The groups for the 2018 World Cup are set. The tournament schedule is locked in. So who came away from Friday’s World Cup Draw with favorable itineraries for next summer in Russia? Who were the winners and losers of the day?
First, a look at the groups, with teams listed in order from Pot 1 to Pot 4:
Group A — Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Group B — Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco
Group C — France, Peru, Denmark, Australia
Group D — Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E — Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Group F — Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Group G — Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Group H — Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan
This year’s World Cup Draw was seeded differently, and more evenly, than in years past. The 2018 groups are therefore more balanced than in years past.
But the seeding wasn’t without its quirks, and the draw, therefore, wasn’t without its winners and losers:
England — When the Three Lions were drawn alongside Belgium from Pot 1, English fans worried. But those worries proved to be unfounded. Tunisia, the worst team from Pot 3, provided plenty of relief. And Panama, one of the worst from Pot 4, will have England feeling (over)confident heading into next summer’s tournament.
Belgium — Belgium will also be happy, despite getting one of the tougher Pot 2 teams in England. Crucially, the two European sides will play each other in the final game of the group. If they both take care of Tunisia and Panama in their first two matches, they’ll already be through to the knockout rounds with a game to spare.
Uruguay — The second-best team in South America throughout the qualifying cycle not only drew Russia, the weakest team from Pot 1. It also got Saudi Arabia, the weakest team from Pot 4, and Egypt, a middle-of-the-pack Pot 3 side.
Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — Frankly, all the Group A contestants are winners. Uruguay isn’t exactly vulnerable, but it won’t be overpowering. Russia and Egypt will both like their chances to advance. And even Saudi Arabia might fancy itself for an upset or two.
Senegal — One of the stronger Pot 3 teams could have been faced with two giants from Pots 1 and 2. Instead, the Lions of Teranga got ordinary Poland and beatable Colombia. They’ll also have to contend with Japan, and are by no means favored to get out of Group H (Poland and Colombia still are). But, all things considered, they have to be pretty happy.
Mexico — El Tri will still be confident that it can get out of a group featuring Germany, Sweden and South Korea. But Sweden, arguably the best team from Pot 3, will be stiff competition. Plus, even if Mexico finishes second to Germany, it would likely be staring at a Round of 16 clash with Brazil – assuming the Brazilians win Group E.
South Korea — Germany, Mexico, Sweden … yeah, that’s not going to be easy.
Croatia — Croatia had to feel good about its draw prospects coming out of Pot 2. But it got Lionel Messi and Argentina from Pot 1. It got Iceland – a team it finished behind in qualifying – from Pot 3. And it got Nigeria, the class of Pot 4.
Argentina — The Argentines avoided Spain, and will therefore be favored in Group D. But there are plenty of landmines for a team that has wavered between disjointed and dysfunctional over the past few years. It barely qualified, and will get staunch resistance from Iceland and Croatia. It lost to Nigeria 4-2 in a recent friendly. There are absolutely no guarantees that Messi and co. reach the knockout stages. Oh, and if they do so as the group runner-up? They’ll probably get France in the Round of 16.
BOTH WINNERS AND LOSERS
Spain, Portugal — Spain and Portugal were the losers of the first half of the draw. They’ll play each other in the opening game of Group B, and Portugal knows all too well what it’s like to drop the first match of a World Cup to a fellow European power.
But, at the same time, both will be favored over Iran and Morocco. Even if, say, Portugal loses the opener and then draws one of the other two, it can still advance on four points. And with Group A being so weak, even the runner-up spot in Group B could present a favorable Round of 16 matchup.
Iceland — OK, obviously the group is very difficult. But Iceland is playing with house money. It’s the smallest nation to ever qualify. It’s about to have a month-long party, whether it wins all three group games or loses all three. So would you rather open that party with a forgettable game against, say, Saudi Arabia? Or an unforgettable showdown with Argentina? Iceland will get its moment in the spotlight, and if its Euro 2016 performances are any indication, it might be better off the bigger the underdog it is.