The international soccer community has waited four years for its greatest tournament to roll around again, but once it begins, the World Cup has an unforgiving habit of immediately sorting out the contenders from the pretenders.
Coming into the World Cup on the back of sparkling form isn’t always a precursor to success, as the best-laid plans can swiftly fall apart under the microscope of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.
That said, there are some teams that will be feeling better about their chances than others as festivities in Russia start June 14.
Here is a look at how the teams stack up heading into the tournament.
Better than the United States – according to the CONCACAF qualifying table at least – but not good enough to make any impact in Russia. Destroyed 6-0 by Switzerland in a recent friendly game.
31. Saudi Arabia
Crept through the weak Asian qualifying region with a series of unconvincing performances. Low enough on talent that the Saudi federation had to pay several Spanish teams to take their players on loan.
Likely to be the fall guys in a competitive group after suffering through plenty of disarray in qualifying. Survived a playoff against Honduras, but then head coach Ange Postecoglou quit.
29. South Korea
Progress from the group stage would be a huge achievement and it is hard to see a realistic path to the last 16. Son Hyung-Min is electrifying at times but Korea’s play doesn’t always maximize his best attributes.
The standard of Japanese soccer continues to rise but the national team has had a miserable time over the past year, summed up by the difficulty it had in even reaching the tournament. Shinji Kagawa’s brilliance is sorely needed.
Generally dull to watch, with head coach Carlos Quieroz sacrificing flair and prioritizing organized defense. They don’t score much, and they’ve got a horrible group, up against Spain and Portugal.
Four appearances at the World Cup, 12 matches, and still just a solitary victory. Will be given tough tests against England and Belgium but an early upset could offer a real chance of going through from the group.
Grateful for the top seeding that comes with being host nation and will be boosted by raucous support. Igor Akinfeev is a great goalkeeping stalwart, but he could see plenty of action during this tournament.
Everyone’s “second-favorite” team, the Cinderella story of Euro 2016 and its wonderful group of friendly, passionate fans, is back for another crack at a miracle. Might find things tough now the element of surprise is gone.
Getting stuck in the same group as Spain and Portugal was cruel for a team that impressed in qualifying. Best chance of summer success may come on the admin side, if Morocco beats USA/Canada/Mexico for the right to host the 2026 Cup.
22. Costa Rica
The delightful run to the quarterfinals in 2014 was no fluke, but there’s also no expectation that it’s repeated. Will come in as the underdogs in a tricky group, headed up by Brazil.
No Zlatan Ibrahimovic and no great buzz around the squad, or its chances of going deep. Emil Forsberg is a superb winger who can make waves and the scheduling of its matches, with South Korea up first, is a boost.
A team of real quality with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane up front. Only one previous appearance (in 2002) but what an appearance it was, with a thrilling run to the quarterfinals. An easy stroll through qualifying has built confidence.
European qualifying is no joke. The Swiss won nine out of 10 group games and still had to battle through a tense playoff. The squad always goes about its business with minimum fuss, but has looked great in recent friendlies.
Mo Salah has blossomed into one of the best players in the world but it is asking a lot to expect him to lift this team onto his shoulders. However, there is a chance of progressing from the easiest group.
Qualification was a real feel-good story for a hard-working and deserving group. Forty years have passed since the team last won a World Cup game, and this time the opener against Denmark could determine who emerges from the group.
Extremely physical, resilient and full of experience, but much will hinge on whether things click under new head coach Mladen Krstajic. Nemanja Matic holds the key to the midfield, which holds the key to the Serbian style of play.
Probably Africa’s best chance of getting a team into the knockout round and further after strolling through what looked like being Africa’s toughest qualifying group. Look out for lightning-fast attacks.
Solid rather than spectacular during the group stage of qualifying, but then burst into life by crushing the Republic of Ireland in a do-or-die playoff. Struggled for goals at crucial times of the campaign, but defensively resilient.
Nearly missed out after some wobbles late in qualifying and aren’t being tipped as a long shot by so many this time. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is a shining light and the draw has been kind.
James Rodriguez was a joy to watch at the last World Cup, where Colombia provided fun and style before losing in the quarterfinals. James’ form returned on loan at Bayern Munich this season, watch out for him in Russia.
Faced with the daunting task of facing defending champion Germany first, but has enough talent to overcome that inconvenience. Six straight trips to the knockout round is an impressive stat, six straight defeats in the round of 16 is less so.
It has been a long time since Poland did anything of note at the World Cup but a semifinal spot at the Euros was encouraging and Robert Lewandowski’s goal scoring exploits make them dangerous.
The old saying of “England expects” doesn’t really apply anymore. The English public no longer salivates with optimism, having been burned so many times before. Harry Kane is world class but anything past the quarterfinals would be a shock.
The European champion relies on Cristiano Ronaldo for quite a bit, a lot, er, pretty much everything, and the big star with the big ego would love to add a World Cup title to his bulging trophy cabinet. Is his support cast strong enough?
Lionel Messi’s international trophy drought continues and he’s now running out of chances. Nearly made a mess of qualifying but Messi rescued things with a final day hat-trick. The maestro is desperate to erase the memory of losing the 2014 final.
Packed with big-time experience and the X-factor that is Luis Suarez, don’t be surprised if Oscar Tabarez’s team benefits from being the best team in the weakest group and powers its way deep into the tournament.
A true golden generation of talent that is starting to believe it has what it takes to beat anyone. Plays forceful soccer at a high tempo and with no shortage of intensity and desire. The best hope for a first-time champion.
Came within a whisker of winning the Euros on home soil and has the ability to beat any team. Antoine Greizmann is pure class, Kylian Mbappe is the best teenager on the planet, while any team would love N’Golo Kante in midfield.
The 2014 champion has barely missed a beat since winning it all in Brazil and strolled to victory in the Confederations Cup using what was effectively its “C” team.
Creative brilliance has never been lacking for Brazil, and now head coach Tite has added some steeliness to the mix. Unstoppable in qualifying and a genuine shot at becoming the first South American team to win a World Cup in Europe since 1958.
After a disaster at the last World Cup, things seem to be falling into place once more for the most dominant team of the past decade. Andres Iniesta is at the end of his career but is still as good as ever, and surrounded by world class talent in every position.