The 2018 FIFA World Cup is rapidly approaching. While the hype machine may not be as strong for this year's edition as it was for previous years, there are still plenty of hot questions that are floating around as we get closer and closer to the big event.
2014 was a great year for Die Mannschaft as the Germans put on a master class over the course of the tournament. They'll need every bit of that brilliance to manifest itself in 2018. They're in a tough group, and it's imperative to avoid what would be a likely matchup with a revenge-minded Brazil squad if they finish runners-up in Group E. Still, if anybody has the ability to repeat, it's Germany.
Speaking of Brazil, it will definitely have redemption on its mind after an embarrassing debacle of a 7-1 defeat at the hands of Germany. If the Brazilians are going to go on a revenge tour, they'll have a relatively easy group to start. Their infamous 1950 failure resulted in an eventual triumph eight years later, so maybe something similar could happen for Brazil here.
Spain went into the 2014 World Cup on top of the world but shockingly bowed out in the group stage in Brazil. Then the Spaniards only made it to the Round of 16 at Euro 16, so it's clear that the age of Spanish domination is over. As a result, Spain enters this tournament floating under the radar a bit but still has a dangerous squad.
Lionel Messi has done it all in club soccer with Barcelona. He's won every domestic trophy in Spain multiple times over, he's lifted the European Cup and he has a plethora of individual awards as well. As smooth as life at Barca has been, it's been rocky when it comes to the national team. He's come close to winning both Copa America and the World Cup but hasn't won either. This is probably his last chance at lifting the latter. Will he finally do it?
Of course, whenever you talk about Messi, you have to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo as well. His Portugal squad pulled off a massive upset when it stumbled into winning Euro 2016. If the team can manage to improve upon that performance and gets an otherworldly performance from Ronaldo, anything is possible.
The World Cup has been around since 1930. In that time, no African or Asian country has even made the final, much less won it all. However, ceilings are made to be crashed through, and maybe we'll see someone from one of the other regions of soccer ride a massive amount of luck all the way to lifting the trophy.
When Pele was 17 years old, he was part of a Brazilian squad that took Sweden by storm and won its first World Cup. Sixty years later, that 1958 Brazil team stands alone as the only South American team to win a World Cup on European soil. If Brazil is going to get revenge for 2014 or Messi is going to finally lift the trophy, either will have to overcome huge historical odds to prevail.
More often than not, the host country for a World Cup rises to the occasion and finishes in a position higher than expected. With that said, it would be a big shock if this Russian team was able to go deep. Russia was bounced in the group stage of the 2017 Confederations Cup, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the same thing happen this summer.
This question is basically tailor-made for Iceland. The tiny island nation made it all the way to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 and made even more history by qualifying for its first World Cup. Iceland proved it should be taken just as seriously as the big boys, and although the Icelanders are in a tough group, don't expect them to just roll over.
Speaking of tough groups, Group D is a strong one with the likes of Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and the aforementioned Iceland. Still, you could have a long argument in the run-up to this year's tournament about which group is actually the toughest. Group C and Group F are in the conversation, which means there isn't a clear-cut group of death this year. Go figure.
For the sake of the majority of soccer fans here in the United States and plenty of television executives, Mexico better have a deep run in the World Cup. The Mexicans are in a tricky group that includes Germany, and they haven't made it past the Round of 16 since 1986, which is when they were hosts. With the U.S. missing out, El Tri will also be carrying the flag of North America for this tournament. No pressure, fellas.
Speaking of droughts in the World Cup, it's been a while since England was considered a serious threat to win a major trophy. The Three Lions finished fourth back in 1990 and have spent the most recent decades losing in agonizing fashion. That's likely their destiny for 2018, but maybe this will be the year when "football comes home" for England for the first time since 1966.
Belgium's golden generation of talent made its debut at the 2014 World Cup. Four years later, it's high time for the Belgians to deliver. A quick look at their attacking talent seems to indicate that this team will have a bevy of goals in them and could be the most fearsome attack at the World Cup. They have the talent to go deep in this tournament and finally live up to their reputation.
Going into the 2014 World Cup, fans of Porto and Monaco knew all about Colombian James Rodriguez, but he truly broke out on the global scene after he finished the World Cup with six goals — one of which ended up winning the Puskas Award for goal of the year. The whole world knew who James was after the World Cup was over, and there will surely be another player who makes his presence known.
James Rodriguez turned his amazing performance at the World Cup into a transfer to Real Madrid, and it's likely that Los Blancos will go into their never-ending war chest of riches and go after the latest player to make a name for himself on the biggest stage imaginable. It's likely that "World Cup breakout star" and "newest Real Madrid signing" will be one and the same.
The Netherlands may be absent from this year's World Cup, but the specter of Robin van Persie's wonder goal from 2014 will be present. While James Rodriguez scored the eventual Puskas Award-winning goal, van Persie's amazing header was equal to James' goal. Those are two amazingly tough acts to follow, so we'll be in for a treat if we see someone score a better goal in Russia.
Remember when Luis Suarez got hungry and went on yet another on-field biting spree? He did receive a major suspension for his actions, but every official on the pitch — from the referee to the linesmen — managed to miss it. That was one of many officiating snafus, and we're almost guaranteed to see some more in this year's World Cup. It would be a pleasant surprise if the referees were on point like the players are sure to be.
After tearing the Premier League apart and helping fire Liverpool all the way to the Champions League Final, Mohamed Salah heads into the World Cup in the form of his life. If he can keep it up, he might just carry Egypt into being a shockingly scary dark-horse team at this year's World Cup.
France is coming off of a smooth qualification for this year's World Cup and a strong runners-up showing at Euro 2016. The French are one of the favorites to win it all, but France is also famous for coming to big tournaments and flopping due to infighting and scandals within its own ranks. If they can avoid that, the French will be fine, but it has to be in the back of the mind of every fan of Les Bleus.
Holland, Italy, Chile and the USA would make for a very tough World Cup group in most years, but this year all four of those countries will be deservedly observing from the sidelines after they had some truly woeful performances during World Cup qualifying. The only question for these nations is whether or not they'll learn anything from this painful experience, or if they'll continue to spin their wheels in the mud.