There is something intensely futile about picking a World Cup champion. Something silly. Something about the premise deeply flawed. Because not a soul knows what will happen over the next month. Not a soul knows how the 21st edition of the planet’s greatest sporting event will play out.
And yet history fools us into thinking otherwise. The men’s World Cup has existed for 88 years now, and only eight nations have won it. Only six have won it over the past half-century. Only five of them will be in Russia this summer: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France.
And very, very few people are picking anybody outside of those five to triumph in 2018. They are the top five at every single major sportsbook, and in almost every set of World Cup power rankings.
In fact, very few clued-in prognosticators are taking any team outside the top three of Brazil, Germany and Spain. Nor should they take anybody else – those three, in some order, are the most likely to lift a golden trophy in Moscow on July 15. They’re therefore the rational picks.
But what their favorite statuses obscure is that, collectively, they have roughly a 50 percent chance to win the World Cup – only a 50 percent chance. The consensus top five has, at best, a 75 percent chance. There is roughly a 20 or 25 percent chance that the 2018 competition yields a first-time champion.
There is a tendency to assume that the World Cup is a tournament that caters to the elite, and whose latter stages are infertile for underdogs. But just because that’s been the case in the past does not mean it is the case. Twenty iterations, and only five in the current format, represent a still-tiny sample size. As Greece and Portugal have shown at two of the last four European championships, there is no reason an outsider can’t win a major international competition. It just takes one breakthrough on the global stage before the public collectively realizes.
All of which is to say that a ranking of 2018 World Cup contenders should not stop at No. 6 or No. 8. By our estimation, there are roughly 12 teams with a greater than 1 percent chance to prevail. There are 21 with what we’d call a semi-realistic shot.
So we’ve ranked ’em all, and grouped them into tiers, as a way of answering the question: Who is most likely to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
Tier 1: The favorites
1. Brazil (Team preview | Group E preview) — Since manager Tite took charge to steer Brazil away from high-profile failures, the Selecao have scored 47 goals and conceded five. They have the flair and the steel and the cohesion. They have a healthy, well-rested Neymar, but aren’t dependent on him. They’re the best team in the world.
2. Spain (Team preview | Group B preview) — Spain is popularly associated with dazzling possession-based soccer. What really makes this version of La Furia Roja formidable, however, is its defense. Even when the attack stalls – which is does, at times – four world-class defenders and the sport’s best goalkeeper make the 2010 champs very difficult to beat.
3. Germany (Team preview | Group F preview) — Never doubt Germany. Never doubt Jogi Low. Never doubt his system, or his teams’ preparedness. But Die Mannschaft‘s top-end talent level this time around is a notch below those of Brazil and Spain.
Tier 2: The wild card
4. France (Team preview | Group C preview) — France, as individuals, belongs in the top tier. France, as a collective, belongs with its slightly disjointed brethren, Belgium and Argentina. Its many shiny puzzle pieces, when jammed together, fray around the edges. They’re restricted by the lack of a coherent system, and without a coherent identity – in contrast to the three teams above them.
Tier 3: The other contenders
5. Belgium (Team preview | Group G preview) — The Red Devils are a (very) rich man’s version of Roberto Martinez’s Everton teams. Which makes sense, of course, because Martinez is the manager. If that comparison does nothing for you, here’s the deal: Martinez has chosen a formation and tweaked his system to get as many stars on the field as possible. It’s going to result in a lot of goals, but at both ends, because it leaves Belgium vulnerable at the back.
6. Argentina (Team preview | Group D preview) — I want to believe. I really do. I like manager Jorge Sampaoli. I think Messi is far and away the GOAT. But dysfunction and misfortune – warmup friendlies cancelled, injuries to multiple starters – are getting more and more insurmountable by the day. Messi might not be able to overcome the many shortcomings around him.
7. England (Team preview | Group G preview) — Finally, an England team with an aesthetic style, a defined system, and energizing young players that fit into it. There’s no need to buy the lower expectations, pressure off, better performance narrative. This group is just flat-out good.
8. Uruguay (Team preview | Group A preview) — A new-look midfield will ensure La Celeste can boss around inferior teams. The vets will still have to carry Uruguay through the knockout rounds, but they’re very capable of doing that.
Tier 4: The long shots
9. Colombia (Team preview | Group H preview) — Los Cafeteros have a tendency to play both up to and down to their competition. For World Cup title odds purposes, that’s a good thing. But their occasional struggles against lesser foes are a window into some flaws that should keep them several steps away from a World Cup final.
10. Portugal (Team preview | Group B preview) — Don’t let Euro 2016 fool you! It was a legitimate and legitimately impressive accomplishment, but it’s not reason to believe Portugal is on an ascent that will climax at the World Cup.
11. Croatia (Team preview | Group D preview) — This is probably the most talented and deepest squad Croatia has ever had. But there is no convincing evidence it has overcome tactical and psychological problems that have plagued past editions.
12. Mexico (Team preview | Group F preview) — Manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s maniacal tinkering with formations and tactics has some fans calling for his head. Others think he’s a misunderstood genius. Let’s just pretend, for one second, that he’s the latter … couldn’t Mexico go on a run? Heck yeah it could, especially if it upsets Germany in its opener.
Tier 5: European mediocrity (plus Peru and Morocco)
13. Poland (Team preview | Group H preview) — Lumping Poland in with “mediocrity” is probably a bit unfair. But it lacks depth, and will, in all likelihood, be without its second- or third-best player, starting center back Kamil Glik.
14. Peru (Team preview | Group C preview) — You’re going to fall in love with this team. It heads to Russia unbeaten in 15 games since the start of 2017, and having lost only two of its last 27. And if the streak carries into the World cup, La Blanquiroja is going to ride an emotional wave that will sweep up fans around the world.
It will be an honor to compete against you in the @FIFAWorldCup. As you know, we have been away from the FWC for a long time, that is why we have prepared this video to remind you of who we are.
— Selección Peruana (@SeleccionPeru) May 22, 2018
Tier 6: High ceilings, low floor
20. Nigeria (Team preview | Group D preview) — Nigeria quadrennially attracts the “dark horse” label, and rarely makes good on it. There’s reason to think this year could be different. But there’s more reason to think it’ll be more of the same.
Tier 7: The host
Tier 8: Low ceilings, low floors
23. Iceland (Team preview | Group D preview) — A staunch defense and opportunistic attacking – much of it via set pieces – are Iceland’s best hopes. But regarding the former … the minnows have conceded 11 goals in their four most recent friendlies. Fighting spirit and togetherness can only carry them so far.
25. Egypt (Team preview | Group A preview) — Mohamed Salah and … uh … not much else. Oh, and Salah is racing against the clock to recover from a shoulder injury. Oh, and he likely won’t be as good with Egypt as he was this past season with Liverpool anyway.
27. Costa Rica (Team preview | Group E preview) — Not the same team they were four years ago. Er, actually, they are more or less the same team, but with four years of soccer on their legs, and probably with less good fortune this time around. So their sameness is precisely the problem.
Tier 9: The basement
30. Saudi Arabia (Team preview | Group A preview) — This is probably the highest you’ll see the Saudis in any World Cup power rankings. They may very well go up in flames – in double-digit goals conceded, to be more precise – but they’re going to have a proper go at their Group A foes, and could beat one or two.
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More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Ranking the top 100 players at the World Cup
• FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
• A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
• How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit