By Christian Smith
The statistical computer models and data-driven simulations have all concluded that Brazil, Germany, and France are most likely to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but there are upstart teams and rising stars that could flip the tournament.
"The dark horse that the experts are picking and that I'm incredibly enthusiastic about is Belgium," said Jeffrey Marcus, publisher of the World Cup newsletter The Banter. "Belgium has never won a World Cup, but they have what people call the 'golden generation' ー every single player at every single position right now is world class."
Marcus, who covered the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the 2010 tournament in South Africa, said the best teams don't interest him as much as the teams that have the best stories, including Peru and Egypt.
Peru dominated South American soccer in the 1970s with Argentina and Brazil, but hasn't played in the World Cup since 1982. The team's star striker, Paolo Guerrero, earned a last-minute reprieve from a doping ban to be allowed to play at this World Cup. He said his positive test was a result of drinking tea made from coca leaves that a Lima hotel waiter served him. It’s a common enough Andean beverage, but it also shows up like cocaine in a drug test.
Along with the veteran Guerrero, Peru will be boosted by 22-year-old Renato Tapia, a hard-charging midfielder who Marcus said will turn heads at this World Cup. Peru may struggle to beat France, Australia, and Denmark in Group C, but Marcus said he is attracted to the team's story and its potential to surprise.
Egypt is led by one of the world's best players, Mohamed Salah, who Marcus called "the most positive player in the tournament." Egypt has only qualified for the World Cup twice before ー in 1990 and all the way back in 1934 ーand the Pharaohs have never made it out of group play. This may be the team's year. Egypt plays Uruguay on Friday in Group A.
The other teams in their group officially kicked off the tournament on Thursday, as the host Russia defeated Saudi Arabia 5-0 in Moscow.
The round-robin group stage will last for two weeks, after which the top two teams in each of the eight groups will advance to the round of 16. The World Cup final will be July 15 in Moscow.
For the full interview, click here.