The 2014 World Cup has just ended, making this the opportune time to speculate wildly about 2018. Here are five “way-too-early” favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Not a huge stretch here. The Germans are defending champions. They have played in 16 World Cups since World War II and reached at least the semifinals in 12 of them. Neuer will be back. Hummels, Boateng, Kroos, Ozil, Schurrle, Muller and Gotze will all be under 30. So will talented players such as Marco Reus, the Bender twins and Ilkay Gundogan who did not make it for 2014. Germany also has young stars such as Julian Draxler waiting for a chance. Khedira, Lahm, and Schweinsteiger may be possibilities, depending on fitness. A “Spain-type run” may be overstating things, but Germany will be a probable favorite.
France brought a young team to Brazil in 2014. They are better set up for runs at Euro 2016 and in 2018. Paul Pogba has potential to be a dominant midfielder (some think on the Platini/Zidane level). He will be 25 in 2018. Almost every 2014 player should still be in play. Youngsters such as Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann will be in their primes. If a few more starlets emerge from the 2013 U-20 World Cup winning team, Les Bleus should be a major factor in Russia.
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Spain needs a major rebuilding job. Fortunately, they have a ton of talent with which to do it. Their U-21 teams won back-to-back European Championships in 2011 and 2013. The downside of the “golden generation” has been those players getting shunted to the side with the national squad. Isco, Koke, Alvaro Morata, Iker Muniain and David De Gea are possible stars just getting established. They will be in their primes in 2018. Not to mention 24-year-old midfielder Ander Herrera who Manchester United just bought for $50 million. Expect 2014 to be a blip, not a sign of things to come.
Brazilian soccer has major, systemic issues regarding player development. That said, it’s not a direct relationship with the national team. While Brazil crapped out spectacularly at the 2014 World Cup, it happened in the semifinal, without their two essential players. Neymar is an elite star and a leader to build around. Brazil has players – Oscar, Willian, Paulinho – who will be under 30 in 2018 and can be salvaged. Bernard, Lucas Moura and Marquinhos are ones to watch for the future. Brazil need a viable striker and a more creative, possession holding midfield. They have the talent for the latter and they can find the former in four years. Also worth noting: a number of Brazilians, for better or for worse, have experience playing at club level in Russia and Ukraine.
The 2014 Argentina squad underwhelmed, in a lot of ways. But, they came really, ridiculously close to winning the entire tournament. Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Di Maria should be back for one more run. So will 24-year-old defender Marcus Rojo, who had an excellent time in Brazil. They can replace like for like defensively. The issue, as it has been the last two cycles, will be maximizing Messi. That means moving the ball fluidly from back to front and having someone who can (gasp) play him through on goal. Four years, under sound stewardship, may be enough time to develop a midfield. Or, perhaps, find a fountain of youth for Riquelme.
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[Photos via Getty]