From Russia with love: 2018 World Cup preview

Senegal’s Moussa Sow, center, and teammate Sadio Mane, right, in action with Zimbabwe’s Elisha Muroiwa, left, during the African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match between Senegal and Zimbabwe at Stade de Franceville Stadium in Franceville, Gabon. Mane, who left a rural village in southern Senegal as a teenager to find international stardom in Europe, hopes to defy the odds again at the World Cup in Russia. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

Senegal’s Moussa Sow, center, and teammate Sadio Mane, right, in action with Zimbabwe’s Elisha Muroiwa, left, during the African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match between Senegal and Zimbabwe at Stade de Franceville Stadium in Franceville, Gabon. Mane, who left a rural village in southern Senegal as a teenager to find international stardom in Europe, hopes to defy the odds again at the World Cup in Russia. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

OK so, yes, the USA, Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, Ireland and Ghana won’t be there but there’s still plenty of teams to watch in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Plus what else are you going to do during the day on weekdays?

The matches will be on Fox and Fox Sports 1 and streamed on the Fox Sports Go. The 32-team tournament kicks off on Thursday at 8 a.m. on Fox when Russia host Saudi Arabia.

Group A

Russia

Not much is expected from Trump’s team. The Sbornaya are hoping to avoid being only the second host – and the first European host — to get knocked out in the first round.

FIFA ranking: 70

World Cup history: 10 appearances

Best finish: Fourth (1966 (as USSR))

Saudi Arabia

The Al Sogour Al Akhdar (The Green Falcons) return to the World Cup after a 12 year absence. Their head coach is Spaniard Juan Antonio Pizzi who led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title but didn’t qualify for the World Cup.

FIFA ranking: 67

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Round of 16 (1994)

Egypt

After playing like a Pharaoh this season, Mohamed Salah suffered a shoulder ligament injury in last month’s UEFA Champions League final. Salah is expected to be fit for the first match against Uruguay but the Egyptians’ hopes rest on his shoulder.

FIFA ranking: 45

World Cup history: Two appearances

Best finish: First round

Uruguay

With an easy group, Uruguay is expected to easily make it to the knockout phase. There it gets tricky as La Celeste (The Sky Blue) will likely have to face Portugal or Spain in the round of 16.

FIFA ranking: 14

World Cup history: 12 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1930, 1950)

Group B

Portugal

The defending European champions look to win their second major tournament in a row. Defending world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo scored 44 goals in 44 games in the 2017-18 club season.

FIFA ranking: 4

World Cup history: Six appearances

Best finish: Third place (1966)

Spain

After the disappointing 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros, La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) looks to make a deep run in Russia. After Italy knocked Spain out in 2016, the Spaniards beat the Italians 3-0 in World Cup qualifying in September.

FIFA ranking: 10

World Cup history: 14 appearances

Best finish: Champions (2010)

Morocco

The Atlas Lions return to the World Cup after a 20-year absence. It will be tough for them to escape the Iberian dominated group but they could beat out the Canada/USA/Mexico bid to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be awarded on Wednesday.

FIFA ranking: 41

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Round of 16 (1986)

Iran

The Shirane Pars (The Lions of Persia) became the first Asian team to qualify. They are led by Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz. Iran and Portugal play in the all important third group stage game.

FIFA ranking: 37

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: First round

Group C

France

Les Bleus head east hungry after their shock loss at home to Portugal in the 2016 European Championship final. Once again France enters a major tournament as a major favorite.

FIFA ranking: 7

World Cup history: 14 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1998)

Australia

Since moving to the Asian confederation from Oceania in 2006, the Socceroos have become a fixture in the tournament. Surprisingly, their head coach Ange Postecoglo resigned right after leading the Aussies to the tournament.

FIFA ranking: 36

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Round of 16 (2006)

Peru

Los Incas surprisingly edged defending Copa America champion Chile in the brutal South American qualifying campaign. They then beat New Zealand 2-0 on aggregate to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982.

FIFA ranking: 11

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1978)

Denmark

Christian Eriksen leads the way for the Danish Dynamite. Only Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo scored more goals in qualifying than Eriksen’s 11.

FIFA ranking: 12

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (1998)

Group D

Argentina

After second place finishes in the 2014 World Cup and the last two Copa Americas is the tournament where La Albiceleste (White and Sky Blues) finally breaks through? Lionel Messi has the talent to carry Argentina like LeBron James did the Cavaliers.

FIFA ranking: 5

World Cup history: 16 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1978, 1986)

Iceland

With a population of about 335,000, Strakamir Okkar (Our Boys) are the smallest country to ever make the World Cup. The previous smallest was Trinidad and Tobago (1.3 million) in 2006.

FIFA ranking: 22

World Cup history: First appearance

Best finish: N/A

Croatia

Real Madrid star Luka Modric leads the way for Vatreni (The Blazers). Plus the Croats have those cool checkerboard uniforms.

FIFA ranking: 20

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Third place (1998)

Nigeria

Speaking of nice looking uniforms, The Super Eagles’ kit are so popular that they’re selling out according to reports. On the pitch, Nigeria has made it two the second round in three of their five World Cup appearances.

FIFA ranking: 48

World Cup history: Five appearances

Best finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)

Group E

Brazil

Selecao appears to have recovered from that 7-1 nightmare loss to Germany in Brazil 2014 and head to Russia as one of the favorites. They’ve won five World Cups, the most by any country’ Germany and Italy are in second with four apiece.

FIFA ranking: 2

World Cup history: 20 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)

Switzerland

Rossocrociati (The Red Crusaders) are expected to make a deep run in the tournament. Arsenal star Granit Xhaka is the can’t miss player for the Swiss.

FIFA ranking: 6

World Cup history: 10 appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)

Costa Rica

Los Ticos will look to repeat their shocking 2014 World Cup, where they won a group with Uruguay, Italy and England and then made it to the quarters. They upset the United States twice during qualifying to keep the Yanks at home.

FIFA ranking: 23

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (2014)

Serbia

Orlovi (The Eagles) look to make up for a disappointing 2010 World Cup and missing the Brazil edition. They topped their group, edging Wales and Ireland, who made it to the Euro 2016 semifinals and round of 16 respectively.

FIFA ranking: 34

World Cup history: 11 appearances

Best finish: Fourth place (1930, 1962 (as Yugoslavia))

Group F

Germany

The loaded Die Mannschaft (The Team) goes to Russia looking to become the first back-to-back World Cup champions since Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Italy in 1934 and 1938 is the only other repeat champion.

FIFA ranking: 1

World Cup history: 18 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990 (as West Germany), 2014)

Mexico

After struggling to qualify for Brazil 2014, El Tri finished first in their confederation this time around. Mexico fans dream of “el quinto partido,” reaching the fifth game, the quarterfinals, for the first time outside of Mexico but in the second round they’d likely face Brazil.

FIFA ranking: 15

World Cup history: 15 appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)

Sweden

Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s most famous player, Blagult (The Blue and Yellows) qualified for the World Cup, beating Italy over two legs in the qualification playoff. Maybe Sweden is better without the Zlatan?

FIFA ranking: 24

World Cup history: 11 appearances

Best finish: Runners up (1958)

South Korea

Led by Ki Sung-yueng of Swansea, the Asian Tigers will look to replicate the success South Korea had the last time in the World Cup was this far east. They reached the semifinals in Korea/Japan 2002.

FIFA ranking: 57

World Cup history: Nine appearances

Best finish: Fourth place (2002)

Group G

Belgium

With loads of talent, Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) comes in as one of the favorites. The Belgians are led by former premier league manager and 2010 and 2014 ESPN analyst Roberto Martinez

FIFA ranking: 3

World Cup history: 12 appearances

Best finish: Fourth place (1986)

Panama

After getting so close, Marea Roja (The Red Tide) finally made the World Cup. Last qualifying cycle Panama gave up two late goals to the already qualified USA in their last game to get knocked out and send Mexico to the intercontinental playoff with New Zealand.

FIFA ranking: 55

World Cup history: First appearance

Best finish: N/A

Tunisia

After a 12-year absence, Tunisia returns to the World Cup. In 1978 they became the first African team to win a game at the World Cup.

FIFA ranking: 21

World Cup history: Four appearances

Best finish: First round

England

After England surprising lost the rights to host this World Cup (along with the USA some how losing the 2022 tourney to Qatar) the Three Lions easily qualified for Russia 2018. Striker Harry Kane is one of the best players in the world.

FIFA ranking: 12

World Cup history: 14 appearances

Best finish: Champions (1966)

Group H

Poland

Polskie Orly (The Polish Eagles) is a high scoring squad, they averaged almost three goals a game in qualifying, but they also gave up the most of any European group winner. Lewandowski led the way with 16 goals in 10 appearances in the Poles’ qualifying campaign.

FIFA ranking: 8

World Cup history: Seven appearances

Best finish: Third place (1974, 1982)

Senegal

Les Lions de la Teranga (The Lions of Teranga) return to the World Cup for the first time since 2002 when they opened the tournament with an upset of their former colonial masters France. Les Bleus were the defending champions and Senegal beat Sweden in the Round of 16.

FIFA ranking: 27

World Cup history: One appearance

Best finish: Quarterfinals (2002)

Colombia

In 2014 James Rodriguez led the tournament in scoring and Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) to the quarterfinals. After rotting on the bench at Real Madrid for years since the World Cup in Brazil, he moved to Bayern Munich this past club season and looks ready to light up the score sheet again.

FIFA ranking: 16

World Cup history: Five appearances

Best finish: Quarterfinals (2014)

Japan

The Samurai Blue qualified for their sixth World Cup in a row after debuting at France 1998. However in April Japan fired head coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

FIFA ranking: 61

World Cup history: Five appearances

Best finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)

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