The draw for the eight groups in Russia 2018 will be made on Friday – and this is how each team is shaping up. Bring it on!
FIFA ranking: 65
Awarded the right to host this tournament eight years ago, Russia have had plenty of time to prepare… but failed miserably. The current squad doesn’t look capable of having a decent run. After the fiasco of Euro 2016 they failed to make it out of their group at the Confederations Cup on home soil, having lost to Portugal and Mexico.
Veteran defenders Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich have retired at an unfortunate time; the fact that a Brazilian (Mario Fernandes) and a Russian-born German (Konstantin Rausch) are likely to be starters say a lot. There are some interesting young names in midfield, though – especially Aleksandr Golovin and Daler Kuzyayev, who could become a revelation.
Key player: Igor Akinfeev
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper is the only top-class star in the squad – the captain and the ultimate leader – but even he isn’t popular with all the fans. Akinfeev made two costly blunders in the games against South Korea and Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, and was at fault again against Mexico at the Confederations Cup. Can he avoid such a fate this time?
FIFA ranking: 1
The world champions qualified with a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 matches, scoring 43 goals and conceding just four. Joachim Low – technically in charge since 2004 (he was the real coach even in Jurgen Klinsmann’s days) – managed to rejuvenate the squad, with experienced stars like Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Sami Khedira ably helped by the rising generation led by Leroy Sane, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner.
The team is balanced and its depth is truly remarkable, which makes dreams of winning a fifth World Cup very realistic.
Key player: Thomas Muller
The top scorer of World Cup 2010 is experiencing a difficult period that started back at Euro 2016. Muller only scored nine goals in all competitions for Bayern Munich during the 2016/17 season, but his leadership and versatility are still crucial for the national team, and he is a certain starter for Low. A lot could depend on his form.
FIFA ranking: 2
Seemingly in deep trouble going into the summer of 2016, the Seleção have completely turned their situation around since Tite replaced Dunga on the bench. The coach not only led the team to nine wins in a row which paved the way to Russia, but also brought back the passion and authentic Brazilian style.
The fans are euphoric, and there are high hopes of winning the trophy in Russia to erase the painful memories at home in 2014. The starting line-up has been very stable under Tite, with Gabriel Jesus, Paulinho and Renato Augusto all playing crucial roles alongside Neymar.
Key player: Neymar
The burden on the €222m man has eased somewhat after Brazil won gold at the 2016 Olympics, and he is treated smartly by Tite who tries to push him. The team was too dependant on Neymar in 2014, and his injury led to the 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semi-finals. He’s still the most important player now, but sharing responsibilities with team-mates is good for him.
FIFA ranking: 3
The European champions feel like they are unearthing the new golden generation to help Cristiano Ronaldo. Young stars like Goncalo Guedes, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva are joining the ones who rather fortunately triumphed at Euro 2016, and manager Fernando Santos has a lot of quality midfield options at his disposal.
Portugal topped a rather easy group in qualifying with nine wins from 10 matches, but the real test still awaits them. Some of the players, though – most notably Joao Mario and Raphael Guerreiro – aren’t in top form at the moment. On top of this, the central defence is overly dependent on the ageing Pepe.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Who else? Having one of the best players in history is a massive advantage, but the Real Madrid superstar – scorer of 79 goals in 147 matches for Portugal – can be a bit too selfish at times. He’ll be 33 next summer, and this could be his last chance to shine at the World Cup. You’d hope that he will be willing to share the spotlight with team-mates, nevertheless.
FIFA ranking: 4
La Albiceleste were expected to stroll through qualifying but found life extremely difficult, were managed by three different coaches and eventually only made certain of their place in Russia on the final matchday, winning 3-1 in Ecuador.
Incredibly for a country with countless top-class strikers, they had the second-worst attacking record in South America – and the worst at home with just nine goals in nine matches. It remains to be seen who will partner Lionel Messi at the tournament, but Paulo Dybala is seemingly destined for the bench and Gonzalo Higuain might be discarded altogether.
With question marks hovering over the quality in defence and midfield, hopes are low – but isn’t that somewhat reminiscent of Brazil going into the 2002 World Cup?
Key player: Lionel Messi
Simply, Argentina wouldn’t have made it to this tournament without the Barcelona superstar. Messi – who temporarily retired from the national team after losing in the 2016 Copa America Final – scored seven goals in the qualifiers, including the crucial hat-trick in Ecuador. This will be a fourth World Cup for the 30-year-old genius – but can he finally win a title for his country? It’s the only trinket missing from a glorious career… but a big one.
FIFA ranking: 5
This is Belgium’s golden generation; the most talented crop of players the country has ever had. They have outrageous quality in every department, with Thibaut Courtois in goal, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in defence, Kevin De Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan and Eden Hazard in midfield, plus Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens up front.
The Red Devils easily qualified ahead of Greece and Bosnia, but it remains to be seen whether their Spanish coach Roberto Martinez is able to help his players fulfil their potential when it matters most. Marc Wilmots failed to do so at Euro 2016, and question marks remain about the current man in charge too – especially because of his conflict with Nainggolan. Absurdly, the Roma star is in danger of being left out of the squad.
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne
Pep Guardiola considers him the complete midfielder, and the Manchester City star has been in astonishing form in the Premier League this season. His passing range is stupendous, and the age of 26 he could one day prove capable of winning Ballon d’Or (after Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exit the stage, of course).
FIFA ranking: 7
The Poles can be considered dark horses of this World Cup, aiming to bring back the glory days of 1974 and 1982. They had a very positive experience at Euro 2016, going out unbeaten after penalty shootout defeat to Portugal in the quarter-finals – and that despite Robert Lewandowski having a quiet tournament.
If their star striker explodes, he will enjoy help from an able ensemble of team-mates. Experienced defenders Kamil Glik and Lukasz Piszczek are completed by youthful midfield stars Piotr Zielinski and Karol Linetty. Adam Nawalka is a popular coach, and the team won’t lack support as thousands of fans are expected to make a short trip to Russia.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski
The Bayern Munich superstar was supreme in the qualifiers, playing every minute and topping the scoring charts with 16 goals as Poland finished above Denmark, Montenegro and Romania. The striker has netted 30 Bundesliga goals in each of the previous two seasons, and is already the most prolific scorer in national team history. He can make his legacy immortal at his first World Cup.
FIFA ranking: 9
The Euro 2016 hosts enjoy an embarrassment of riches in almost every department, and coach Didier Deschamps could easily take two different, decent 23-man squads to Russia.
With such an incredible number of stars, finding the right balance is the main task; France weren’t always up to it during a qualifying campaign which included a bizarre goalless draw at home to Luxembourg. Les Bleus must try not to put too much pressure on the most watched stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, and play as a coherent unit in order to fulfil their enormous potential in Russia.
Key player: N’Golo Kante
The diminutive midfield warrior led Leicester to the sensational Premier League triumph in 2016, and won the title with Chelsea in 2017 too. Pogba and Griezmann are usually under the spotlight, but the master of interceptions and distribution could be the most important cog in Deschamps’ blue machine. Failure to use him properly at Euro 2016 was costly for Deschamps, who benched Kante in the final and lost.
FIFA ranking: 6
Spain were tipped to struggle by some after failing at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, but Julen Lopetegui proved to be successful after replacing Vicente del Bosque as coach. La Roja thrashed Italy 3-0 at home in the qualifiers to finish above them, easily topping the group.
The experience of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Sergio Busquets is completed by several young talents, most notably Isco and new Real Madrid sensation Marco Asensio. Spain are strong in every department, with David De Gea in goal and potential top scorer Alvaro Morata up front. Understandably, they have strong hopes of reclaiming the crown they won in 2010.
Key player: Andres Iniesta
This is likely to be a last tournament for the 33-year-old maestro who scored the 2010 final’s winning goal against Holland. The midfield genius rarely finds the net these days, and his fitness could become a concern, but his ability to dictate the tempo and lead by example is still crucial for Spain.
FIFA ranking: 11
The big sensation of South America: Peru finished above Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982 via a play-off against New Zealand. The Peruvians don’t have big names in their squad, but their Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca proved to be a brilliant tactician and great motivator, who’s not afraid to play open football against superior opposition.
Led by lifelong friends Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan in attack, Peru are disciplined at the back as well, with veteran captain Alberto Rodriguez calling the shots. History has been made already, and a good show in Russia would be a bonus.
Key player: Paolo Guerrero
The former Bayern Munich and Hamburg striker has been in top form for Flamengo in recent years. He also netted five times in the qualifiers, and is the leading scorer in national team history with 32 goals. Guerrero failed a drug test and missed the games against New Zealand, but is likely to be cleared and eligible for the tournament.
FIFA ranking: 8
The Swiss have qualified for their fourth World Cup in a row, after a relatively straightforward path. They finished second in their group behind Portugal with nine win from 10 matches in a weak group, then overcame Northern Ireland in the play-offs thanks to an extremely debatable penalty.
It remains to be seen if they have enough on the big stage, but the potential is there. Coach Vladimir Petkovic has experienced stars like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka helped by young talents, most notably midfielder Denis Zakaria and striker Breel Embolo. Having three good Bundesliga goalkeepers in the squad is helpful as well.
Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri
The winger was once expected to become one of the best players of his generation, but ultimately failed after disappointing spells at Bayern Munich and Inter. He feels better at Stoke, and while he’s still wildly inconsistent, the 26-year-old does show glimpses of sheer brilliance – like the magnificent goal against Poland at Euro 2016. Expect him to provide a touch of the unexpected in Russia too.
FIFA ranking: 15
The big tournament humiliation specialists have at least mastered the art of qualifying. Aided by an easy group, England remained unbeaten as they cruised to a sixth consecutive World Cup.
Positives are a prolific spearhead up top, as well as dynamic young attackers such as Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. Problems lie at the back – gone are the days when Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry and Jamie Carragher were battling for two central defensive spots – plus the old issue that a team which looks good on paper rarely does the job on grass. The Three Lions at least showed grit in friendly draws with Brazil and Germany – so can they display that steel in Russia?
Key player: Harry Kane
The 6ft 2in Tottenham striker gets goals of all types in the Premier League, and now the Champions League too. Kane scored 31, 28 and 35 league goals in his last three seasons respectively, and has 16 goals in 18 games already in 2017/18. Unlikely to be taking corners in Russia, though.
FIFA ranking: 13
Los Cafeteros weren’t as exciting as expected during the qualifiers, and only scored 21 goals in 18 matches. They secured fourth place on the last matchday, having won just twice in the last nine fixtures to make the position of their Argentine manager Jose Pekerman insecure.
James Rodriguez failed to shine on a consistent basis, partly because of his club troubles at Real Madrid. But he wasn’t the only one – goalkeeper David Ospina’s form suffered while he sat on Arsenal’s bench and he made significant errors. Things aren’t looking particularly bright, but young players like Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez could come to the fore in Russia.
Key player: Radamel Falcao
Having painfully missed out on the World Cup in 2014 because of a knee injury, ‘El Tigre’ has finally put his career back on track at Monaco. The national team captain scored 21 goals in Ligue 1 last season and has netted 13 in 10 fixtures this term. He is definitely ready for the first World Cup of his career.
FIFA ranking: 16
El Tri struggled mightily and were lucky to qualify for the 2014 World Cup – but there were no such issues this time. Fans were glad to sail through and witness arch rivals United States’ spectacular failure. The Mexicans gambled on Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio in 2015 after Miguel Herrera was fired for attacking a journalist, and it proved to be an inspired choice.
The national team is calmer these days, and can probably go further than the second round – the hurdle that has proved to be too high at six World Cups in a row. Javier Hernandez will have to be in form for that dream to come true, though.
Key player: Andres Guardado
The veteran 31-year-old midfield stalwart has 142 caps under his belt and is going to his fourth World Cup. The captain and true leader, he is only playing for Real Betis these days but his all-round qualities are absolutely crucial for the national team.
FIFA ranking: 21
Spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans were the second-highest scoring team in South American qualifiers behind Brazil with 32 goals, and never really in serious danger of missing out.
Oscar Tabarez, in charge since 2006, will be the longest-serving coach at the tournament and enjoy his fourth World Cup – the 71-year-old veteran was also in charge way back in 1990. Having guided La Celeste to the semi-finals in 2010, he is hoping to do at least the same in Russia with a balanced an experienced squad, led by captain Diego Godin – famous for his never-say-die attitude.
Key player: Luis Suarez
Suarez became famous for handling the ball on the line in the quarter-final against Ghana in 2010. The 2014 World Cup ended early for him when he took a bite of Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. He was a star for Liverpool back then but his status grew immensely at Barcelona, for whom he has scored 126 goals in 163 matches. Now he aspires to make only positive headlines at his third World Cup.
FIFA ranking: 17
Not helped by bad blood between fans and FA, and influenced by politics behind the scenes, this talented squad isn’t always able to deliver. The Croats only finished second behind Iceland in the group; luckily, they were drawn against Greece in the play-offs and new coach Zlatko Dalic – who has no high-level experience whatsoever – celebrated after the 4-1 aggregate win.
The midfield and attack look fabulous on paper, with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic complementing each other well. But there are question marks about the defence, and the pressure might be too much.
Key player: Luka Modric
The 32-year-old veteran has sparkled for Real Madrid in recent seasons – a key midfield performer in a side winning two Champions League trophies in a row. He’s now widely considered one of the best players in the world in his position. Modric isn’t always popular in his homeland because of political issues, mind you.
FIFA ranking: 12
Having missed out on the previous two major tournaments, the Danes recovered under the guidance of the wily Norwegian coach Age Hareide. They finished second in their group behind Poland and overcame the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs with an emphatic 5-1 triumph in Dublin.
In Christian Eriksen, they have the first real world-class Danish star of the new millennium, and he is ably helped by a blend of experienced and young players. With Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Simon Kjaer in central defence and Thomas Delaney in central midfield, they have a solid backbone. Meanwhile, the likes of Pione Sisto are expected to provide speed and trickery.
Key player: Christian Eriksen
The Tottenham star scored 11 goals from midfield in qualifying, including a majestic hat-trick in Dublin. He’s undoubtedly the best Danish player since Michael Laudrup, and Hareide gave him the confidence to lead the nation. He was still too young to make a mark at the 2010 World Cup as an 18-year-old, but that experience could be important for him this time nonetheless.
FIFA ranking: 22
After starring at Euro 2016 and reaching the quarter-finals at the expense of England, Iceland became the smallest country (by population) ever to qualify for the World Cup, finishing top of a tough group ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.
Swedish coach Lars Lagerback might have left after the adventure in France, but Heimir Hallgrimsson – who worked alongside him – proved a worthy successor in his own right. There are few big names in the squad, but the team works perfectly as a unit, and their self confidence is sky high. Expect their magnificent fans to make a lot of headlines too.
Key player: Gylfi Sigurdsson
The playmaker is struggling to find his feet at Everton after a big transfer from Swansea, but Icelandic fans hope that he will be in top form come summer. Intelligent, blessed with magnificent vision and a dead-ball specialist, Sigurdsson is the main source of creativity. Iceland wouldn’t be the same without him.
FIFA ranking: 26
Los Ticos stunned the world in 2014 by beating Italy, Uruguay and Greece to qualify for the quarter-finals with some organised and tactically smart football. They can be expected to be very dangerous again, as the squad is experienced and confident under manager Oscar Ramirez.
Costa Rica’s most famous star is the Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but the contributions of Deportivo La Coruna midfielder Celso Borges and Sporting star Bryan Ruiz shouldn’t be overlooked – both have more than 100 caps to their names. Joel Campbell, the eternal Arsenal loanee, would love to prove Arsene Wenger wrong again, as he did in Brazil.
Key player: Keylor Navas
The most high-profile player in the history of his nation, Navas is a starter for a Madrid side that won two Champions League trophies in a row. He was absolutely phenomenal at the 2014 World Cup, conceding just two goals in five matches (and one of those was a penalty). Could he possibly repeat that?
FIFA ranking: 18
Having failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and 2014, Sweden proved that they are more efficient without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The superstar retired after Euro 2016, but new coach Janne Andersson built a tight unit that functions much better when all of the players feel equal.
They finished ahead of Holland to qualify for the play-offs, then made huge headlines by throwing out Italy after keeping a clean sheet against them for 180 minutes. Highly organised tactically, they are not expected to shine brightly but opponents will find life difficult against them. The squad lacks depths, though, and injuries could prove crucial.
Key player: Emil Forsberg
The playmaker has flourished for the national team after Ibrahimovic left, and his shy smile is the new face of Sweden. He topped the Bundesliga charts with a ludicrous 21 assists in 2016/17, and has started the current season in spectacular fashion as well. RB Leipzig are unwilling to sell, but a big show in Russia could lead to an offer they won’t be able to refuse.
FIFA ranking: 27
Manager Nabil Maaloul replaced Henryk Kasperczak in April and became the second Tunisian coach in history to lead his country to a World Cup. This has been a rather local success, with numerous players plying their trade for the top Tunisian clubs, Esperance and Etoile du Sahel.
Tunisia overcame the strong challenge of DR Congo in the group stage of African qualifiers, largely thanks to the dramatic 2-2 draw in Kinshasa in September, but the squad doesn’t look strong enough. Efforts to lure France-born Sevilla striker Wissam Ben Yedder proved to be fruitless, and Tunisia will do very well to record their first World Cup win since 1978.
Key player: Wahbi Khazri
The talented Corsican decided to represent the country of his parents, and his experience could be crucial in Russia. Having spent two difficult seasons at Sunderland, he is now trying to put his career back on track on loan at Rennes. Unstable, but capable of producing magic.
FIFA ranking: 31
As far as the World Cup was concerned, Egypt were the perennial losers of Africa who always failed to make it through the qualifiers. Their last tournament was back in 1990, but now they’re back – largely thanks to the coach who was once branded a loser himself, the Argentine Hector Cuper.
The Pharaohs were lucky that Ghana experienced a major crisis during qualifying, and now goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary hopes to make incredible history and play at the World Cup aged 45 next summer. Stoke starlet Ramadan Sobhi wasn’t even born when the legendary custodian made his debut for the national team back in 1996.
Key player: Mohamed Salah
Arguably his continent’s brightest superstar at the moment, the 25-year-old is also the most expensive African player in history – yet still a Liverpool transfer bargain. He has been outstanding since arriving at Anfield from Roma for £35m in the summer, and he’s been magnificent for his country as well, scoring five goals in five qualifiers. A true leader, passionate and dedicated, Salah is capable of taking the Pharaohs far.
FIFA ranking: 23
Aliou Cisse captained Senegal at their only previous World Cup appearance in 2002, when they sensationally beat France in the tournament’s opening game and went on to reach the quarter-finals, unluckily losing to Turkey in extra-time. They were hugely popular with neutral fans those days, and that’s likely to be the case in Russia as well – Cisse is now the charismatic coach who leads a bunch of talented players.
The Lions of Teranga strolled through a tough group in the qualifiers, taking 14 points in six matches against South Africa, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. They are optimistic of springing a shock in Russia.
Key player: Cheikhou Kouyate
The West Ham stalwart is the captain of Senegal, at the very heart of everything the team does. Experienced and passionate, he is the leader in midfield and can easily play in central defence as well if needed. His physical presence is immense, but his technical abilities are underrated and he’s set to show that in Russia.
FIFA ranking: 32
Stability is the key word for the Iranians, with Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz having kept the job since 2011. He built a tough and disciplined outfit for the previous World Cup in Brazil, where Team Melli very nearly frustrated Argentina before Leo Messi scored the injury-time winner.
Nothing much has changed, in that their defence is still their strongest quality: Iran didn’t concede a single goal at the last stage of the qualifiers before a place in Russia was assured. Further forward they have several flair players, and managed to lure the Sweden-born Saman Ghoddos this year to widen their options in attack.
Key player: Sardar Azmoun
The lanky 22-year-old has an incredible scoring record for his country with 22 goals in 30 games – and half of them came during the qualifiers. Azmoun has been nurtured in Russia by Kurban Berdyev, who guided him at Rubin Kazan, Rostov and now Rubin again. His recent club form is poor, though, and that’s a major point for concern.
FIFA ranking: 37
The Serbs had failed to qualify for the previous three major tournaments, but ended that period of underachievement and topped a rather even group ahead of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria. They have a balanced squad with experienced leaders calling the shots, especially captain Branislav Ivanovic, left-back Aleksandar Kolarov and midfield stalwart Nemanja Matic.
The young generation is impressive too, most notably the Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who has been finally called up. However, Serbia’s FA is definitely not up to scratch and the decision to part ways with Slavoljub Muslin, the coach who led the team throughout qualifying, without a successor ready to takeover was truly bizarre.
Key player: Dusan Tadic
The 29-year-old Southampton playmaker was hugely influential during the qualifiers, contributing four goals and seven assists. Magically two-footed and inventive, he is a dead-ball specialist as well, and most of Serbia’s attacking moves go through him. He can be unstoppable when on song, and should thoroughly enjoy the first major tournament of his career.
FIFA ranking: 50
The Super Eagles have only missed one World Cup tournament since 1994, and they overcame a very difficult draw on paper to make it through again this time. Eliminating African champions Cameroon and heavily favoured Algeria with ease, the team led by experienced German coach Gernot Rohr could be dangerous opponents in Russia.
The squad should be quite youthful, with rising stars like Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi likely to shine. Players like Ahmed Musa (25) and Victor Moses (26) feel like veterans in comparison. Defence has always been the biggest problem for Nigeria, though, and it looks a bit thin again.
Key player: John Obi Mikel
The former Chelsea midfielder is plying his trade in China now, and there’s a feeling that he’s past his best – but that’s wrong. For Nigeria he’s not only the captain, but also the main source of improvisation as a playmaker – a role that would have been unthinkable at Stamford Bridge. He is the ultimate leader as well, and at the age of 31 next summer, is still capable of dominating games.
FIFA ranking: 39
The Socceroos are going through a rough spell, and had problems qualifying for their fourth World Cup tournament in a row – even embarrassingly drawing with Thailand in the process. Having finished behind Japan and Saudi Arabia, they had to overcome Syria and Honduras in the play-offs.
Coach Ange Postecoglou then chose to resign, probably feeling that he won’t be able to bring his country success in Russia. The squad lacks true international class, even though the likes of Mathew Leckie and Aaron Mooy are on the rise, while Mile Jedinak is an experienced and influential leader. Right now, they look a long shot to get to the last 16.
Key player: Tim Cahill
The veteran will be 38 come the summer, but is still one of the best headers of a ball in the world. Now playing for Melbourne City, the former Everton star scored 11 goals in the qualifiers, and took his tally for the national team to 50 goals in 104 games. Expect him to be in top shape as he prioritises his fourth World Cup.
FIFA ranking: 55
The Japanese have been ever-present at the World Cup since 1998, and made it to the second round at every second tournament (in 2002 and 2010). According to this pattern, they should qualify from their group again in 2018 – and the team has a chance of doing so.
Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodzic knows the tournament well, having taken Algeria to the dizzy heights of the last 16 in 2014. His squad is vastly experienced as well, with three players – Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki and captain Makoto Hasebe – boasting more than 100 caps. Keisuke Honda is hoping for a good tournament too, currently flourishing in Mexico after a disastrous spell at Milan.
Key player: Shinji Kagawa
It’s not easy to pick the most important player here, but Japan are hoping that Kagawa will be on song at the right time. His very best days might be just behind him – he will never be one of the brightest stars in the Bundesliga as he was in 2012 – but he’s still important for Borussia Dortmund now, and is therefore the most high-profile player for the Samurai Blue. The 28-year-old midfielder scored five goals in the qualifiers.
FIFA ranking: 40
Herve Renard has cemented his place as one of the most successful managers in African history. The Frenchman who led Zambia to a sensational Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 2012, and won the title with Ivory Coast in 2015, has now taken Morocco to their first World Cup appearance since 1998.
Expectations were relatively low, but the Atlas Lions didn’t concede a single goal in six matches at the group stage, and won the crucial fixture at Ivory Coast on the last matchday. The squad is mostly made of players born in Holland, France and Spain – indeed, 61% of the players they used in qualifying were born outside of Morocco – but they are united in their passion for the homeland of their parents, and fans are proud of them.
Key player: Medhi Benatia
Morocco qualified thanks to a solid defence, and Benatia is the ultimate leader at the back. The former Roma and Bayern Munich star doesn’t play regularly at Juventus, but his contribution to the national team is immense – and France might be regretting that he isn’t playing for them. The centre-back chose Morocco back in 2008, and is the captain now.
FIFA ranking: 56
Arguably the most surprising team to qualify, Panama will make their World Cup debut in Russia. Led by Colombian coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who bossed his own national team in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002, they rode their luck, scoring just nine goals in 10 matches in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
Panama were able to finish third thanks to the United States’ astonishing defeat at Trinidad and Tobago on the final matchday. They’ve enjoyed remarkable success at the Gold Cup in recent years – even reaching the final in 2013 – so can’t be discarded easily.
Key player: Jaime Penedo
The 36-year-old goalkeeper represented his country 128 times and is hugely popular with fans thanks to his leadership qualities and fine reflexes on the line. Penedo spent two fruitful years at Los Angeles Galaxy, winning the MLS title in 2014, which probably makes him the most successful Panamanian ever. He now plies his trade at Dinamo Bucharest.
FIFA ranking: 59
The Koreans have been at every World Cup since 1986, but were in real danger of missing out this time. They failed to win a single away game at the last stage of the qualifiers, and the panic was so strong that veteran German manager Uli Stielike was fired in June with just two fixtures remaining.
His replacement, Shin Tae-yong, somehow managed to achieve two goalless draws to make it through, but the team is struggling offensively and only has one true star in Son Heung-min. They could be humiliated in Russia if things don’t change quickly.
Key player: Son Heung-min
The Tottenham winger is absolutely crucial for South Korea if they’re to avoid disaster. The 25-year-old scored seven goals in qualifiers, and his rapid rise under Mauricio Pochettino has been remarkable. The problem is that his leadership qualities are uncertain – he is part of the squad in London, but must be much more vocal in the national team.
FIFA ranking: 63
The Saudis are back to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, but they didn’t reward the man who took them there. The Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, who guided his own national team to the World Cup final in 2010, was relieved of his duties after the qualification for Russia was assured. Bizarrely, his replacement – the Argentine specialist Edgardo Bauza – only lasted two months himself and was sacked due to poor performances in friendlies. The job is now with another Argentine in Juan Antonio Pizzi, who resigned from the Chile job after failing to steer them to Russia. Oops.
Key player: Osama Hawsawi
Born in Mecca, the 33-year-old centre-back is almost sacred for the national team. The long-serving captain has 128 caps for Saudi Arabia and even seven goals to his name, including a famous effort against Spain in 2010. He would love to add to that tally in Russia.