The focus of the World Cup will inevitably be on the big teams, but what about the teams that everyone might forget about, the World Cup underdogs? Everyone wants to see a team do well that isn’t initially expected to go very far. In the 2002 World Cup, we saw South Korea make it all the way to the semifinals under the guidance of Guus Hiddink. Who would have seen that one coming?
Here, we take a look at all World Cup underdogs in each group and give a preview of their chances of making it out of their respective groups.
Saudi Arabia qualified for its fifth World Cup under Bert van Marwijk, the man who led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final. However, he resigned last year and has been replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the former Chile coach who won the Copa America Centenario in 2016.
Al-Nassr striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi led the line for the Falcons, scoring 16 goals throughout the qualifying stage for the World Cup, finishing top scorer alongside UAE’s Ahmed Khalil and some Polish striker you might’ve heard about, Robert Lewandowski.
The team has a great deal of experience, with midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim and defender Osama Hawsawi both playing over 100 games for the team. With a group consisting of Russia, Egypt and Uruguay, they might find their chances a little difficult to progress to the Round of 16.
Iran is currently ranked 36th in the world and is also making its fifth appearance in the World Cup. Carlos Queiroz is the coach for the team, and this will be his fourth World Cup as an international manager (he led South Africa in the 2002 World Cup, Portugal in the 2010 World Cup and Iran in 2014).
Iran was the third team to qualify for the World Cup behind host Russia and Brazil. Their star player is Sardar Azmoun, a 23 year-old who plays for Russian team Rubin Kazan. Azmoun scored 11 goals in the qualification process for Iran, and he will be the main man again for the team in the World Cup.
Iran has never made it out of the group stage, but could this be the year? They have to face Morocco, Spain and Portugal, so they will have to give it everything they have, and then some more, if they want to keep the dream alive and make it to the Round of 16 for the first time in their history.
Commonly known as the Socceroos, the Australian team had to qualify the tough way, winning a playoff against Syria to qualify for another playoff against Honduras, which it won too. They secured the services of Bert van Marwijk after he left his post at the Saudi Arabia national team, but was appointed in January and has only had two games to coach the team.
Australia first qualified for the World Cup in 1974, but did not qualify again until 2006, where they made it to the Round of 16 before losing to eventual champion Italy. They have qualified for every World Cup since, and will need to find a source of goals other than 38-year-old striker Tim Cahill, but if he scores goals like he did last World Cup they shouldn’t have any problems.
Their group consists of France, Peru and Denmark, so there is a slight chance they could pull off some shocks and make it through to the next round. If someone other than Cahill can step up with the goals, they might surprise a few people.
The Super Eagles were the first nation from Africa to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and are making their sixth World Cup appearance this year. They have only made it as far as the Round of 16, but they did that in 2014 so the team knows what it will take to get out of the group.
Nigeria is coached by Gernot Rohr, and the team has star players like Chelsea winger Victor Moses, strikers Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi as well as captain John Obi Mikel. They definitely have much more star power than a number of the other underdogs in this article, but can they perform to the best of their abilities? That will be up to Rohr.
Nigeria’s group is made up of Argentina, Iceland and Croatia. Taking the current FIFA rankings into account, Nigeria is the underdog here as it is ranked 47th while the other three are ranked in the top 22. People will argue Nigeria shouldn’t be ranked 47th with the talent it has, but the Super Eagles can put to bed any concerns with a strong showing in Russia.
Second place in this group really could be anyone’s game, and Nigeria seems to have the strongest squad out of all the underdogs to make it through.
Serbia qualified in first place from what many people would consider a weak qualifying group, as it had to contend with Ireland, Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova. They are making their second World Cup appearance as Serbia (not including Serbia and Montenegro) and will be led by coach Mladen Krstajic who played for Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup.
The team has a number of aging players in the backline, most notably Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov. Their forward line is going to be heavily reliant on Aleksandar Mitrovic, while Manchester United’s Nemanja Matić will be breaking up play and pulling the strings in the midfield.
In group play Serbia must contend with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. Many people predict Brazil to top the group, but second place could be up for grabs as any of the other three teams can snag a narrow victory. Serbia could shock quite a few people.
South Korea went on that famous 2002 run of making it all the way to the semifinals, but could the country do it again 16 years later? It would make for a fantastic story. The team is coached by Shin Tae-Young, who used to coach the South Korean U-20 side as well as winning the Asian Champions League with Seongham Ilhwa Chunma in 2010, so he knows what it takes to win a knockout tournament.
The team has a number of stars who ply their trade in Europe. Tottenham Hotspur winger Son Heung-Min is arguably the biggest name that comes to mind, and he will be the focal point of the team alongside Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung, who will captain the side in his third World Cup.
Group F is also made up of Germany, Mexico and Sweden. Germany is the clear favorite to finish top in the group and most soccer fans are expecting either Mexico or Sweden to join the Germans in the Round of 16. South Korea will need its main players to really step up to rekindle the 2002 Cinderella story.
There’s a first time for everything, including the World Cup. Panama qualified after beating Costa Rica on the last match day of qualifying in CONCACAF, much to the frustration of all United States soccer fans.
Panama does have the benefit of being somewhat of an unknown quantity at this World Cup. They are led by Hernan Dario Gomez, who is in his fourth year at the helm. Gomez has previous World Cup experience, coaching Colombia in the 1998 World Cup and then Ecuador in the 2002 World Cup.
Panama’s last squad had six players who had made over 100 appearances for the national team, so it will be nice for them to potentially finish their international careers by going to their first ever World Cup.
Panama has to deal with Belgium, England and Tunisia in its group. Barring a complete capitulation from Belgium or England, there doesn’t seem to be any chance that Panama or even Tunisia manage to sneak through into the next round. If you’re a Panama fan, it looks like you won’t be watching your team for very long in Russia. #SorryNotSorry
The Blue Samurai are making their sixth appearance in a World Cup, but like many of the other teams mentioned in this article, they have only made it as far as the Round of 16, which they did in 2002 and 2010.
Not too long ago, the Japanese Football Association fired Vahid Halilhodzic, the man who achieved qualification with Japan, on the basis that he had lost the trust of his players. The new man in charge, Akira Nishino, only gets to have one match with the team before he selects his final 23-man squad for Russia. They have some team stalwarts on the roster, including Southampton defender Maya Yoshida as well as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki.
In Group H, Japan is locking horns with Poland, Senegal and Columbia. Up front, Colombia has Radamel Falcao, Poland has Robert Lewandowski and Senegal has Sadio Mane. Sorry Japan, but Okazaki is nowhere near the level of those three. Japan’s defense will have to do everything in its power if it wants to suppress the firepower of the other team’s strikers. It could be an early goodbye for the Blue Samurai in Russia.