NORTH, CENTRAL AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN
It only comes around every four years, and when it does it can even turn the most cynical and jaded football fan into a hyper-excited child on too much sugar.
This year’s FIFA World Cup is taking place in Russia, and thankfully the kick off schedule is rather forgiving for us here on Gulf Standard Time (unlike the 2014 World Cup in Brazil).
Generally, matches will be kicking off between 1pm and 10pm during the opening round of group stage fixtures (which takes place between Thursday June 14 and Tuesday 19). Matchdays two and three, held between Tuesday June 19 and Thursday 28, will see the vast majority of matches kick off at 3pm, 6pm and 9pm.
Up and down Dubai you’re going to find pubs and sports bars filling up for the occasion, and we’re going to be treated to an absolute festival of sport for one whole month.
Everyone at Time Out is already getting the flag bunting up, the barbecue burning and the TV ready, but before we pass out with excitement we’ve put together the absolute, everything-you-need-to-know guide to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Here, you’ll find out which bars are showing the matches kick off, what teams are involved, the star players to keep an eye out for in the tournament and more. Get ready for a month of non-stop football, everyone. And roll on the final on Sunday July 15.
Manager: Héctor Cúper
Where there’s Mo, there’s hope, right? The North African side ended 28 years of World Cup woe by qualifying for their first finals since 1990 in thrilling fashion. A dramatic double by none other than Liverpool superstar Mo Salah against Congo sealed the win. They have a strong team capable of emerging from a tough group but their chances will clearly depend on the form of their talented talisman.
Star Player: Mo Salah
The fleeted-forward has taken the Premier League and Champions League by storm this year with a series of stunning, record-breaking performances – now it is time for him to make a big impact on the world stage.
Footy Fact: Egypt have reached two previous World Cups (in 1934 and 1990), never making it past the opening round.
Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
The World Cup hosts will be under huge pressure to make an impact from their fervent fans, but a largely lacklustre squad will need all the home support they can muster to make it out of a challenging group. After a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, a series of patchy performances in recent friendly matches will have fans hoping they’ve done enough to put together a respectable World Cup challenge on home soil.
Star Player: Igor Akinfeev
The formidable shot-stopper has well over 100 caps to his name and is still in his goalkeeping prime having only recently turned 32. He will need to be at his imposing best to thwart the likes of Mo Salah and Uruguay’s star-studded forward line of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Footy Fact: Russia, in its previous guise of the unified Soviet Union, won the first ever European Championships in 1960, seeing off Yugoslavia after extra time in a hard-fought final in Paris.
Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Has Saudi Arabia finally assembled a team capable of emerging from the shadow of the heroes of USA ’94? That swashbuckling side shocked Belgium and Morocco on their way to a place in the last 16, but Saudi Arabia have failed to win a single match in three subsequent World Cup finals. The class of 2018 reached Russia in fine style, finishing just behind Japan in a keenly-contested Asian qualifying section. The battle-hardened side will be eager to make the most of their World Cup return after a 12-year absence.
Star Player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi
The prolific marksman will be aiming to fire his side to glory in Russia. A natural finisher, he has bagged more than a century of goals for his club side Al-Nassr and is closing in on 30 strikes at international level. Ever the professional, he sharpened up his shooting skills ahead of his World Cup debut by training with Premier League giants, Manchester United.
Footy Fact: Saudi Arabia reached the final of the first-ever Confederations Cup in 1992 (King Fahd Cup) losing out to Argentina.
Manager: Óscar Tabárez
The winners of the first World Cup back in 1930 have plenty of recent pedigree thanks to the exploits of a golden generation of players over the last decade (including Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan). Semi-finalists in 2010 and Copa America winners a year later, Uruguay finished second behind an all-conquering Brazil in qualifying for Russia and are more than capable of going deep into the tournament this time around.
Star Player: Luis Suarez
Electric at Liverpool and even better at Barcelona, the maverick striker has proven himself to be one of the very best footballers in recent years. He has replicated his terrific club form at international level and will again be the lynchpin of a talented Uruguay side.
Uruguay were the hosts and winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1930. The pre-tournament favourites defeated South American rivals Argentina 4-2 in a thrilling final in front of a delighted crowd of more than 68,000 fans.
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
The undoubted underdogs of the group, Iran will rely heavily on the know-how of vastly experienced manager Carlos Queiroz. The team will be buoyed by their impressive form during qualifying, where they put together an impressive ten-game unbeaten run to best South Korea by seven points. Queiroz will know all about the qualities of Cristiano Ronaldo, having managed him for both Portugal and Real Madrid, but unfortunately for him that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be able to stop him.
Star Player: Sardar Azmoun
The Iranian Messi (every nation has to have one) notched up 11 goals during qualifying to help lead his country to Russia and will provide a much-needed creative spark to help try to unlock top-class defences.
Footy Fact: While they are viewed as footballing minnows, Iran have now successfully qualified for four of the past six World Cups.
Manager: Hervé Renard
Morocco couldn’t come into their first World Cup for twenty years in any better shape. They cruised through a qualifying group containing highly-regarded Ivory Coast without losing a game or even conceding a single goal. Spain and Portugal might not have everything their own way as the North Africans bid to shake up the European establishment.
Star Player: Hakim Ziyech
The Ajax midfield maestro is one of the rising stars of African football. Not only does he possess a nifty pair of shooting boots (he averages more than a goal every other game for his national team) he also has an eye for a pass, having twice notched up the most assists in the season in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Footy Fact: Back in the World Cup reckoning for the first time this century, Morocco are aiming to go one better in eight years’ time after launching a bid to host the 2026 tournament.
Manager: Fernando Santos
The Iberian nation confounded their critics by securing their first international trophy at Euro 2016 despite a series of underwhelming displays. They relied heavily on the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo in booking their ticket to Russia 2018 but, if you have one of the best players in history on your team, you can hardly blame them for building a side around his irrepressible striking abilities.
Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
What can you say about Ronaldo that hasn’t already been said? One of the sporting world’s biggest stars has been named the planet’s greatest player numerous times, he has scored 81 goals in 149 games for Portugal and an incredible 311 goals in 292 matches for Real Madrid. He’s won pretty much everything there is to win in football, except the World Cup.
Footy Fact: Despite their status as one of the world’s leading football nations, until 1996 Portugal had only participated in three major tournaments since the first World Cup in 1930.
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
The classy Spaniards look primed for a return to their glorious best after enduring a fallow period in their aftermath of their hat-trick of title wins (two European Championships and one World Cup) from 2008 to 2012. Still the pass masters of world football, Spain remained unbeaten during qualifying and outlined their status as one of the favourites at Russia 2018 with a 6-1 demolition of fellow contenders for the title Argentina in a recent high-profile friendly.
Star Player: David Silva
At the age of 32 and after well over 100 caps, Silva is finally getting the praise his heady talents deserve. The unassuming conductor of another Manchester City title win, silky schemer Silva is worth his weight in gold.
Footy Fact: Spain made history when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012, becoming the first team to clinch three international tournaments in a row.
Manager: Bert van Marwijk
At a time when the Australian cricket team’s on-field antics have been, well, just not cricket, antipodeans may be looking to their football team for some sporting redemption. They can expect plenty of honest endeavour and toil, but the days of Viduka, Kewell and the like are in the rear view mirror. While old stager Tim Cahill is still going strong, this is not a vintage Aussie outfit and an early trip back Down Under may be on the cards.
Star Player: Aaron Mooy
The talented midfielder has been one of the star performers in a Huddersfield Town team that has defied expectations in their maiden Premier League season. He will be aiming to end an impressive campaign on a high on the global stage.
Footy Fact: Australia holds the world record for the biggest win and the most goals scored by a player in a single match. Both feats were achieved in the same game, when the Aussies crushed American Samoa 31-0 during a World Cup qualifying match in 2001. Archie Thompson hit the net an incredible 13 times, with David Zdrilic having to make do with a mere eight. They still didn’t qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan, though.
Manager: Åge Hareide
Every tournament needs a dark horse or two and the Danes look like they might fit the bill in 2018. After finishing runners-up to Poland in a competitive qualifying group, they steamrolled the cagey Republic of Ireland 5-1 in Dublin to earn a route to Russia through the play-offs. The Danish side’s front-foot style makes them a pleasing proposition for neutrals and may win them a few new fans this summer.
Star Player: Christian Eriksen
The most exciting Danish talent since the Laudrup brothers, Eriksen has a chance to showcase his prodigious talents to a huge audience in Russia. Sometimes his extravagant abilities can be neglected in a Tottenham team containing Harry Kane and Dele Alli, but he is undoubtedly the star man here. Plus Harry won’t be around to steal his goals.
Footy Fact: Denmark wrote the final chapter of one of football’s most remarkable stories when they won Euro 1992. After failing to qualify for the tournament, they made the most of a rare second chance after Yugoslavia were expelled to go all the way to the final, where they vanquished hot favourites and reigning World Champions West Germany 2-0.
Manager: Didier Deschamps
A flamboyant French team loaded with an array of attacking talent – think Pogba, Mbappe, Lemar and Griezmann – will be determined to bounce back from the disappointment of losing the final of Euro 2016 in their own backyard. Without the extra pressure of being home favourites, Les Bleus could well become champions of the world again – 20 years on from their first triumph.
Star Player: Antoine Griezmann
The top scorer and player of the tournament at Euro 2016 remains one of the brightest talents in the game. While many will be surprised he has so far remained loyal to Atletico Madrid, a big showing in Russia could well see him on the move, perhaps for a controversial switch across the city to Real Madrid.
Footy Fact: The very first goal in the inaugural World Cup in 1930 was scored by a Frenchman, the late forward Lucien Laurent in a 4-1 win over Mexico.
Manager: Ricardo Gareca
Now Peru isn’t just known for being the homeland of a friendly bear with a penchant for marmalade (that’s Paddington, for the youngsters among you). The two-time Copa America winners haven’t pitched up on football’s grandest stage since 1982, but they ended their hiatus after finishing in the play-off spots in the tough South American qualifying league. Peru saw off New Zealand without conceding a goal over two legs to earn their return. They will be determined to make the most of their moment in the spotlight, despite losing star Paulo Guerrero to a ban.
Star Player: Jefferson Farfán
Losing your all-time leading goal-scorer on the eve of the tournament is tough to take, but Peru will be hoping to progress without the influential Guerrero. In Farfán, they have a man with more than 20 international goals. He’ll be hoping to add to them in Russia, where he plays for Lokomotiv Moscow.
Footy Fact: Peru were one of 13 teams to take part in the first World Cup in 1930, losing both their games to Romania and hosts Uruguay.
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
They have lifted the trophy twice (1978, 1986) and have been runners up three times (1930, 1990 and last time out in 2014). It could be the swansong for many of their team of superstars including Javier Mascherano, Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and captain Lionel Messi. Strong in attack but with defensive frailties, many will still fancy the free-scoring South Americans to win the tournament this time.
Star Player: Lionel Messi
The FC Barcelona magician carries the hope of a nation, much in the same way Diego Maradona did. However, he’ll be looking to avoid the disappoint of coming second again after losing 1-0 to Germany in 2014. Won the Golden Ball award in the last tournament – despite not being at his best.
Footy Fact: Three players have scored World Cup hat-tricks for Argentina: Guillermo Stábile (in a 6-3 win over Mexico, 1930) Gabriel Batistuta twice (in a 4-0 win over Greece, 1994, and a 5-0 win over Jamaica, 1998) and Gonzalo Higuaín (in a 4-1 win over South Korea, 2010).
Manager: Zlatko Dalic
Croatia survived a nervy fight to seal their place in Russia after beating Greece 4-1 in the play-offs, having finished runners up to Iceland (also in Group D). This will be their fifth World Cup appearance since making their debut in 1998 (remember the exceptional Davor Suker anyone?) where they finished third after losing to eventual winners France in the semi-finals.
Star Player: Luka Modric
The Real Madrid playmaker has been voted Croatia’s Footballer of the Year six times. Nimble with a low-centre of gravity, Modric can glide past players as easily as he can cut defences open with pinpoint passes.
Footy Fact: Brazil legend Pelé voted Davor Suker onto his list of the 125 greatest players of all time – to mark FIFA’s 100th anniversary in 2004 – the only Croatian to make the cut.
Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Wow, what a remarkable rise these minnows have had in the past two years. After taking UEFA Euro 2016 by storm and reaching the quarter-finals (losing to eventual runners-up and hosts France), Iceland won the hearts of fans around the globe. Their Viking war clap boomed its way straight into one of football’s most memorable moments. They qualified as Group I winners, picking up 22 points from ten games. They’re a neutral’s favourite and not to be underestimated: just look back at every England fan’s face two summers ago.
Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Iceland’s squad is built on team spirit, however Everton’s £45 million (QR228 million) midfielder is their shining star. Like Luka Modric, he has been voted the nation’s best player six times. He has played in the four tiers of professional English football: in League Two for Shrewsbury Town, League One for Crewe Alexandra, Championship for Reading and Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton in the English Premier League.
Footy Fact: With a population of around 335,000, Iceland are the smallest national ever to make the World Cup. They snatched the title from Trinidad and Tobago (population circa 1.3 million), who reached the 2006 tournament in Germany.
Manager: Gernot Rohr
The African nation have become a regular World Cup contender since making their debut in 1994 – having only missed the 2006 tournament in Germany. They have reached the last 16 three times (1994, 1998 and 2014), however they face a tough task of qualifying from this group. Former Chelsea man John Obi Mikel will sit in the heart of a midfield, behind an attacking force of Premier League quality with Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa playing alongside Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi.
Star Player: Victor Moses
The Chelsea wing-back led their qualification campaign, seeing them finish Group B winners, five points clear of Zambia and six ahead of Cameroon. He was voted Nigeria Footballer of the Year in February.
Footy Fact: Nigeria could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of Argentina having been drawn in their group five of the past six times. However, they will find confidence in a recent friendly win where they beat Argentina 4-2.
The five-time champions are one of the favourites every tournament. This year it’s no different – so long as star man Neymar recovers from his fractured metatarsal (oh that old menace) in time. The 2014 hosts suffered an embarrassing 7-1 mauling by Germany in the semi-finals in front of gobsmacked home fans, so they’ll be hungry for revenge this time around. They qualified as winners of the South American division ahead of Uruguay.
Star Player: Neymar
Paris Saint-Germain’s wantaway wizard became a prodigy in his teens and lived up to the hype, having scooped four consecutive Player of the Year awards by the age of 21 while at Santos FC. Still only 26, he is fourth on Brazil’s all-time goalscorer list with 53 in 83 games. Pelé is top with 77 in 93.
Footy Fact: Brazil are the only nation to feature at every World Cup tournament.
Manager: Oscar Ramirez
Making their fifth World Cup appearance, Costa Rica will be hoping to reach the same heights of 2014 having escaped the “Group of Death” last time round. They beat Uruguay and Italy before drawing against England and topped the group against all odds. They went onto the quarter-finals, losing to the Netherlands on penalties. They sealed their spot by finishing second behind Mexico in the North, Central America and Caribbean standings.
Star Player: Keylor Navas
The shot-stopper will find himself having busier games than he’s used to as Real Madrid’s No. 1.
Footy Fact: Costa Rica were one of just three unbeaten teams (after 90 minutes) at the last World Cup, along with winners Germany and the third placed The Netherlands.
Manager: Mladen Krstajic
Probably not everyone’s favourite (outside of Serbia, of course), they are not to be underestimated having won Group D in the European qualifiers – plus having a wealth of tournament experience. They have made 11 appearances in various different guises – eight as part of Yugoslavia from 1930 to 1990, two as Serbia and Montenegro in 1998 and 2006 and once as Serbia in 2010.
Star Player: Nemanja Matic
The ex-Chelsea man has been one of Manchester United’s best players this season. He is a master of the defensive midfield position and achieved plaudits from fans for bursting into tears as they sealed qualification last year. Real men do cry.
Footy Fact: Milorad Arsenijevic (imagine the Scrabble points) became the first person to play in and manage a World Cup team – having featured for Yugoslavia in 1930 before taking charge in 1950.
Manager: Vladimir Petkovic
The Swiss did it the hard way to book their place in Russia with a play-off win against Northern Ireland. Fans now expect them to feature in the major tournaments regularly, with manager Vladimir Petkovic targeting at least the quarter-finals. They have pace in Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber, with a masterful player in Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka. However, they don’t score a lot of goals on the world stage – with main striker Haris Seferović having notched just 11 times in 47 games.
Star Player: Granit Xhaka
The Arsenal midfielder is the beating heart of Switzerland, dictating the pace of the game with brilliant hold up play and clinical passes. Expect him to shut down opponents’ creative players, and maybe pick up a red card.
Footy Fact: Not something they’d want reminding of, but it’s true nonetheless: Switzerland became the first team to be knocked out of World Cup despite not conceding a goal – having lost 3-0 on penalties to Ukraine (following a 0-0 draw). They also became the first side never to score in a penalty shootout.
Manager: Joachim Löwe
The reigning champions will be hoping to make it consecutive World Cup titles following victory in Brazil in 2014. With star names like Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Manuel Neuer and Mesut Özil, plus plenty of rising stars, Germany are again among the favourites to lift the trophy come Sunday July 15.
Star Player: Thomas Müller
With legions of stars to choose from, Müller is Germany’s most potent striker, and he loves the World Cup. Having scored five goals in each of the last two tournaments, Müller is just six goals away from equalling the all-time record, and aged 28, time is on his side.
Footy Fact: Germany hold the record for the largest margin of victory in a World Cup semi-final, having tonked hosts Brazil 7-1 in the Estádio Mineirão in the 2014 tournament.
Manager: Shin Tae-yong
Hailing from South Korea, Korea Republic’s success in the 2002 World Cup saw them become the first, and currently only, Asian team to reach the semi-finals of the tournament, when they went out to eventual finalists Germany in a tournament they co-hosted with Japan.
Star Player: Son Heung-min
The Tottenham Hotspur forward will be hoping to make a big impression at the World Cup, and with 20 goals for his country in 63 appearances, South Korea will be turning to the wiry forward for inspiration.
Footy Fact: South Korea won the first two AFC Asian Cup tournaments (in 1956 and 1960), but haven’t won the tournament since, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan having all lifted the trophy on more occasions.
Manager: Juan Carlos Osorio
Having only failed to qualify for three World Cups in the tournament’s history, Mexico are a perennial presence and always a fan favourite. They’re also adept at getting out of the group stages of the tournament, having qualified to the knockout stage in each of the last seven tournaments in which they’ve featured.
Star Player: Javier Hernandez.
And he has been for some time. The West Ham forward, formerly of Man Utd and Real Madrid, leads the line for Mexico with 49 international career goals, and is the country’s all-time top goal scorer. Fun fact: he’s never scored a goal from outside the box in his Premier League career.
Footy Fact: The nickname for Mexico is El Tricolor, owing to the country’s green, white and red flag.
Manager: Janne Andersson
Also found in what might be this year’s dreaded “Group of Death” are Sweden, who have had a 12-year absence from the tournament. Having defeated Italy over two legs in the qualifying stage’s play-off round, the Swedes will be hoping to build on the Round of 16 finish they’ve had in their past two tournaments, in 2002 and 2006.
Star Player: Marcus Berg
While we doubt we’ve heard the last of self-aggrandising bore Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer to LA Galaxy has seen them win just twice since he arrived, Sweden will be hoping Marcus Berg will be firing on all cyclinders in his absence. The 31-year-old striker has notched 18 goals during his international career.
Footy Fact: Sweden’s best ever finish in a World Cup came in 1958, a tournament that they hosted, when they lost 5-2 to champions Brazil (a win that landed the Brazilians their first World Cup crown).
Manager: Roberto Martinez
In recent tournaments Belgium have always been considered the dark horse, but are yet to make serious inroads towards the latter stages of the competition. With some incredible talents in the squad, plus coaching from Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry, the foundations are there. Will this be the year the Belgians make a huge impact?
Star Player: Kevin De Bruyne
This midfielder has already been crowned a champion this year with Manchester City, so can the former Wolfsburg and Chelsea star take that winning mentality on to the international scene? Judging by his outrageous passing ability and tendency for scoring a screamer, we think probably, yes.
Footy Fact: According to the FIFA rankings, Belgium are currently the third best team in the world, having previously sat atop the ranking tables between November 2015 and March 2016.
Manager: Gareth Southgate
It’s the same every time – massive hype, tonnes of excitement and over-expectancy on the England team. But, manager Gareth Southgate has instilled a pragmatic sense of calm over the 1966 winners this time around, playing down his team’s chances while also instilling a sense of optimism into a squad with one of the youngest average ages in the tournament. Is this their year?
Star Player: Harry Kane
Having roared to a monumental 56 goals in 2017 across all competitions (that’s better than Messi and Ronaldo, by the way), an ankle injury hampered the 24-year-old’s season a little. But Kane returned to fitness in time for the World Cup build-up, and England hopes will be pinned on his shooting boots and fans will be hoping he’s sharp. After all, it wouldn’t be England at a World Cup if there wasn’t a pre-tournament injury worry to a star player (see: David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney).
Footy Fact: England are statistically the world’s worst team in penalty shoot-outs. Having lost seven of their eight shoot-outs in major tournaments, England fans will be hoping that the dreaded 12-yard decider isn’t needed this year.
Manager: Hernán Darío Gómez
With the USA surprisingly failing to make it to this year’s tournament, all eyes from the region are on Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica. The Central American nation will be making its debut in the World Cup this year, and despite being pooled in a tricky group, will be hopeful of causing an upset to some of the more established sides.
Star Player: Román Torres
The Seattle Sounders centre back is ready to lead his country in the World Cup for the first time, and, presuming he plays in Panama’s two pre-tournament warm-up matches, his 111th cap for his country against Belgium on Monday June 18 will be his most important.
Footy Fact: Panama scored more goals and accrued more points (in total) in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 WorldCup, but missed out on a play-off spot by three points last time.
Manager: Nabil Maâloul
It’ll be the first time since 2006 that Tunisia have made it to the World Cup, having made it to three consecutive tournaments before that. The North Africans will be hoping to make it out of the group phase for the first time in the country’s history, with 2018 being the fifth time of competing in the tournament.
Star Player: Wahbi Khazri
Technically still contracted to Sunderland (now in England’s League One), Khazri spent last season on loan at French Ligue 1 side Rennes. In 17 appearances the attacking midfielder has bagged nine goals (at the time of writing), and will be hoping to take this goal-scoring form to Russia.
Footy Fact: Tunisia were the first-ever winners of the Arab Nations Cup back in 1963. Sadly for The Eagles of Carthage, they haven’t won the tournament since.
Manager: José Pékerman
Everyone loves the South American teams at the World Cup, and Colombia are no exception. Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) will be out to build on last year’s impressive run to the quarter-finals, where they were somewhat unfortunate to lose 2-1 to hosts Brazil. With talismanic forwards James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao leading the line, this pacey team will pose a threat to any side in the tournament.
Star Player: James Rodríguez
There’s nothing like scoring an absolute beauty at the World Cup to put you on the map. A 22-year-old midfielder at the time, Rodríguez’s career really took off after scoring a screaming turn-and-volley effort against rivals Chile in the 2014 tournament. Following Colombia’s World Cup exit, Rodríguez secured a move to Real Madrid, and now plies his trade at Bayern Munich as one of the world’s most talented attackers.
Footy Fact: Despite going out in the quarter-finals at the 2014 tournament, Rodríguez won two awards at the tournament – the Golden Boot (shared), with six goals, and the best goal, for the aforementioned screamer against Chile.
Manager: Akira Nishino
Japan are one of the most successful teams in Asia (as the only team to have won the AFC Asian Cup four times), and have secured themselves a spot in the World Cup for the sixth successive time. In each of the past five tournaments, they’ve alternated between group stage and the round of 16 finishes, and they’ll have to overcome some tough teams to qualify from their group this time.
Star Player: Shinji Okazaki
A close call this, with Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa also impressive, but Okazaki currently has 50 international goals to his name, and having won the Premier League with Leicester City since the country last took part, Okazaki will be looking to bring his experience and goals to Japan’s World Cup hopes.
Footy Fact: Since first qualifying for the World Cup in 1998, Japan have never failed to reach the tournament.
Manager: Adam Nawałka
Having failed to qualify for the past two World Cups, Poland will have a point to prove this time. Quarter-finalists at the UEFA Euro 2016 championships in France, Poland went out on penalties to eventual champions Portugal. If they can replicate their achievement from two years ago, Poland could be on for a best-ever performance in the World Cup.
Star Player: Robert Lewandowski
He’s Poland’s all-time leading goalscorer, with 52 goals, and at 29 years old he’s still got plenty of time to keep adding to that tally. The Bayern Munich striker has had his best ever goal scoring season with 29 goals in the Bundesliga and 41 in total, and will lead Poland’s charge at the country’s first World Cup in 12 years.
Footy Fact: At Euro 2016, Poland exited the tournament with the rare achievement of having not lost a single game.
Manager: Aliou Cissé
At their first-ever World Cup, back in 2002, Senegal boldly smashed their way on to the international football scene by slaying the reigning World and European champions France in the first game of the tournament. Senegal, having not been to a World Cup since, will be keen to make a similar impact and better their 2002 quarter-final appearance.
Star Player: Sadio Mané
Probably one of the quickest players in the tournament, the Liverpool forward has the pace to frighten any defence in the world. With 14 international goals to date and a prolific season alongside Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah at club level, the forward has got the finishing touch to
match his searing speed.
Footy Fact: Senegal striker Moussa Sow is also one of the founding partners of the US soccer franchise San Diego 1904, along with Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Chelsea’s Hazard.