It’s that time again! There’s a buzz in the air. Even people who don’t regularly follow the leagues have started showing an interest in the game, and the excitement from here will build up to unmatched levels. The most watched sporting spectacle in the world returns for its 21st edition in less than a month so dig out your favourite team and player’s jersey, and get ready to cheer for them.

A total of 32 star-studded teams will be vying for the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Here’s a look at the favourites and the key players hoping to carry their nations deep into the knockout stages.

Germany

Key player: Thomas Müller

Die Mannschaft, as the German national team is often referred to, is one of the most consistent teams in World Cup history. The current defending champions, Germany, have won the World Cup four times and reached the final on another four occasions. The highest and third highest goal scorers in World Cup history are also both German: Miroslav Klose and Gerd Müller, respectively.

Germany’s head coach Joachim Löw revolutionised the national team when he took over in 2006. He brought in young players, and altered the playing style to ensure a smooth, attacking flow to the German game. This resulted in a group of seemingly unknown teenagers reaching the 2010 World Cup semi-finals, and winning the next edition four years later.

In Manuel Neuer, Germany has, arguably, the best goalkeeper in the world. However, Neuer has not played a single minute of competitive football since his foot surgery in September, and is in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup. In defence, Germany will be looking to the Bayern Munich back pairing of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels to provide strength, while the versatile Joshua Kimmich will be tasked to control the flanks.

The German midfield consists of Sami Khedira, Julian Draxler, André Schürrle, Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Mesut özil and Toni Kroos. Need I say more? Up front, Germany possesses Thomas Müller, a wonderful goal scorer with a proven record in World Cups. Müller can also play as a second striker, if Löw wishes to play Mario Gomez as the focal point of the attack.

The FIFA World Cup kicks off on June 14 in Russia. Eos takes a look at some of the favourite teams and the key players on whom their fans and admirers have pinned their hopes

It is often said that the Germans possess a winning mentality when it comes to the big stage. Combining that winning mentality with ability and the hunger to win more, Germany might become the third team to successfully defend their World Cup crown after Italy (1934 and ’38) and Brazil (1958 and ’62).

Brazil

Key player: Neymar Jr

Brazil is the most successful football team of all time, winning the FIFA World Cup a record five times. On its way to glory, Brazil produced some of the greatest players of all time, including Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima and Ronaldinho.

Hoping to emulate those superstars is Neymar Jr, the most expensive football player of all time. Neymar was the key figure in Brazil’s journey in the 2014 World Cup where he helped his nation reach the semi-finals before getting injured. His absence proved to be the turning point in their campaign. They were thumped 7-1 by eventual winners Germany in the semi-finals. Neymar, like Neuer, is also hoping to recover in time for the World Cup, not having played any football since picking up a metatarsal injury in February. However, recent reports indicate that he should recover well in time.

Brazil has an extremely balanced squad, rich with experience and loaded with firepower. Their goalkeeper Alisson Becker is often regarded as one of the finest shot-stoppers in the world. Dani Alves and Marcelo Vieira provide Brazil with one of the best fullback pairings, not only in national teams, but in world football too. Thiago Silva provides the resilience in the centre of the back line.

Brazil, like Germany, is blessed with a number of high quality midfielders such as Oscar, Paulinho, Casemiro, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, Willian and Philippe Coutinho, the second most expensive player of all time. Up front, Neymar has the support of Liverpool

striker Roberto Firmino and Manchester City youngster Gabriel Jesus.

Brazil last won a World Cup in 2002, when Ronaldo inspired them to victory. Should Brazil win the World Cup this year, Neymar will etch his name in Brazilian football folklore alongside his idols.

France

Key player: Antoine Griezmann

If you created a poll and asked which nation has the strongest squad for the World Cup, France would win it quite comfortably.

France have only won the World Cup once, their greatest-ever player Zinedine Zidane helping them beat Brazil in the final of the 1998 edition. They suffered heartbreak in the 2006 final, when Zidane was sent off for that notorious headbutt in extra time.

France’s head coach Didier Deschamps knows what it takes to win on the big stage. He was the captain of France’s greatest ever football team, hoisting the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships. Having been appointed the manager of the national side in 2012, he transformed an ordinary European side into one of the most feared sides in the world, reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the final of the 2016 European Championships in the process.

France have an unparalleled depth in squad when compared to other nations. Their goalkeeper is Hugo Lloris, who has also been their captain since Deschamps took over. In defence, the loss of Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny will not have that big an effect, considering they still have Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Adil Rami, Lucas Digne and Layvin Kurzawa to fill in.

France boasts a wide array of talent in the middle of the park too. Most notable (due to his haircuts, pun intended) is Paul Pogba, the third most expensive player of all time. Other midfielders include Dimitri Payet, Thomas Lemar, Corentin Tolisso, N’Golo Kante, Kingsley Coman and Blaise Matuidi. Leading the line would be Antoine Griezmann, the best player at the 2016 Euros. He will be supported by Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembele and Wissam Ben Yedder. The trump card for France might be their 19-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe, who has caught the world by storm with his skills, pace and composure in front of the goal. He is set to become the second most expensive player ever, once he completes his move to Paris Saint Germain in the summer.

The French squad is not only complete in all aspects, it is extremely young too. With all the energy in the squad, Deschamps will be hoping to make his experience count and steer his troops to success cometh the hour.

Argentina

Key player: Lionel Messi

This might just be Lionel Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup and ensure his place among the greatest players of all time.

Argentina is often regarded as one of the best footballing nations in the world. Despite being slightly overshadowed by neighbours Brazil, Argentina has won two World Cups and produced arguably the greatest player of all time, Diego Maradona.

Argentina’s head coach Jorge Sampaoli was the manager of Chile when they defeated Argentina in the final of the Copa America 2016. He took over the La Albiceleste in June 2017, and helped them qualify for the World Cup with a win over Ecuador in the last round of fixtures.

Argentina have an attack-dominated squad. However, their defence should not be undermined. Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio and Javier Mascherano provide a stable cover for their goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Romero was the star of the penalty shootout against the Netherlands in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup.

Argentina’s midfield and attack is truly mesmerising. With star players such as Angel di Maria, Lucas Biglia, Ever Banega, Javier Pastore, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, Angel Correa and the talismanic Lionel Messi, Sampaoli will have to make some very tough decisions to bring his final squad down to 23 members.

Messi has forever been criticised for not leading his nation to success at the big stage. This is his chance to silence his doubters and win the one trophy that has eluded him throughout his career.

Spain and Belgium

Both Spain and Belgium have a pool of young, talented players who have the potential to make it far. Spain will be captained by Sergio Ramos, their goal will be defended by the current best goalkeeper in the world David De Gea, their midfield will be ticked by Isco and the main goal threat will be coming from Diego Costa.

Belgium, on the other hand, is captained by Eden Hazard. His attacking partner Romelu Lukaku is the all-time leading goal scorer for the country, while central defender Jan Vertonghen is the most capped player. Midfielder Kevin De Bruyne is one of the most influential players in the world. Their goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is also regarded as one of the finest in the world.

Other notable players

Cristiano Ronaldo will be captaining European champions Portugal in what seems like his last chance to lift the World Cup, too.

Luis Suarez will be hoping to make amends for the last World Cup, where he was banned after biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder, and propel Uruguay into the further stages of the tournament.

Mohamed Salah is currently the best player in the world on form. He will be hoping to continue his form with the Pharaohs and help them progress in the competition.

Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane, Sadio Mane and James Rodriguez will all be hoping to play their part in the race for the Golden Boot, and hope their goals help their nations progress to the knockout stages while Christian Eriksen, Luka Modric, Xherdan Shaqiri and Son Heung-Min will also be looking to light up the stadiums in Russia.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 27th, 2018

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