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Cathal Kelly breaks down the strengths, weaknesses and backstory of the countries competing for soccer glory this year


Is it possible to be nostalgic for something before it starts? If so, this World Cup is already making me wistful.

This will be the last tournament played with 32 participating national teams. The next time out, there will 48. Most people can’t name 48 countries.

If 21st-century sports has a theme, it is the melding of two big ideas – that everyone, everywhere has the right to play; and that sports executives can leverage the first idea to make shocking amounts of money. The next World Cup won’t really start until it’s already been going for three weeks. Until then, it’ll be the For-Funsies World Cup.

That makes it even more fun that Canada has made the last (mostly) meritocratic version of this event.

Here at the national newspaper, we assume that once things get under way in Qatar, Canada will be your No. 1 team. But we also get that you’re out of practice. For 40 years, Canadian World Cup aficionados have had to adopt a team. Maybe you do it because you like the players. Maybe you like the uniform. Maybe you don’t know why you like them, but you just do. Maybe you’re still looking for the thrill of illicit geo-athletic fraternization. We get it. As long as Canada Border Services doesn’t find out, it’s harmless.

Maybe you’re partial to the country your grandparents are from. Maybe you’re new to all of this and would like to date as many countries as possible. There are no rules here. As long as you’re not obvious. You’re not obvious, are you? Of course not. You’re a bold iconoclast. Root like one.

Choose a team or group

Americas and Oceania | Argentina | Australia | Brazil | Canada | Costa Rica | Ecuador | Mexico | Uruguay | U.S.

Asia and Africa | Cameroon | Ghana | Iran | Japan | Morocco | Qatar | Senegal | Saudi Arabia | South Korea | Tunisia

Europe | Belgium | Croatia | England | Denmark | France | Germany | Netherlands | Poland | Portugal | Serbia | Switzerland | Wales

World Cup group | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H


Group A

Women in Doha take pictures with La'eeb, Qatar's mascot for the 2022 World Cup.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

Qatar

The host. Only the most committed long-shot artist is picking Qatar. Years ago, the national setup tried luring Pep Guardiola, the world’s most famous soccer coach, to run its side for this tournament. It apparently told him to name his own salary. He still said ‘No.’ That was the first in what will turn out to be a long, uninterrupted series of soccer disappointments for the host nation, and possibly for you.

Ecuador

Can you even find Ecuador on a map? I doubt it. So I’ll give you credit for siding with the little guy. That said, Ecuador is one of those countries which slugs out of its weight class. It made the final 16 at Germany ‘06. Can it win? No. Can it spoil? Probably not. Can it make you seem cosmopolitan? Possibly.

Netherlands

Do you look good in orange? Don’t say anything. I already know the answer. It’s ‘No.’ No one looks good in orange. Unless you were wearing orange the last time around – when the Dutch bombed out of World Cup qualifying – you don’t get to do it now. You’ve been warned, and it’s not as though you’ll be hard to spot.

Senegal

The nickname of the Senegalese football team is Lions of Teranga. How great is that? Not just any lion, but one from Teranga. I don’t know where that is, but it sounds amazing. That’s a good enough reason for me to pull for Senegal. It won the last Africa Cup of Nations, which is impressive. Will probably get out of the group. Probably won’t go much further.


Group B

A banner of England's captain Harry Kane looks out over Doha.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

England

This team is an episode of Coronation Street. You don’t need to know any of the characters, or the history, or what’s going on to appreciate the drama. Just sit back and enjoy the tabloid outrages to come. England is good enough to win this thing. It won’t. Just because. And there will be a lot of garment rending about it.

Iran

Just about the only team that could make the world’s neutral fans consider rooting for America. It doesn’t have any chance, but Iran does present us with the possibility of a bunch of U.S. players answering questions about the Iran-Contra affair with “The Iran what now?”

United States

For 20 years, the U.S. has been just about to break through at a World Cup and turn soccer into a national obsession. Hasn’t happened yet. Won’t happen this time. America is everyone’s hot pick to implode at this thing.

Wales

The Team That Just Wants to Beat England. If results fall just right, Wales versus England as the finale to the Group B round-robin could be the sneaky-great match of this tournament. Wales is definitely worth a look-in for all thwarted republicans.


Group C

A giant-sized Lionel Messi looms over Rosario, the Argentine city where he was born and now owns a mansion.LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Argentina

Are you the sort of person who only asks someone out on a date after you’ve heard through the rumour mill that they like you? That makes you a front runner, meaning Argentina is your dream team. It has Lionel Messi. It’s the betting favourite. Its schedule looks like an easy ride to the semi-finals. Rooting for Argentina out of nowhere is not honourable, but it’s probably smart.

Saudi Arabia

If you decide for whatever odd reason that you want to pull for Saudi Arabia, I’d give the embassy a call. It will probably buy you a jersey. And maybe a Lamborghini.

Mexico

Until definitively proved otherwise, this team is still the class of CONCACAF. The most impressive thing about the Canadian team so far is that it put these guys in the shade. A side well worth cheering for on a subsidiary basis. It’s just continental good manners.

Poland

There is a broad swath of middle-tier teams here. Poland is one of them, but with a difference – Robert Lewandowski. The Barcelona striker was the best pure goal scorer in the world until very recently. This would be the place to reannounce himself. Sweet, front-running pick if you’re looking for a personalized jersey.


Group D

Kylian Mbappé is one of the returning stars of France's winning team from 2018.Francois Mori/The Associated Press

France

Everyone’s talking out loud about how the defending champions have lost it, but does anyone really believe that? No. Last time, I’d have given you credit for picking France, because it’s France. It finds a way to fall to in-fighting. But this time you’re just making the obvious non-obvious choice. Do not be one of those people who appear in their friend group wearing a ‘Mbappé’ jersey with the tags still attached. If you do, you have to keep wearing it until the tournament ends.

Australia

Unfortunately, this one’s off limits. Australia is Canada, if Canada surfed and talked funny and had a national animal that was always fist-fighting humans. You can’t root for anti-Canada. It’s against the laws of national physics. If you’re Australian, then sorry. There’s no second part to that idea. I’m just sorry.

Denmark

Thrower of the greatest curveball in international soccer history. In 1992, Denmark failed to qualify for the European Championship. Then Yugoslavia was banned from the tournament. Denmark sneaked in and won the whole thing. Could it do it again here? No. It can’t. But it is the hipster’s dark horse to spoil things for bigger teams.

Tunisia

I have no strong feelings about Tunisia’s chances, but I would really love it if it sucker-punched France in the final game in Group D. Send Tunisia my fondest regards and wish it luck in all future soccer endeavours.


Group E

Spain's Sergio Busquets plays in Palma de Mallorca. The Spanish team is emerging from one of the periodic slumps in its World Cup history.JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images

Spain

The global roller-coaster team – it is either totally screwing things up, or running things dynastically. Currently, we are emerging from one of Spain’s historic troughs. If you’re going to be mercenary about it, this is the best cool-kid choice. Good enough that you look like you know what you’re doing, but not so obvious that you look like you just knocked the driver of the bandwagon over.

Costa Rica

The proletariat of international soccer teams. A grinding, workaday side best known around these parts for not being very well known around these parts. It could use the support.

Germany

Are you that guy? That guy who knows it all because he never takes a risk? Then you might be a Germany man. A Germany man isn’t German, but knows that rooting for Germany makes him look steady and sensible. Like wearing clogs. If you would be the clogs of sports fans, root for Germany.

Japan

A country that loves soccer this much ought to be better at soccer. Maybe this is that moment. Group E is a consensus group – no one thinks anybody but Spain and Germany are getting out of this one. Buck that trend. Vote Japan. You won’t look stupid if you’re wrong, but you will look like Nostradamus if you’re right.


Group F

Belgium's Axel Witsel trains in Bruges. Besting the Belgians will be an important early test for Canada's chances in Qatar.BRUNO FAHY/AFP via Getty Images

Belgium

Mostly harmless. Until it got in our way. Belgium isn’t the key to Canada’s group-stage fortunes – that would be Croatia. But it is the opportunity. If Canada can get a draw with these guys in its opening match, then it’s for real. You’d have to be a real contrary so-and-so to walk into a bar in Montreal or Toronto wearing a Belgium jersey on Nov. 23. Which is why I urge you to do so.

Canada

The greatest soccer team that is, was or ever will be. For as long as it is not playing Belgium in its opening game, we can all continue to believe that.

Morocco

The forgotten team in Group F, and for good reason. Does it have a chance? No. Should you take a chance on it? No. Does everybody deserve a chance? No. We can play this game all day long.

Croatia

Until fairly recently, the consensus was that Croatia peaked in the last World Cup, and was coasting on old, tired legs. It hasn’t looked that way in the past little while. Its level is still among the world’s best. Always a fun team to get on board with, but just know that pulling for it means hastening Canada’s World Cup doom. A great choice for the old ‘the team that beat my team is my new team’ gambit.


Group G

Brazil has won the World Cup five times before, more than any country. The last time was in 2002.MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil

In a sensible world, we would send language police out on the street during the World Cup. Wearing a Brazil jersey? Okay, translate O Canada into Portuguese for me. Can’t do it? Sorry, pal. We’re taking you to Soccer Jail. You’ll be released once you can come up with the names of just three players on the 1970 Brazil team. So you might be there for a while.

Switzerland

If there is such a thing as a median soccer team, Switzerland is it. Good, but not great. Fun, but not exciting. Guaranteed to try its very best every time out, but will never do something truly unexpected. The porridge of soccer teams. Everyone likes porridge. But does anyone love porridge?

Serbia

If you had to pick one potential surprise package for this tournament, Serbia would probably be it. I’m not sure about a sleeping giant, but certainly a sleeping very tall person. Also, great uniforms, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Cameroon

One great, underdog performance in a World Cup long past has made Cameroon everyone’s second-favourite team. It doesn’t have much of a shot here, but if you’ve ever pulled for it, it’s contingent on you to continue to do so now. It’s the right thing.


Group H

This World Cup might be Cristiano Ronaldo's final one, and Portugal, which has never won the event before, hopes to make it count.Pedro Nunes/Reuters

Portugal

This one’s easy. How do you feel about Cristiano Ronaldo? Do you think he’s a brilliant, mesmerizingly narcissistic superman intent on aggrandizing himself no matter how that affects his team, who’s just now starting to get on the wrong side of the hill? Or do you think he’s all those things minus the hill bit? If the former, then you can’t help yourself, can you?

Ghana

Group H is a weird one. Based on recent results, there isn’t much distance between the team likely to finish first and the one you’d guess at fourth. On paper, Ghana doesn’t have much of a chance. But they don’t play the games on paper. If they did, I’d be better at them.

Uruguay

I once took a couple of shots at Uruguay in a newspaper column and it turned into a minor international incident. So for legal reasons, I think these guys are swell.

South Korea

The established powerhouse of Asia hasn’t looked so hot in recent months. But it has the most elite individual talent in this group – Tottenham’s Son Heung-min. When in doubt, always root for the team with the most electric game-breaker in the side.

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