Ah, yes. World Cup 2018 is here, and if you haven’t noticed already, there are some noticeable absentees, including Italy, Chile, the Netherlands and Team USA. That’s right; the Red, White, and Blue is missing the famed quadrennial tournament for the first time since 1986, a botch to say the least.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be watching this year’s tournament. On the contrary, there is still great soccer to be played and compelling storylines to follow.
Will Lionel Messi finally get his first senior trophy? How will Spain perform after firing its coach just two days before its first match? Will Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup, make a heroic run like it did at Euro 2016?
Only time will tell. Either way, watching is more fun when you have a team to root for. Below are five of our favorites to hoist the trophy, along with a few underdogs and dark-horse contenders.
The Five World Cup 2018 Favorites to Win
Anything less than an ultimate victory will be catastrophic for a country that called its 1950 World Cup Finals loss to Uruguay “Our Hiroshima.” The five-time winners are favorites, according to the results of multiple artificial intelligence simulations run by Goldman Sachs. And why shouldn’t they be? Since Adenor Leonardo Bacchi (commonly known as Tite) took the helm as coach, the Selecao have gone undefeated, beating Germany 1-0 in the process. And with Neymar on the pitch, anything can happen.
Why to Root: After a disastrous 7-1 loss to Germany at the last World Cup, Brazil is on a mission for redemption.
Probability to Win It All: 18.5%
With Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé leading Les Bleus, the sky is the limit, but their success will rely heavily on how goalkeeper Hugo Lloris performs. An erratic end to the season at Tottenham and two blunders in France’s pre-World Cup friendlies have French fans on edge. The team does, however, boast the second youngest team at the tournament after Nigeria with an average age of 26.
Why to Root: You want the youngsters to triumph.
Probability to Win It All: 11.3%
The Germans looked unstoppable in qualifying, winning 10 out of 10 games. Without a clear-cut superstar, the defending world champions are the strongest team through-and-through and boast dazzling depth. Manager Joachim Low knows what it takes to win, and he should do just that with a squad comprised of Mario Gomez, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels.
Why to Root: You want Germany to become the first team to win the tournament back-to-back since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962.
Probability to Win It All: 10.7%
La Roja are always a contender to win it all, but the dramatic firing of its coach Julen Lopetegui — just two days before Spain’s first match against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal — has left the team in turmoil. Still, Spain has not lost a competitive match in two years, and if they can regroup under newly appointed manager Fernando Hierro, they’ll be a hard squad to beat. Plus, with Manchester United’s David De Gea between the pipes, anything is possible.
Why to Root: You want veterans Andres Iniesta, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos to go out on top.
Probability to Win It All: 7.8 %
Lionel Messi. Know the name? The five-time Ballon d’Or winner will need to score early and often for Argentina to have a chance at winning this thing. With Manchester City star striker Sergio Aguero offering support, Argentina’s attack is one of the most potent in the tournament, but a porous defense built around Nicolás Otamendi could be its Achilles heel.
Why to root: This is likely Messi’s last World Cup, and you want him to finally win so he can join the likes of Pelé and Diego Maradona as one of the greatest of all time.
Probability to Win It All: 5.7%
The World Cup 2018 Underdogs
Belgium isn’t ranked third in the world for nothing. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are the types of players who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and win it with individual brilliance. De Bruyne emerged as the best player for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season, and he should replicate that form in Russia. With veteran Vince Kompany leading the defense, Hazard and De Bruyne in the midfield, and Dries Mertens up top, Belgium could surprise many.
Why to Root: You like an underdog.
Probability to Win It All: 8.2%
With just shy of 350,000 citizens, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. After shocking the world at Euro 2016 by reaching the quarterfinals with a tie against Portugal and a victory against England, no one should be taking Iceland lightly. With grit, determination and a collective strength second to none, don’t be surprised if this small Nordic nation makes a run in its first-ever trip to the tournament. Plus, their fans’ thunderclap, which became a YouTube sensation, should be intimidating for any opposing team.
Why to Root: You love a good Cinderella story. Remember Leicester City?
Probability to Win It All: 0.5%
With Mohammed Salah on the pitch, anything is possible for a nation that hasn’t competed in the World Cup since 1990. The Premier League player of the year and Golden Boot winner scored 44 goals for Liverpool across all competitions last season, and Egyptians will be hoping he can recreate some of that magic. With one of the easiest groups in the tournament, Egypt has the potential to do some damage as long as Salah’s shoulder injury holds up.
Why to Root: You’ve grown to love Salah during his breakout season.
Probability to Win It All: 0.2%
The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., using artificial intelligence simulations, provided the World Cup probabilities.