, France has won only one World Cup. And that title was inspired by the great Zinedine Zidane and came on home soil in 1998. Twelve years earlier, Diego Maradona staked his claim as the sport’s top player with his mesmerizing play in Mexico.

Sweden ’58 served as the planet’s introduction to Pelé. The 17-year-old scored six goals, including two in the final outside Stockholm. And although Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002, it was in Yokohama that Ronaldo escaped the shadow of his 1998 failure and struck twice to lift Brazil to a record fifth title.

American rivals group

The USA won’t be at the World Cup, but there still be rivals to root against if you’re so inclined. The hosts are an obvious choice as the seeded team. Joining the Russians are Mexico—the USA’s great soccer rival—as well long-time geopolitical nemesis and 1998 World Cup foe Iran, and 2026 World Cup bid counterpart Morocco.

Fun With World Cup Pots: The Many Group Draw Scenarios, Intriguing Combinations in Play

After 32 months and 872 games contested by 210 nations across six continents—not to mention Chile filing a protest that ultimately led to its elimination, some last-gasp hat-trick magic from Lionel Messi, Italy’s historic impotence in Milan, terrible tactics by the USA and, on Wednesday evening, the end of Peru’s long wait—we have our 2018 World Cup field. Thirty-two teams have booked their place in Russia next summer. They now await the draw on December 1 in Moscow.

There will be two debutants, Panama and Iceland, and Italy is the only former champion that failed to qualify. Peru’s 36-year drought is the longest, followed by Egypt’s wait of 28 years. Four of the six reigning continental champs—USA, Chile, Cameroon and New Zealand—will miss out. So will the Netherlands, the 2010 silver and 2014 bronze medalists.

The survivors will be placed into four pots based on their FIFA ranking. They’ll be drawn into eight groups of four teams, comprising one nation from each pot. Only European sides can be drawn with a confederation rival.

Russia is seeded because it’s the host, and that knocks 2010 winner Spain down to pot 2. There’s a 50/50 chance we’ll see Spain play Germany, France, Argentina or Brazil in the first round, and something close to a zero percent chance the other two teams in that potential quartet will be staying in Russia beyond the group stage.

The permutations obviously are almost endless, but it’s fun to pick through a few of the possibilities. Here are several.

The FIFA ranking group of death

At first glance it looks like the toughest potential group based only on the FIFA ranking would include No. 2 Brazil and No. 8 Spain, and then either No. 19 Denmark and No. 41 Nigeria or No. 22 Costa Rica and No. 38 Serbia, which ranks above only Russia among European participants.

Brazil and Spain met in the 2013 Confederations Cup final—a 3-0 win for the Seleção—and have played each other at five World Cups. The most recent meeting was back in 1986. The group-stage opener ended 1-0 in favor of Brazil.

A real group of death

Argentina is a talented and flawed team. We saw both sides during its qualification run. A genuine group of death needs big names, but no certainties. Argentina fits the bill as the top seed.

Joining them are the top teams in each of the next two spots, Spain and Denmark. Spain, as we’ve seen over the past seven years, can win it all or be the first team eliminated. Denmark’s potential was on display in this week’s demolition of Ireland. Rounding it out is Nigeria, which has players at many of the top European leagues and just beat Argentina on Tuesday.

This is a real group of death. Any team could advance, and any team could stumble and go home.

The bottom of the barrel group

And here’s the worst possible foursome according to the rankings. Russia is the seed everyone else will hope to draw. The hosts are ranked No. 65 in the world. They conceivably could be joined by No. 18 Croatia, No. 32 Senegal and No. 63 Saudi Arabia in a group that won’t excite many neutrals (and that Croatia would win in a walk).

The continental crown group

Germany has won the European Championship a record-tying three times and has appeared in a tournament-high six finals. Pot 2 teams Uruguay (15) and Mexico (10) lead the all-time title race on their respective continents. Egypt has won the most African Cup of Nations crowns (seven) and Japan leads Asia with four championships.

Uruguay edges Mexico on the tiebreaker, so this Confederations Cup tribute group comprises Die Mannschaft, La Celeste, the Pharaohs and the Samurai Blue.

The golden boot group

Robert Lewandowski (16), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (16), Edinson Cavani (10) and Mohamed Salah (5) each led their respective continents in World Cup qualifying goals (Salah and Al-Sahlawi tied for top spot). And they could lead their teams into the same group next summer.

The golden boot group features Lewandowski’s Poland, Cavani’s Uruguay, Salah’s Egypt and Al-Sahlawi’s Saudi Arabia.

It’s worth noting that none of the top 10 CONCACAF scorers will play in the World Cup. That unfortunate list includes Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. No one on Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama scored more than four goals in qualifying.

The drought's over group

A group comprising teams that have had the longest combined wait to play in a World Cup would be topped by Poland, which hasn’t qualified since 2006 and is the only seeded team ending a long wait. They’d be joined by Peru (first since 1982), Iceland and Panama. The latter two are making their maiden appearances.

The Real Madrid group

Members of the current club world champs (and they’ll be favored to repeat in December and hold the crown next summer) can reunite at a World Cup in Russia. It starts, obviously, with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric’s Croatia, Keylor Navas’s Costa Rica and defender Achraf Hakimi’s Morocco round out the foursome.

The Seattle Sounders group

We have to cheat a bit, but a group representing the current (and possible repeat) MLS champs is possible as well. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Sweden’s Gustav Svensson and Panama’s Román Torres all should see time in Russia. Toss in Germany—the native land of former coach Sigi Schmid and the ancestral homeland of current manager Brian Schmetzer—and you have an entertaining Cascadian quartet.

The build on Brazil group

Here’s a group featuring the team in each pot that had the best World Cup performance four years ago. They’ll be hoping for similar next summer. There’s the champion, Germany (pot 1), followed by quarterfinalist Colombia (pot 2), Cinderella quarterfinalist Costa Rica (pot 3) and round-of-16 loser Nigeria (pot 4).

The demographic overachievers group

It’s not about population. The top five most crowded countries in the world have a total of one World Cup semifinal appearance combined, and that was the USA’s run back in 1930 (Brazil ranks sixth, and they’ve done quite well. But the point stands).

Here’s a group with four smaller nations punching above their weight. It starts with Portugal, the European champion, two-time World Cup semifinalist and home to the reigning world player of the year that’s accomplished all that despite having just over 10 million people. Uruguay has won two World Cups and is a consistent producer of top talent with only 3.5 million. Iceland, with just 350,000 inhabitants, now is the least populous team to qualify for a World Cup. And Panama which has made great strides in recent years and become a CONCACAF contender, is the smallest pot 4 nation at around 4 million.

Memorable World Cup hosts group

Twelve countries traveling to Russia will have had the privilege of hosting a previous World Cup, and there are a bunch of ways those 12 could form a group next summer. So to narrow it down, we’ll go with tournaments that are remembered for transcendent individual performances and personalities.

Despite its industrial-strength talent production, France has won only one World Cup. And that title was inspired by the great Zinedine Zidane and came on home soil in 1998. Twelve years earlier, Diego Maradona staked his claim as the sport’s top player with his mesmerizing play in Mexico.

Sweden ’58 served as the planet’s introduction to Pelé. The 17-year-old scored six goals, including two in the final outside Stockholm. And although Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002, it was in Yokohama that Ronaldo escaped the shadow of his 1998 failure and struck twice to lift Brazil to a record fifth title.

American rivals group

The USA won’t be at the World Cup, but there still be rivals to root against if you’re so inclined. The hosts are an obvious choice as the seeded team. Joining the Russians are Mexico—the USA’s great soccer rival—as well long-time geopolitical nemesis and 1998 World Cup foe Iran, and 2026 World Cup bid counterpart Morocco.

Fun With World Cup Pots: The Many Group Draw Scenarios, Intriguing Combinations in Play

After 32 months and 872 games contested by 210 nations across six continents—not to mention Chile filing a protest that ultimately led to its elimination, some last-gasp hat-trick magic from Lionel Messi, Italy’s historic impotence in Milan, terrible tactics by the USA and, on Wednesday evening, the end of Peru’s long wait—we have our 2018 World Cup field. Thirty-two teams have booked their place in Russia next summer. They now await the draw on December 1 in Moscow.

There will be two debutants, Panama and Iceland, and Italy is the only former champion that failed to qualify. Peru’s 36-year drought is the longest, followed by Egypt’s wait of 28 years. Four of the six reigning continental champs—USA, Chile, Cameroon and New Zealand—will miss out. So will the Netherlands, the 2010 silver and 2014 bronze medalists.

The survivors will be placed into four pots based on their FIFA ranking. They’ll be drawn into eight groups of four teams, comprising one nation from each pot. Only European sides can be drawn with a confederation rival.

Russia is seeded because it’s the host, and that knocks 2010 winner Spain down to pot 2. There’s a 50/50 chance we’ll see Spain play Germany, France, Argentina or Brazil in the first round, and something close to a zero percent chance the other two teams in that potential quartet will be staying in Russia beyond the group stage.

The permutations obviously are almost endless, but it’s fun to pick through a few of the possibilities. Here are several.

The FIFA ranking group of death

At first glance it looks like the toughest potential group based only on the FIFA ranking would include No. 2 Brazil and No. 8 Spain, and then either No. 19 Denmark and No. 41 Nigeria or No. 22 Costa Rica and No. 38 Serbia, which ranks above only Russia among European participants.

Brazil and Spain met in the 2013 Confederations Cup final—a 3-0 win for the Seleção—and have played each other at five World Cups. The most recent meeting was back in 1986. The group-stage opener ended 1-0 in favor of Brazil.

A real group of death

Argentina is a talented and flawed team. We saw both sides during its qualification run. A genuine group of death needs big names, but no certainties. Argentina fits the bill as the top seed.

Joining them are the top teams in each of the next two spots, Spain and Denmark. Spain, as we’ve seen over the past seven years, can win it all or be the first team eliminated. Denmark’s potential was on display in this week’s demolition of Ireland. Rounding it out is Nigeria, which has players at many of the top European leagues and just beat Argentina on Tuesday.

This is a real group of death. Any team could advance, and any team could stumble and go home.

The bottom of the barrel group

And here’s the worst possible foursome according to the rankings. Russia is the seed everyone else will hope to draw. The hosts are ranked No. 65 in the world. They conceivably could be joined by No. 18 Croatia, No. 32 Senegal and No. 63 Saudi Arabia in a group that won’t excite many neutrals (and that Croatia would win in a walk).

The continental crown group

Germany has won the European Championship a record-tying three times and has appeared in a tournament-high six finals. Pot 2 teams Uruguay (15) and Mexico (10) lead the all-time title race on their respective continents. Egypt has won the most African Cup of Nations crowns (seven) and Japan leads Asia with four championships.

Uruguay edges Mexico on the tiebreaker, so this Confederations Cup tribute group comprises Die Mannschaft, La Celeste, the Pharaohs and the Samurai Blue.

The golden boot group

Robert Lewandowski (16), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (16), Edinson Cavani (10) and Mohamed Salah (5) each led their respective continents in World Cup qualifying goals (Salah and Al-Sahlawi tied for top spot). And they could lead their teams into the same group next summer.

The golden boot group features Lewandowski’s Poland, Cavani’s Uruguay, Salah’s Egypt and Al-Sahlawi’s Saudi Arabia.

It’s worth noting that none of the top 10 CONCACAF scorers will play in the World Cup. That unfortunate list includes Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. No one on Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama scored more than four goals in qualifying.

The drought's over group

A group comprising teams that have had the longest combined wait to play in a World Cup would be topped by Poland, which hasn’t qualified since 2006 and is the only seeded team ending a long wait. They’d be joined by Peru (first since 1982), Iceland and Panama. The latter two are making their maiden appearances.

The Real Madrid group

Members of the current club world champs (and they’ll be favored to repeat in December and hold the crown next summer) can reunite at a World Cup in Russia. It starts, obviously, with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric’s Croatia, Keylor Navas’s Costa Rica and defender Achraf Hakimi’s Morocco round out the foursome.

The Seattle Sounders group

We have to cheat a bit, but a group representing the current (and possible repeat) MLS champs is possible as well. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Sweden’s Gustav Svensson and Panama’s Román Torres all should see time in Russia. Toss in Germany—the native land of former coach Sigi Schmid and the ancestral homeland of current manager Brian Schmetzer—and you have an entertaining Cascadian quartet.

The build on Brazil group

Here’s a group featuring the team in each pot that had the best World Cup performance four years ago. They’ll be hoping for similar next summer. There’s the champion, Germany (pot 1), followed by quarterfinalist Colombia (pot 2), Cinderella quarterfinalist Costa Rica (pot 3) and round-of-16 loser Nigeria (pot 4).

The demographic overachievers group

It’s not about population. The top five most crowded countries in the world have a total of one World Cup semifinal appearance combined, and that was the USA’s run back in 1930 (Brazil ranks sixth, and they’ve done quite well. But the point stands).

Here’s a group with four smaller nations punching above their weight. It starts with Portugal, the European champion, two-time World Cup semifinalist and home to the reigning world player of the year that’s accomplished all that despite having just over 10 million people. Uruguay has won two World Cups and is a consistent producer of top talent with only 3.5 million. Iceland, with just 350,000 inhabitants, now is the least populous team to qualify for a World Cup. And Panama which has made great strides in recent years and become a CONCACAF contender, is the smallest pot 4 nation at around 4 million.

Memorable World Cup hosts group

Twelve countries traveling to Russia will have had the privilege of hosting a previous World Cup, and there are a bunch of ways those 12 could form a group next summer. So to narrow it down, we’ll go with tournaments that are remembered for transcendent individual performances and personalities.

Despite its industrial-strength talent production, France has won only one World Cup. And that title was inspired by the great Zinedine Zidane and came on home soil in 1998. Twelve years earlier, Diego Maradona staked his claim as the sport’s top player with his mesmerizing play in Mexico.

Sweden ’58 served as the planet’s introduction to Pelé. The 17-year-old scored six goals, including two in the final outside Stockholm. And although Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002, it was in Yokohama that Ronaldo escaped the shadow of his 1998 failure and struck twice to lift Brazil to a record fifth title.

American rivals group

The USA won’t be at the World Cup, but there still be rivals to root against if you’re so inclined. The hosts are an obvious choice as the seeded team. Joining the Russians are Mexico—the USA’s great soccer rival—as well long-time geopolitical nemesis and 1998 World Cup foe Iran, and 2026 World Cup bid counterpart Morocco.

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