World Cup power rankings: There are 2 clear favorites, then a mess

The World Cup field is (almost) set. Qatar 2022 is (almost) here. The draw is Friday (noon ET, FS1), and therefore, after wild final full week of qualifying, it's time to assess the 32 teams that will (likely) take part in this year's mega-tournament.

Almost and likely, because only 29 nations have secured qualification. The final three berths will be earned in June, by Costa Rica or New Zealand; Peru, Australia or the United Arab Emirates; and Wales, Scotland or Ukraine.

But there's no need to wait for an early edition of 2022 World Cup power rankings, which analyze, quite simply, each team's chances for success in Qatar. We've projected the three playoff winners, and ranked the participants 1-32 below.

(In parentheses: World Cup draw seeding | Elo ranking | World Cup title odds)

*Asterisk indicates projected playoff winner

TIER 1: THE FAVORITES

1. Brazil (Pot 1 | Elo: 1 | +550)

Brazil enters Qatar as the World Cup favorite for a third straight time, having dominated a second straight qualifying cycle. Forty goals scored, five conceded against South American opposition is almost unthinkably impressive.

Of course, Brazil’s past two World Cup campaigns have ended in embarrassment and despair, respectively. And the 2014 team, we later realized, was flawed beyond repair, tactically and mentally.

But the 2018 exit was flukey. This year’s team, still coached by Tite, still propelled by Neymar, with a mix of veterans and emerging youngsters throughout, is similarly strong.

2. France (Pot 1 | Elo: 2 | +550)

The reigning champs had a very imperfect four-year interim. First there was the Nations League group stage collapse in Rotterdam, then some Euro 2020 and World Cup qualifying slip-ups against Turkey, Ukraine and Bosnia. Most notably, the French blew a two-goal lead to Switzerland in the final 10 minutes of their Round of 16 clash at the Euros, and crashed out on penalties.

But remember: Les Bleus didn’t triumph in 2018 because they were a flawless, all-powerful force. They danced to the Champs-Élysées because they had transcendent individuals, who comprised the most talented roster in the world. And they still have that.

Fance star Kylian Mbappe and head coach Didier Deschamps kiss the World Cup trophy that they won in 2018. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)
Fance star Kylian Mbappe and head coach Didier Deschamps kiss the World Cup trophy that they won in 2018. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)

TIER 2: THE CONTENDERS

3. Argentina (Pot 1 | Elo: 3 | +1000)

Argentina in 2018 was a telenovela-esque disaster. Remember the reported mutiny? And the calamity against Croatia? And the fear on Lionel Messi’s face, the pressure of an unfairly expectant nation breaking him?

Four years later, the pressure will return, but the chaos and incoherence are gone. Messi has lost a half-step, but hasn’t lost his brilliance, and has a much more balanced, tactically sound team around him. Together, they shedded one monkey from their collective backs last summer, beating Brazil and claiming their first Copa America title since 1993. That night in Rio was cathartic. A repeat in Qatar would be 10 times more so.

4. Spain (Pot 1 | Elo: T-5 | +750)

This is the first Spanish World Cup team since 2008-2012 unbeholden to the mystique of those glory days. In subsequent years, La Roja tried to recapture the magic of their Euro-World Cup-Euro treble, but with different and declining personnel, and adapting opponents, they couldn't.

The team that took Italy to a Euro 2020 semifinal shootout, and that will head to Qatar, however, is its own independent entity. Its neither as machine-like nor as skilled as the 2010 champs, but nobody is these days. Under former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique since 2019, it can go toe-to-toe with anybody in the world.

5. England (Pot 1 | Elo: T-5 | +700)

English prognostications inevitably descend into hyperbole: either the Three Lions are grossly overrated, or It’s Coming Home. But of course, there’s a middle ground that’s most accurate.

On one hand, the Gareth Southgate era has brought real improvements; this is arguably the best England team of the 21st century. On the other hand, 2018 World Cup semifinal and Euro 2020 final appearances probably oversell its strength — and skew its odds. You absolutely should not bet on England to win the World Cup at +700 if you can get Argentina at +1000.

6. Portugal (Pot 1 | Elo: 8 | +1200)

Portugal, after being stunned by Serbia in group play, had to take the long route to the World Cup. But it survived Turkey and North Macedonia. The past, in those instants, became irrelevant. Cristiano Ronaldo, like Messi, is going to his fifth World Cup with a far better supporting cast than in 2018, both in attack and defense. And the Portuguese, after winning just one game at each of the previous three World Cups, are prepared to achieve something more closely in line with their 2006 fourth-place finish.

7. Germany (Pot 2 | Elo: 9 | +900)

The Germans are, uncharacteristically, flying to Qatar just under most radars, and that’s understandable. They crashed out at the group stage in 2018. They’ve since been battered by Spain in the Nations League, 6-0, and ousted by England in the Euro 2020 Round of 16. The current roster is mostly unproven at international level.

But there’s a case for Germany as an unheralded contender, and it mostly revolves around managerial transition. The DFB (Germany’s soccer federation) probably clung to Joachim Löw and the afterglow of the 2014 World Cup title too long. After the Euros, it appointed Hansi Flick, whose résumé is pretty compelling: assistant on the 2014 team (and for eight years prior), then sporting director, then assistant-turned-interim-turned-head coach who steered Bayern Munich to the 2020 Champions League title.

With Flick in charge, Germany breezed through qualification, winning seven of seven, scoring 31 goals and conceding 2. The opposition in Qatar will be stiffer, of course, but if chemistry and tactical systems coalesce, the Germans will be dangerous. (Their placement in Pot 2 at Friday’s draw, however, makes an obstacle-ridden path more likely.)

8. Belgium (Pot 1 | Elo: 4 | +1100)

The golden generation’s last stand has a wide range of potential outcomes. Romelu Lukaku, still just 28, remains a prime threat up front. Kevin De Bruyne is still the best midfielder in the world, and a couple mid-20s colleagues, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, give Belgium strength in the middle of the park that it didn’t previously have. At the back, though, besides Jason Denayer, Belgium has barely developed any World Cup-caliber central defenders. It might have to roll out the aging legs of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld again — or roll with inexperience, cross its fingers, and hope.

9. Netherlands (Pot 2 | Elo: 10 | +1600)

A few years ago, the Dutch were rising, as Nations League finalists and, it seemed, Euro 2020 contenders. A toothless Round of 16 defeat to the Czech Republic reversed that narrative and exposed shortcomings. But the most optimistic note, perhaps, is this: Their latest managerial hiring, Louis van Gaal, is far less laughable and damaging than the previous one (Frank de Boer).

TIER 3: THE FRINGE CONTENDERS AND SEMIFINAL DARK HORSES

10. Denmark (Pot 2 | Elo: 11 | +2800)

Thrilling, inspirational and surprising all at once, the Danes surged to the Euro 2020 semis. They then roared through World Cup qualifying to suggest their run was no fluke. Christian Eriksen, whose heart stopped on that harrowing day last summer, is, remarkably, back and scoring goals for the national team nine months later.

11. Uruguay (Pot 2 | Elo: 12 | +4000)

Uruguay took perhaps the strangest trajectory to the 2022 World Cup. A mainstay at the tournament for a decade, with a revered coach, and now with a dynamic midfield it once lacked, it seemed like a sure bet to qualify again. But it stagnated, then lost four straight in October and November. It replaced Oscar Tabarez, the legendary boss, with Diego Alonso, who’d most recently failed at MLS laughing stock Inter Miami. Alonso, naturally, engineered an immediate turnaround. Uruguay won its last four matches, qualified comfortably, and, with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani still kicking (barely), can absolutely make noise in Qatar.

12. Switzerland (Pot 2 | Elo: 13 | +8000)

The most boring good team in the field — which isn’t necessarily an insult.

13. Croatia (Pot 2 | Elo: 16 | +5000)

The 2018 finalists are four years older and not exactly reinforced with youth. Luka Modric can still control entire games on a string, but don’t expect a repeat. A Round of 16 exit from the Euros and a tense qualifying campaign are more accurate predictors of success in Qatar.

14. Serbia (Pot 3 | Elo: 18 | +6600)

If you’re looking for the hipster Balkan dark horse that can emulate 2018 Croatia, look no further.

15. United States (Pot 2 | Elo: 21 | +8000)

The U.S. seems like the ultimate high-ceiling, low-floor team. In the best-case scenario, the starting lineup is full of rising stars at top European clubs who find grooves in a finely-tuned tactical setup and charge to the semifinals. In the worst case, those same stars sputter amid inconsistent playing time at their clubs; shortcomings at striker make the U.S. attack toothless; and they don’t win a single game.

For what will likely be the youngest team of the 32, both scenarios are entirely possible.

16. Mexico (Pot 2 | Elo: 17 | +8000)

The front three — Chucky Lozano, Raul Jimenez, Tecatito Corona — is still majestic in full flight. But if Hector Herrera, soon to be 32, runs out of gas in midfield, Mexico looks more likely to not even reach a fourth game than to win one — as it’s tried and failed to do at a preposterous seven consecutive World Cups.

17. Senegal (Pot 3 | Elo: 36 | +8000)

The most talented player pool in Africa hasn’t always produced results, but did this past winter at the Africa Cup of Nations, when Senegal won its first continental championship.

Most of this Senegalese core — Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Edouard Mendy, and so on — will be well into their 30s by the time 2026 rolls around, so 2022 feels like the opportunity for a quarterfinal run (or more).

18. Wales (Pot 4 | Elo: 19 | +15000)*

Welsh stars like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have been fading at club level for some time now — and yet, whenever they throw on that red kit with that dragon crest, they perform. Bale has literally, famously, prioritized Wales duty over golf — which he prioritized over Real Madrid.

To cap his career at a World Cup, though, Bale will first half to qualify. Wales must beat the winner of a Scotland-Ukraine playoff semifinal in June.

19. Peru (Pot 4 | Elo: 15 | +15000)*

Not unlike four years ago, Peru stumbled out of qualifying gates, then stormed to the finish, taking 13 points from its last six matches, including three in Colombia on a pivotal evening in January.

On paper, the player pool is thin. It ranks 59th in the world in Transfermarkt’s national team valuations, just ahead of Israel and The Gambia, and ahead of only Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica and Qatar among likely World Cup participants. But it has proven, over the past year and the past six years, that it is more than the sum of its parts.

20. Poland (Pot 3 | Elo: 27 | +8000)

Poland, with the world’s finest goalscorer (Robert Lewandowski) and not much else, underwhelmed at the 2018 tournament, and has decayed a bit since.

21. Ecuador (Pot 4 | Elo: 20 | +12500)

Dominant at altitude on home soil, pretty ordinary everywhere else. It’s a great qualifying formula, but, well, Doha is a few dozen feet above sea level.

22. Canada (Pot 4 | Elo: 28 | +15000)

The improbable kings of CONCACAF aren't quite as strong as their qualifying campaign would suggest. But Alphonso Davies-Jonathan David-Cyle Larin-Tajon Buchanan is a legitimately terrifying attacking depth chart that gives Canada significant upside.

A loss on the final matchday, however, condemned the Canadians to Pot 4, and likely to a tough group at the their first men's World Cup since 1986.

TIER 4: THE LONGSHOTS

23. Iran (Pot 3 | Elo: 23 | +10000)

Iran gave Portugal and Spain all sorts of trouble four years ago, and looks like the strongest team in Asia once again.

The bigger story, though, is that Iran is still forcibly barring women from attending matches.

24. Morocco (Pot 3 | Elo: 34 | +15000)

The fourth team in that Spain-Portugal group deserved far more than a solitary point from its three games in 2018. Should get more this year with a kinder draw.

25. South Korea (Pot 3 | Elo: 26 | +15000)

It's rude and unfairly reductive to say that this South Korea team is Heung-min Son and not much else. But most of the squad will come from the K League, not from Europe, and it's fairly top-heavy. South Korea will have the benefit of Pot 3 placement, but won't be favored to get out of its group.

26. Japan (Pot 3 | Elo: 29 | +15000)

The new, late-blooming star is Liverpool's Takumi Minamino. But the new team doesn't have the firepower that Japan's 2018 and 2010 World Cup squads had.

27. Costa Rica (Pot 4 | Elo: 33 | +25000)*

Los Ticos took a sensational 19 points from their last seven qualifiers to finish level on points with the U.S. and nab CONCACAF's playoff berth. New Zealand won't be a pushover, but Costa Rica is the clear favorite to get to Qatar.

28. Cameroon (Pot 4 | Elo: 56 | +15000)

No team qualified for Qatar in more dramatic fashion than Cameroon, which thought it was headed to a penalty shootout; then, in the 118th minute of a playoff in Algeria, thought it was eliminated; and then, in the 124th minute, sent Algerian players and coaches into prolonged despair with a stunning winner.

Now, the tall task: Snag a win, or at least a draw, at the World Cup, something Cameroon failed to do in each of its last two appearances.

29. Tunisia (Pot 3 | Elo: 60 | +25000)

Tunisia is easily the weakest team in Pot 3, and therefore the subject of a lot of rooting interests across the globe at Friday's draw.

30. Ghana (Pot 4 | Elo: 72 | +15000)

Ghana's 2022, thus far, looks like this:

(Wikipedia)
(Wikipedia)

It got bounced from the Africa Cup of Nations by Comoros, a volcanic archipelago home to less than 1 million people. Needless to say, this is nowhere close to the Black Stars teams that beat the U.S. in 2006 and 2010.

31. Saudi Arabia (Pot 4 | Elo: T-54 | +15000)

Just like four years ago, this Saudi team is built to dispatch inferior Asian foes; it is decidedly not build to withstand the type of opponents it'll meet at the World Cup.

32. Qatar (Pot 1 | Elo: 51 | +6600)

With several African and European imports, this somewhat-Qatari team has improved in recent years, to a level that might enable respectable World Cup showings — but not good ones.