England | Elo: 14 | FIFA: 5 |
History: And now we pay homage to the home of soccer. While a similar sport found popularity in Ancient China, the “Association football” we know and love originated as one of many types of “football” played by school-children in public schools across England. A comprehensive set of laws regarding “assoccer” – shorthand for “association”, longhand for “soccer” – were codified with the formation of the Football Association(FA) in 1863. While the name didn’t stick, in England anyway, that set of laws – simply referred to as The Laws of the Game – still largely define the football that’s played today.The English National team was formed soon after, becoming, alongside Scotland, the oldest national team in the world.
In 1870, a team of Englishmen played a Scottish team largely consisting of london-born Scots to a 0-0 draw in the world’s first unofficial international friendly. The world’s first official friendly was the return tie held in 1872; England won.
For the next 40 years England would exclusively play Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in the British Home Championship, an annual tournament between the four national teams in the United Kingdom. The Three Lions finished second to Scotland in the tournament’s first four iterations. After trading gold with the Scots in 1888 and 1889, England managed their own 4-peat between 90 and 93.
The Brits ventured beyond the isles in 1908, beating Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. England wouldn’t experience defeat outside their island until 1929 with a 3-2 loss to Spain. A year before, the FA withdrew from FIFA after feuding over amateurs, meaning England wouldn’t participate in the first three World Cups. They would participate in the Battle of Highbury, defeating Italy – the defending Jules Rimet holders – 3-2 in a match with more than soccer at stake. England beat facism again In 1938… after being forced to appease Hitler.
In the aftermath of the second World War, the FA made up with FIFA and England qualified for the 1950 World Cup via a top 2 finish in the 49-50 Home Championship. Coming off two wins against facism in the 30’s, the Brits punctuated the 40’s with empathic victories over Italy – still champs – and Portugal, entering the 1950 Copa de Mundial as overwhelming favorites. Sure, they were technically debutants, but for most of the sport’s history, as of 1950, the Home Nations, particularly England and Scotland, had been in a league of their own. England just couldn’t lose. And yet they did. Twice. The write-in champs bowed out in round one. And thus the dye was cast. Football did come home in 66, but the wait for its return has been long, and often painful.
Enter Southgate. On the back of another golden generation highlighted by a number of world class footballers, The Three Lions have reached nigh-unprecedented highs. In 2018, England came within 30 minutes of the World Cup Final. In 2021, they reached the final of the European Championship. Can Southgate’s men build off these near-misses with a triumph in Lusail? Or will that hope kill?
Once more The Three Lions enter the colosseum. Once more, England expects. But will the lions roar.. or whimper? The world will soon see.
Expected Finish: 1st
Ranking 1st per TMV, and 6th per WCDCS, England have a claim as the most talented team on the planet. And while the Lions have plenty of questions, their three groupmates, all substantially less talented and vastly less accomplished, enter with questions of their own.
The nations league went badly, but most of these games weren’t played with a full-strength side.
With a group of elite players, who’ve thrived in multiple major tournaments, entering their prime, the Lions are hard to pick against; at least in round one.
They ended the recent Nations league with a loss and a dead-rubber draw. Both featured what could be characterized as England’s “a team”. Before the dead-rubber, England scored once in 5. Harry Kane started all but one of those matches.
While Southgate has been superficially successful, a closer look at his work reveals that favorable draws have papered over significant underperformance. Gifted a collection of creative attackers, Southgate has prioritized defensive solidity. Forcing round pegs into square holes has proven costly.
While I think they may be able to brute-talent this group, it’s unlikely they get much further.
Besides being one of the best players on the planet, Harry Kane is obviously England’s best talisman. Kane has led the premier league in scoring thrice in the last 6 years. In the last world cup, Kane bagged 5 to nab the Golden Boot. But lost in Kane’s prowess as a scorer, is his powers as a playmaker. In 2021, Kane led the premier league in goals and assists. Harry is a phenomenal playmaker, able to create from range and tight spaces. It was Kane’s playmaking that allowed England to dominate early proceedings against the Italians last May. The Tottenham forward is the centerpiece of England’s offense, even if he doesn’t end up bagging all their goals.
Jude Bellingham might not start, but it’s obvious that he should. At 19, Jude is already a world-class playmaker and ball-progressor, as well as a strong defender, presser, and scoring threat. If there is a soccer equivalent to a 5-tool-player, Jude Bellingham might be it. On a team that has struggled mightily to create in recent outings, Southgate’s ability, and willingness, to get the best out of England’s best midfielder may well determine if this team has any hope of hoisting the Jules Rimiet.
USA | Elo: 15 | FIFA: 21 |
History: Enter The Stars and Stripes. 3rd place finishers in 1930, the only team outside of Europe and S.A to reach a major final on neutral ground, and one of two Concacaf teams to reach the quarterfinals since the World Cup expanded to a full 32, the United States Men’s National Team(USMNT) is the second most successful national team outside of Europe and South America; not a bad resume, but for the world’s preeminent superpower – for better or for worse – that feels a bit disappointing.
The USMNT is one of the world’s oldest national teams. A 1-0 loss to Canada in 1885 marked the first international friendly outside of the British Isles. They rode this head-start to modest success, finishing 3rd at the Maiden World Cup in 1930, beating Mexico to qualify for 1934, and pulling off, per Elo, the 7th biggest upset in the history of international soccer, thereby eliminating an English behemoth; the US still crashed out, courtesy of a Chilean trashing.
After the Second World War, the program hit a 40-year lull. In the three decades after the 50 World Cup win, the USMNT only managed a handful of victories. Despite early international success, and the creation of a relatively popular domestic league, the American public showed little interest in America’s team.
Ironically, it was the domestic league’s collapse which helped resurrect US soccer. In the absence of a professional league at home, Americans like Paul Caligari were forced to push themselves abroad; thus the US entered the 86 cycle with talent at its disposal.
With quality in its ranks, the USMNT entered the last match of the 86 qualification tournament only requiring a tie to qualify. They would lose, via an early own goal, but that near-miss, along with the commercial potential of bringing football to a populous superpower, was enough for The Yanks to be named hosts for the 94 World Cup. Given the Americans’ inability to qualify by the merit of their play, the decision sparked outrage. But a year later, the USMNT earned qualification for the 90 tournament, thanks to a long-range finish from… Paul Caligari. While they went point-less in Italy, they’d shock Colombia 4 years later to reach the second round for the first time in more than a century. The World Cup was also a massive commercial success, laying the foundation for a sustainable domestic league, and serious nation-wide investment in the sport.
Using this base, the USMNT leveled up in the next 20 years, reaching two Copa America semi-finals, usually making the World Cup round of sixteen, and almost always qualifying. Regionally they improved, splitting cups with Mexico, and winning the Hex – the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying between 1997 and 2018 – three times on the trot.
But as the 2000’s turned into the 2010’s, the program stagnated. With each step forward, there was a step back. A quarter final run in 2002 was followed by a group stage exit in 2006. A victory against invincible Spain was wasted with a comeback loss against Brazil. The Yanks won a group with England only to blow a favorable path to the semis. Donovan’s men simply didn’t have the quality to win consistently, and after Donovan’s departure, it all fell apart. Yet, amidst this mediocrity, seeds were planted for something greater.
And thus, enters the golden generation. Following a glorious summer, and an arduous spring, The Stars and Stripes enter winter with hopes sky-high.
Will 2022 mark a new beginning? Or will it teach yet another lesson in patience.
Expected Finish: 2nd
They are the second most talented team, ranking top 16 in both TMV and WCDCS. Their form is about as strong as their group mates, with a marginal advantage in FIFA, and a marginal disadvantage in Elo. They enter Qatar with their key pieces healthy and mostly in-form, and have the second youngest squad in the tourney. It’s not hard to see them outlast older competition in what looks to be one of the hottest World Cups.
Looking to history, a substantially less talented generation of Americans were usually able to find a way out. They also currently have a strong claim as the best team in CONCACAF, a mantle which usually predicts surviving round one.
There are questions, but this is true for all of their group mates. The American case isn’t overwhelming, but the counterpoints don’t seem particularly strong.
Well for one, manager Gregg Berhalter may not have his priorities sorted. Is Gregg’s aim to win or to change the way the world views American soccer by playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of footy? Coming off a pair of poor friendly performances in September, it’s not clear those two aims can coexist peacefully.
The US has also been disappointing away from the comforts of home. They have one competitive away victory this cycle. Including friendlies, they are winless against World Cup teams away or on neutral ground.
They are also relatively inexperienced. Yedlin is the only player on the squad who has played in a world cup and the Inter Miami full-back is unlikely to see serious minutes
The position of center-back remains a big question. The best two available center-backs, Zimmerman and Ream, have not played many minutes together. For a team that usually likes to play a high-line, Ream may not be an optimal fit. With incumbents Richard and Robinson injured, there aren’t quality options who’ve recently been integrated into the side.
The US generally seem at their best playing in transition. This might prove a problem with two group-mates who are likely to sit back and force the US to do something with the ball. Thus far, this cycle, the US have struggled with low-blocks.
And while it is true the USMNT historically have done alright at this stage, it’s not clear that was ever sustainable. 2010 is the only World Cup where the USMNT out-created most of their opponents. While this side has more outfield talent, they don’t have quality keepers like Howard or Friedel to level the playing field.
While I favor them to finish 2nd, a last-place finish wouldn’t surprise me.
Fulham left-back Antonee Robinson has been very good in the Premier League. He’s also essential both as a ball-progressor, and chance creator for the way Berhalter likes to play. Antonee Robinson is also the only natural left-back on the USMNT’s roster. An elite 1 v 1 defender, a fast ball-progressor, and a strong crosser, Antonee Robinson’s style of play is simple, but effective. Bought for 13 Million in 2020 by AC Milan, Antonee Robinson has developed into the US’s least replaceable piece.
Brenden Aaronson is quite good. In 21-22, he played every minute for Salzburg as they became the first Austrian team to ever reach the knockout stage of the Champions League. In 22-23 he’s been the centerpiece for a Leeds side overperforming modest resources. With 1 goal and 2 assists, Aaronson may not seem a remarkable attacker, but a closer look may prove revealing. 5 of Leeds goals have come off Aaronson pressure. And while it didn’t show up in the score-sheet, not many Americans have taken out 5 defenders on the dribble. Aaronson does a fair bit on the other end, being among the league leaders in pressures completed, duels won, and ground covered. A capable creator and progressor with an unrivaled engine, Aaronson can be pretty valuable. He’s especially valuable against big teams. All three of his g/a came against Chelsea and Tottenham. His two assists were a small part of what many found impressive against Bayern, and against Liverpool, it was his pressing that led to both of Leed’s goals in a massive win against Liverpool. With a plethora of quality options in attack, Aaronson is not essential for this team to advance. But if they look to do something more, Brenden may define this team’s ceiling.
Iran | Elo: 21 | FIFA: 20 |
History: Do not sleep on Team Melli. Paired with Spain, Portugal, and Morocco in 2018, Iran were this close to advancing. Qatar will mark Iran’s 6th World Cup. The Persian Stars will be desperate to avoid a 6th group stage exit.
The Iranian Football Federation(IFF) was founded in 1920. In 1926 the IFF formed the Tehran XI, an Iranian team with players picked from various Iranian clubs. In 1941 Tehran Xi became Team Melli and beat British India 1-0. Later that year, Team Melli became Iran, playing Afghanistan to a goalless draw. In 1968, Iran hosted the Asian Cup. Their debut went perfectly, with 4 wins in 4 matches making The Honour of Persia, the Champions of Asia. In 72 they would go to Thailand, and again things went perfectly. Iran would win 5 of 5 games to win a second straight championship. Iran would host again in 76. And again, they were perfect. With 4 wins in 4, Iran completed a stretch of continental dominance that never has, and maybe never will, be replicated.
Iran’s first venture into World Cup Qualification came in 1974, at a time where only one spot was allocated for all of Asia and all of Oceania. Iran would win an all-Asian group to enter a playoff with Australia. With a 3-0 loss away, and a 2-0 win at home, Iran bowed out as Australia went on to qualify. In 78 Iran were dominant, cruising to their first World Cup with a record of 10 wins, including 2 victories over the Aussies, and 2 draws. Iran were quickly eliminated from the tournament proper with losses to the Netherlands and Peru, but they’d go home with a point from a surprise tie with Scotland. Then, came revolution.
Conflict and unrest would sideline Iranian soccer until 1989 when Team Melli returned to AFC qualification for the 1990 finals. Needing to win their group to progress The Persian Stars won 5 of 6 matches, but finished 2nd on goal-difference to China. In 1994 they went undefeated in round one to reach the final round of qualifying. With two World Cup berths up for grab, Iran finished 2 points shy of 2nd place South Korea. In 98, Iran went undefeated, again, to make the final round. There, a second place set them up for a playoff vs Japan. The winner would reach the World Cup while the loser would be sent to a final playoff. Japan found a winner in the 118th minute, sending Iran to an intercontinental playoff with… Australia. In the rematch of the 74 AFC-OFC playoff, Iran emerged victorious.
At the finals, Iran would emerge victorious again in a match that meant a little more than 3 points. Losses to Germany and Yugoslavia would eliminate Team Melli anyway, but Iran had finally won.
In 2002, Iran lost an intercontinental playoff to Northern Ireland, In 2006 they qualified before exiting with a solitary point, and in 2010, they made neither the finals, nor a playoff, finishing second to last in the final round Qualification.
And then, came Carlos Quieroz, fresh off a stint with Real Madrid. Inheriting a team traditionally slanted for attack, Quieroz prioritized defense. The result was transformational. Qatar didn’t just qualify in 2014, they cruised, topping a group with South Korea after losing just 3 of 14 matches. While a loss to Bosnia eliminated them from the finals, Iran showed well against African champion Nigeria, and eventual runner-ups Argentina.
The IFF nearly lost Quieroz to sheer incompetence, but the Madrid magician returned and 2018 went even better. Iran went undefeated in 18 qualifiers putting up a continent best 22 points in the final round. They opened the group stage with their second ever World Cup win before putting forth valiant efforts in 1 goal loss to Spain and a tie against the Portuguese. While they were narrowly eliminated in the group of death, no one could deny that Quieroz had built something special.
Quieroz resigned for the 2022 cycle, but his machine kept rolling. After a couple shock losses in the first round of qualifying, Dragan Skokic righted the ship. Putting together a continent high 25 points in the final round, Iran qualified easily, only losing a dead-rubber against South Korea.
And so, on the crest of a rising tide, Iran enters their third straight World Cup. The old magician is back, their star man is shining, and controversy abounds.
Can Team Melli finally break through?
Expected Finish: 4th
Originally I had them 3rd. Then they fired their reasonably successful coach. Then their second best player got hurt. And now there are various distractions. I have no issue with political activism in sport, but combined, these conditions don’t seem conducive to optimal performance in high-stake tournament soccer.
Iran are the least talented team in their group. Frankly, they’re one of the least talented teams in the tournament. One of their two stars will, at best, be limited, and there is plenty of reason to think the team won’t be playing at their best.
Maybe Carlos can bring it together, but this is a big ask.
Besides England, Iran are the most experienced team in Group B. They also performed well four years ago in a tougher group with a weaker set of players.
Iran are also, arguably, the second most in-form team, pairing a dominant qualification campaign with some decent friendly results for a top 20 ranking in Elo and FIFA.
Iran could definitely surprise, but I have a few too many questions to pick them.
In 2022-2023, Mehdi Taremi has 5 goals and 2 assists in 5 champions league matches to go along with 6 goals and 5 assists in 13 outings in Liga Portugal. Moreover, the underlying data suggests that this production is sustainable and therefore predictive. Mehdi’s production has certainly translated with the national team with Taremi putting up 7 goals and 5 assists in 13 Asian qualifiers. An elite chance creator, scoring threat, and ball-progressor, Mehdi Taremi is one of Group B’s stars and is Iran’s best player. If Taremi can produce for his country as he has produced at the highest levels of Europe, Iran has every chance to advance.
Sardar Azmoun has 41 goals in 65 caps. While Azmoun has struggled for goals, and minutes, at Leverkusen, he’s been Iran’s main talisman internationally, scoring 10 times in 14 qualifiers to help The Persian Stars reach Qatar. It’s unclear what Sardar can offer Iran as he’s rushed back to fitness, but a healthy Azmoun would make Quieroz’s job significantly easier.
Wales | Elo: 26 | FIFA: 19 |
History: At long last, The Dragons have arrived. In 1958, they were World Cup quarter-finalists. Now, 64 years later, Wales makes its return.
In 1876, the Welsh faced the Scots for Wales’ first ever friendly. They would lose the game, badly, but would win the sweet consolation prize of being the third oldest national team in the world. A year later they would play the Scots again… and lose. They’d try yet again in 1878… and lose… by 9. The Football Association of Wales(FAW) decided they’d try England instead. William Davies scored Wales’ first ever goal and the Welsh lost by a respectable margin of 2-1. In 1880, perhaps buoyed by nearly erasing a 3-goal deficit in a 3-2 loss to England, Wales decided to try Scotland again; they lost 5-1.
At long last, in 1881, after the FAW smartly switched back to the Brits, a John Vaughan strike gave the Welsh their first victory. In 1882, the Irish national team was formed, and the Welsh took the chance to orientate them with a beat-down. With consecutive victories under their belt, the Welsh faced England a month later. Wales went a goal down, went a man down, then came back to beat the Brits 5-3.
With the advent of the British Home Championship in 1884, the natural pecking order was restored. Over the first three championships, Wales beat Ireland to avoid 4th, while going winless against England and Scotland to go 3rd. Then in 87, The Dragons flipped the script, losing 4-1 to Ireland to finish last. Finally, in 1895, by tying all their fixtures, Wales finished 2nd.
In 1905, Wales finally beat Scotland, thereby managing their second 2nd place finish. In 1907, the Welsh won it all, beating Scotland, beating Ireland, and tying England to win their first gold. When the tournament ended in 1987, Wales ended up with 12 gold medals. England and Scotland picked up 54 and 41 respectively, and Ireland finished with 8.
With the FA rejoining FIFA in 1946, Wales became eligible for participation in the 1950 World Cup. To qualify they would need a top two finish in the 1949-50 Home Championship. Losses to England and Scotland consigned Wales to 3rd. Wales would finish last in the 1953-54 championship, once again missing the World Cup. In 1958, the British Home Championship was dropped as a means of qualification. Instead Wales would be randomly drawn against other teams in Europe.
With an emerging golden generation under the stewardship of Jimmy Murphy and a qualification path that avoided perennial bullies England and Scotland, Wales looked set for a first World Cup appearance. Yet The Dragons came up short once more, finishing 2nd in a group with Czechoslovakia and West Germany. But fortune favored the Welsh, and a series of withdrawals set-up Wales with a second chance: An inter-continental playoff against Israel. The Dragons soared, comfortably beating Israel home and away. At the tournament proper, Wales conjured the magic of 1895, finishing 2nd in their group by tying all their group-mates. In round two, they faced Brazil. Even in defeat, the Welsh accounted for themselves well, losing by one to a team that would bash France and Sweden en route to their first World Cup victory. It would take the Welsh a while to get back.
Wales failed to qualify for the first four European Championships. When they reached the Euros in 1976, they surprised, making the quarterfinals. Perhaps their most notable accomplishment during this period was splitting spoils with England – then World Cup holders – in the 1970 Home Championship.
The Welsh came close to World Cup qualification in 1982, missing out on goal difference thanks to a 3-0 defeat by Soviet hands. 4 years later, despite a romp over the Spaniards, a 1-1 draw – marred by tragedy – meant that Wales missed out on goal difference again. Continuing a long-line of agonizingly close misses, The Dragons came within a penalty kick of the World Cup in 1994 and lost a playoff for a spot the 2006 Euros.
Enter Gareth Bale. With an emerging cluster of talent spearheaded by a world-class attacker, the world’s third oldest national team entered a new golden age. The Welsh easily qualified for the 2016 Euros where they’d make an unlikely run to the semi-finals. Wales would qualify for the 2021 Euros, marking the first time The Dragons have reached consecutive major tournaments. Then, on the back of their brilliant, if fading, talisman, Wales reached Qatar.
And so arrive The Dragons. In a sport defined by expectation, this Diamond Generation has indisputably delivered. Win, lose, or draw, Qatar will be a celebration, commemorating a return that redeems decades of heart-ache. The Welsh will play with house money.
So just how far can they go?
Expected Finish: 3rd
Wales are the third most talented team in their group, have not impressed with recent results, and their aging superstar has struggled mightily in a 2nd tier league.
European teams historically perform worse in hotter climates, and there are already early signs that Wales might wilt in the Qatari heat.
Wales could certainly surprise, but it’s hard to see them as favorites.
Gareth Bale is often a different man when he plays for his country. And whatever you thought of Bale during the Major League Soccer(MLS) regular season, when the time came to win, Gareth delivered.
Wales, unlike the USMNT, have a clear identity they’ve played with for years. With fast wingers and Gareth Bale, it’s not hard to see the Welsh punishing an American centerback partnership which has barely played together, or, depending on who Berhalter chooses to start, is demonstrably error-prone.
With Azmoun still hurt, Iran is likely going to be relying heavily on a single attacker for offense. Considering that Wales have, arguably, the second best center-back pairing in group B, The Dragons may well be able to neutralize Team Melli.
Maybe that isn’t enough, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Bale and co. proved me wrong.
Having bagged all 3 of Wales’ goals during the UEFA qualification playoffs, Gareth Bale is still Wales’ most dangerous magician. A 5-times Champions League winner, as well as a 1x MLS Cup Champion, the former Tottenham superstar may just buy The Dragons a ticket to round 2.
Daniel James is fast. A regular player for a Fulham team holding up surprisingly well in the Premier League, James’ ability to make probing runs, outpace defenders, and arrive at dangerous spots, may prove vital for a Wales team that doesn’t like using the ball. With pace, defensive chops, and a nose for goal, James might break a few hearts in Qatar.
Predicted Group Standings
For more info on the methodology click here.