World Cup 2018: 16 bold predictions for FIFA tournament

The 2018 World Cup will be an intriguing blend of inevitability and suspense as Germany, Spain and Brazil progress and the rest battle it out for the one remaining semi-final spot. Despite the widely presumed outcome of the tournament’s early action, the World Cup always offers big moments and unforeseen surprises. Here are some bold predictions for the epic FIFA showcase in Russia.

Russian soccer fans pull a reverse-Rocky IV

Rocky Balboa became a diplomat who smoothed over tensions during the Cold War era. A rigorous pre-fight regimen, featuring a spectacular montage training regime in snowy Russia, gave the underdog American the edge he needed to defeat the seemingly indefatigable Ivan Drago, portrayed by Dolph Lundgren. Well expect the same at this year’s World Cup, only the opposite, as Russian football fans cool down a potentially confrontational atmosphere with diverse international fanbases visiting their native land. Russia has developed a somewhat notorious football reputation in part due to racist fans and violence, spearheaded by hooliganism culture. Expect the World Cup to be a positive, drastic change, with a warm welcome and perhaps some adult-beverage-fueled shenanigans that may or may not feature vodka as a conspicuous catalyst.

England reach semi-final only scoring two goals

England will be the unlikely fourth team to reach the semi-finals of this World Cup, meeting reigning champion Germany in what would be a highly anticipated clash of David versus Goliath. What will be most shocking, though, is how England reaches that deep stage of the tournament: they will only manage two goals. On the strength of a 1-0 win in the group stage, followed by two nil draws putting them through to the first knockout round, England will notch a 1-0 victory on penalties will see them through to the semi-finals. However, their luck will ultimately run out as Germany’s ruthless efficiency will allow them to return to the grand finale to defend the trophy. England’s Cinderella run won’t soon be forgotten should it come to pass, though, considering the Three Lions haven’t reached the World Cup final four since 1990.

Egypt’s Mohamed Salah won’t live up to hype

We all know Mohamed Salah is the current big thing after scoring 32 goals for Liverpool this past season. What we also know is that Egypt will be heavily reliant on the 25-year-old’s superior talent to carry their team. There is no way Salah’s supporting cast can press high up the pitch or counter with enough pace to compete with elite-level opponents. So it isn’t unrealistic to expect the prominent Ballon d’Or contender to have a letdown with the the hopes of a nation weighing on him. As a result, Egypt get regularly beaten and frustrated in their group, failing to advance to the knockout stage.

The lowest-scoring World Cup in recent history

This will be a World Cup where defense rules. It’s become a competition of the “haves” and “have nots.” The likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany et al. have hundred-million-dollar players and major trophies to support their winning mentalities. The “have-nots” are going to struggle to compete and ultimately sit deep, give no space away and hope to score from counter-attacks or set pieces. This will be a World Cup where efficiency and patience win through. Some might argue it to be boring and predetermined amidst a top-heavy lineup of teams. Others will appreciate the high-level execution by the tournament’s elite squads.

Sergio Ramos won’t be sent off for Spain

As unlikely as this sounds, Sergio Ramos will not get set off at World Cup 2018. The mercurial Real Madrid defender has the record for most red cards in Spain’s La Liga, but he’s a special player whose antics are worth the headaches he sometimes instigates. Despite not maturing with age, Ramos and other players will be under the microscope more than ever for sportsmanship as the 2018 World Cup will be the first to deploy VARs (Video Assisted Referee), putting all on their best behavior. Expect lots of penalties, yellow cards for diving and disallowed goals but very few, if any, red cards. That’s good news for Ramos and Spain as they seek their second World Cup title in three most recent appearances.

Belgium once again won’t rise to occasion on international stage

What a team Belgium have. In all honesty, they should be able to beat most opponents at this World Cup. Unfortunately, fate has them up against Brazil if and when they reach the knockout phase. Belgium versus Brazil can only mean bye bye Belgium. For this talented team of international underachievers to progress further, they’ll need to place second in a group where only England poses any real competition—or beat Brazil to reach the semi-finals. Both scenarios are unlikely unless something different and interesting happens in Russia—which, as mentioned previously, is possible. It’s just going to take a lot of high-caliber play and unprecedented mental fortitude from manager Roberto Martinez’s team.

Serbia shock Brazil in the Group E

Where Belgium can’t beat Brazil, Serbia can. Belgium is a skillful team with finesse but you can’t beat fire with fire. Brazil is superior to Belgium in their strongest suits, whereas Serbia has power, size and ultimately a deep-rooted desperation to do something in Russia. Serbia will be no push-over and in Group E we’ll see the only monumental upset of note at this World Cup. Serbia will beat Brazil. It will be ugly football. It will be brutal to watch and definitely serve as motivation for Brazil to seek vengeance the rest of the tournament. So blame Serbia when—spoiler alert—Brazil lift the trophy in July.

Iceland come close to shocking Group D

Everyone loves Iceland. The country with the greatest fans and chants in the world. The team isn’t great, but they have a never-give-up attitude and resilience which has caused upsets in the past, not to mention a magnificent fanbase. Unlike Euro 2016 where Iceland shocked England, they won’t get through to the knockout phase in Russia. Expect this one to come down to the wire with Croatia barely scraping through ahead of them. What a shame. Not the most audacious of predictions here, but at least Iceland will provide an intriguing subplot to an overarching World Cup narrative dominated by heavy favorites.

The Russian coach gets sacked

There’s already turmoil in the Russian camp and the World Cup hasn’t started yet. Choosing to play top class teams for warm up games including Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina has backfired. Exposing a complete and utter frailty in a Russian team as they lost three of those games. They drew against Spain but also lost to Nigeria, making it four defeats out of five matches. To continue that impressive form, they also conceded nine goals in those contests. So to clarify, the Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov is already in trouble as his team has suffered a rash of injuries leading up to the World Cup. Cherchesov will be sacked before the end of the World Cup after his side makes a swift exit. In all honesty, he’ll likely be relieved—if not disappointed he couldn’t deliver a better on-field product for the home fans.

Video Assisted Referee (VARs) goes wrong

Touched on before, but it’s confirmed: video assisted referees (VARs) will be at the World Cup so expect lots of waiting around as referees mime what’s going on off-the-pitch by someone locked in a room watching slow-motion replays to get big decisions very slowly right. We can’t dispute that VARs are right 99 percent of the time, but this is a World Cup where many referees won’t have used the system before. So expect referees to be over-using the system and ultimately slowing down hotly-contested matches to a crawl. This momentum-killing phenomenon will underscore one reason why this will be a low-scoring World Cup. However, expect VARs to bring some excitement as major mistakes are made. Think amateur theatre, themed on sports and on the world stage.  

Neymar captures Golden Boot

It will be an unimpressive amount thanks to top-flight defenses in this year’s World Cup, but Neymar will come through as top scorer after earning the Bronze Boot the last time around. Some of his goals will be the result of sheer talent; most will be because opposing teams go into play Brazil with a defeatist mentality and get too lackadaisical, only to see the Paris Saint-Germain star blow by them on the attack and find the back of the net. The only hope for Brazil to get knocked out is if the real Belgium turn up. Regardless, Neymar will score enough for him to become a bigger merchandising asset for PSG and a transfer to Real Madrid will likely follow, allowing Mbappe to join PSG without FIFA Fair Play crushing the French club. It’s written in the stars.

Paul Pogba will end World Cup as substitute for France

Paul Pogba, the midfielder with the potential to be great but whose attitude renders all his skill far less relevant, will start as one of France’s main men, on the left of a midfield trio with both attacking and defensive duties. By the second game he’ll be told to just focus on the attacking duties and by the third game he’ll be on the bench. Whether it’s his languid style of running or his “I don’t care” attitude when defending, expect his decline from star to bench to be swift as the World Cup pressure causes him and his team to crumble.  

Lionel Messi has personal best international tournament

Up until the point where Argentina meet Spain, Lionel Messi will be a 5-star performer for his nation. Carrying Argentina to the top of the group and through the first knockout stage, by this point fans and commentators will be lapping up Messi’s game-changing performances and looking at Argentina as a possible contender for World Cup glory. Yet by the time Messi faces Spain, which is very likely, he will be running on fumes and unable to make that difference needed to help his side continue advancing.

David De Gea makes wonderous save, confirming status as world’s best goalkeeper

Every World Cup has a goalkeeping moment which defies logic. Whether it be an absolute howler of a mistake or a save that ends up on World Cup showreels for all time. In a low-scoring World Cup, the media will need something to hold onto—and Manchester United’s David De Gea will give them some food for thought. It will likely be against Argentina where Barcelona star Lionel Messi is deified. This will tantalize Real Madrid once again to sign the goalkeeper down the line. Anything below $150-million for his services is bad business for Manchester United, though.

Timo Werner becomes most-prized young footballer

“Turbo Timo” as he’s called in Germany has already introduced himself on the international stage with the first team as they won the Confederations Cup in 2017. However, this rocket-fueled striker for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga has yet to truly earn his stripes in terms of true superstar status. This World Cup where that happens. What follows is an absolute stampede as the elite teams in Europe enter a bidding war for the 22-year-old prodigy, who will be one of the top strikers in world football over the next decade.

It’s a Brazil vs. Spain final

No matter which way you slice it, the 2018 World Cup is destined to be a Brazil vs. Spain title tilt. The draw is almost set up to allow these two nations to progress only mildly unhindered until the later stages. If Spain and Brazil win their groups, which is penciled in at this point, these two heavyweights of international football will only really face one major adversary each en-route to the semi-finals. It would be a special World Cup if the usual suspects didn’t make it, but don’t hold your breath for something interesting in what will ultimately be a low scoring grand finale that goes 1-0 to Brazil.