The World Cup offers the greatest spectacle in sports star power. Here’s a look at this year’s favorites, underdogs, and legends.
Every four years, it feels like the world shuts down for a month to behold the spectacle that is the World Cup. Most years, the world’s most prestigious soccer tournament takes place in the summer. Due to the hot climate of Qatar, we get a winter World Cup in 2022.
The event kicks off on November 20 with the hosts taking on Ecuador in the opening match. The final is set for December 18, when another champion will be crowned. Four years ago, more than 3.5 billion people watched the World Cup, including more than 1.1 billion tuning in to the final between France and Croatia.
Although the club season is when most of the records and accolades are won, the World Cup is when stars are born. When people talk about the greatest moments in soccer, the World Cup is where many of these moments have occurred.
Of course, there are some incredible goals and incredible games at the club level and other continental competitions for national teams. But, accomplishing the same thing at the World Cup cements your name in legacy forever.
American Soccer in the World Cup
The most famous victory in the history of the United States national team is still its 1-0 win over England in 1950. Along with this moment, Americans have had their fair share of other exciting World Cup happenings.
In 2002, the U.S. went on its longest run in modern history by beating rival Mexico 2-0 in the round of 16 at the World Cup. The Americans then fell to Germany in the quarterfinals.
Eight years later, Landon Donovan scored the stoppage-time winner against Algeria. This move sent the U.S. to the round of 16 in South Africa.
Or, perhaps people remember Tim Howard’s heroic effort against Belgium in 2014. He helped send the United States into extra time before the Americans were thwarted.
Soccer is certainly growing in popularity in the United States, but it’s a much larger sport in other areas of the world. Here’s a look at other countries’ iconic moments from past World Cups.
The great Pelé became a household name in the 1958 World Cup, when he scored a hat trick in the semifinals against France. He then scored in the World Cup Final as the youngest player ever to start the game.
In total, Pelé led Brazil to three World Cup titles in four appearances from 1958-1970.
Heartbreaks and Highs
In 1966, England won the World Cup on home soil. This was the only World Cup the Brazilians didn’t win during Pelé’s years in the World Cup.
That game lives on in English memory as the last major trophy the country has won in men’s soccer. The English hope that will change this year, but more on that later.
England was on the wrong end of two iconic moments in the same 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina. The infamous Hand of God goal from Diego Maradona gave the Argentines the lead in the second half.
Then Maradona scored a legal goal that went down as the Goal of the 20th Century according to FIFA.
Scandal in the World Cup
Of course, not all of the great World Cup moments are positives. There’s been plenty of scandal with the tournament, such as the infamous Zinedine Zidane incident in 2006.
At the time, France and Italy battled in extra time in the World Cup Final. Zidane, the French captain, lost his cool and headbutted Marco Materazzi. He earned himself a red card.
France would go on to lose the game in the penalty shootout, denying them a second World Cup title in eight years.
This Year’s Favorite Team: Brazil
The Brazilians are the clear favorites for this tournament. Their dynamic teammate Neymar has already scored 75 times for his country in international play. The PSG forward leads a ferocious attack that’s as young as it is talented, with the likes of 25-year-old Richarlison and 22-year-old Vinicius Junior flanking Neymar.
Brazil is the top-ranked team in the world, at the moment, in the FIFA rankings. They went a perfect 14-3-0 in qualifying for the World Cup to win the South American qualifying tournament.
The other unbeaten team from South America is Argentina. They had 11 wins and six draws during the campaign. The Argentines are relying on a veteran core to lead the way with Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria.
The 2021 Copa America champions finally swept away the title drought with their win over Brazil in the final. They also come into the tournament with plenty of experience in big matches.
In addition to winning Copa America in 2021, Argentina played in the tournament final in 2015 and 2016 after losing out to Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final.
The other two favorites for this tournament hail from Europe . . . and both enter with large questions hanging over them.
France has all the talent to repeat as champions, but won just one of their six UEFA Nations League matches this summer.
Still, a team with Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe leading the attack can’t be discounted, especially when considering how much of the 2018 World Cup championship roster is still in peak form heading into Qatar.
Yet, the biggest wild card among the favorites in England, which embarrassed itself in the UEFA Nations League this summer. Coming off an inspirational run to the Euro final in 2021, the English finished at the bottom of their group with zero wins, three draws, and three losses.
The optimism within the national team has waned, but the talent is all there. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are among the best players in the Premier League.
It’s hard not to give the English a puncher’s chance.
World Cup Underdogs
There are also a few countries who are hoping to spoil the party for the favorites. They’ve proven to be more than capable of making some noise in Qatar.
The first is the hosts themselves. Qatar has quietly improved since receiving the news that it would host the World Cup.
The Qataris rank 50th in the world, at the moment, and they finished third in the Gold Cup in North America last summer. This is a giant step up in competition, but the hosts have typically exceeded expectations in World Cup’s past.
This proves that Qatar is a team to watch.
One team that has beaten Qatar recently is Canada, which won a friendly in September 2-0. This is Canada’s first World Cup since 1986. They have many reasons for optimism.
First, there’s Alphonso Davies, one of the best players in the world who stars for Bayern Munich in Germany.
However, the Canadians also have prolific goal scorers with Cyle Larin and Jonathan David. This duo helped Canada win the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament by opening the Octagonal with a streak 11 games unbeaten.
The final underdog is Croatia, the World Cup runners-up from four years ago. A disappointing run in the Euros and some early struggles in the Nations League were worrying signs.
However, Luka Modric is still a difference maker at 37 years old. Ivan Perisic is still scoring goals at 33, which is how Croatia won its last four Nations League matches to win the group.
Star Power in Soccer
For those who are just watching the matches for the star power, there are plenty of excellent players whose teams we haven’t mentioned yet.
Portugal will be in Qatar at the World Cup. This is another chance for Cristiano Ronaldo to show off his skills on the international level. He led the Portuguese to the 2016 European title. He scored a record 117 times in 191 appearances for Portugal, including seven in the World Cup.
Ronaldo isn’t the only prolific goal scorer who will make an appearance in Qatar. Poland has Robert Lewandoski. He was a machine for Bayern Munich for many years and has been just as impressive in his first year at Barcelona.
He’s scored 76 times for his home nation. Thirty of those came in World Cup qualifiers. Another eight came in 23 combined matches in the European Championships and UEFA Nations League.
Senegal’s Sadio Mane has scored 33 goals in 91 appearances since first appearing for the national team in 2012.
He scored in his debut at the World Cup four years ago. He also scored three times earlier this year in the Africa Cup of Nations, which led Senegal to its first title in the competition.
American player Christian Pulisic hopes for a successful 2022 World Cup for the United States. He is the engine that makes the American team go. Pulisic scored some big goals for the national team in his young career. He will most likely wear the captain’s armband for the United States in Qatar.
His performance will go a long way to seeing if the Americans can advance out of the group stage for a third straight tournament appearance.
License this cover image via JEAN CATUFFE/DPPI/Shutterstock.