The 2018 World Cup is set to start on Thursday and World Cup fever is sweeping through the office. As Journey Latin America’s football expert (an official title), let me guide you through the eight Latin American teams taking part in Russia this year.
Uruguay (Group A):
Winners: 1930 & 1950
For a country of only 3.5 million inhabitants, Uruguay always punches above its weight in global tournaments and will be looking to star strikers Edinson Cavani (the top scorer in South American qualifying) and Luis Suárez to power them to glory. Opposition defenders will be wary of marking Suárez too closely in case they get bitten like Giorgio Chiellini in 2014. La Celeste will be expected to top Group A, the weakest of the eight groups, but there could be a tricky tie against Spain or Portugal in the last 16.
Peru (Group C):
Prince William had only just been born when Peru played in their last World Cup (1982). La Blanquirroja, thanks to their iconic white shirt with a thick red sash, beat New Zealand in a play-off to reach only their 4th World Cup. Much of their build-up has been focused around captain Paolo Guerrero and whether he would have a doping ban lifted in time to play. The captains of Peru’s Group C rivals - France, Denmark and Australia - even wrote an open letter asking for his inclusion! How ironic it would be if his goals knocked these teams out...
Argentina (Group D):
Winners: 1978 & 1986
Despite an illustrious career with Barcelona, Lionel Messi has yet to win a global tournament with his national side. He’s gotten mighty close - Argentina lost the 2014 final in extra time to Germany - but with his 31st birthday just around the corner, will this be his last chance? Coach Jorge Sampaoli is tasked with building a team that is less dependent on Messi – La Albiceleste only won twice in qualifying when Messi didn’t score.
Brazil (Group E):
Winners: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002
After a slow start to qualifying coach Dunga was dismissed and the arrival of Tite saw the five-time champions completely transformed. La Seleção eventually finished top of South American qualifying, 10 points clear of their nearest rival, and arrive in Russia as one of the tournament favourites. The epitome of Jogo Bonito, the Beautiful Game, they boast a mouth-watering array of attacking options although I imagine they will be hoping to avoid Germany in the knockout stages following their humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat in Belo Horizonte in 2014.
Costa Rica (Group E):
Costa Rica surprised everyone at the 2014 World Cup by reaching the quarter-finals. They eventually lost to Holland on penalties following the tactical mind games of Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal who switched goalkeepers for the shoot out. For the second World Cup running Los Ticos find themselves in a tough group alongside Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia but they won’t be fazed having brushed Uruguay, Italy & England aside in 2014.
Mexico (Group F):
Mexico have been eliminated at the last 16 stage of the past six World Cups and will be desperate to go at least one step further this time. La Tri cruised through the CONCACAF qualifying only losing one match and will hope they can top Group F – a tough ask with matches against Germany and Sweden – to avoid Brazil in the next round. Otherwise their last 16 hoodoo may just continue for another 4 years.
Panama (Group G):
More famous for canals and hats than playing football, Panama left it to the 87th minute of their final qualifying match against Costa Rica to qualify for their first ever World Cup. In fact, celebrations after Román Torres’ thumping strike were so wild that President Juan Carlos Varela declared the following day a national holiday. A cautious and defensively minded team, Los Canaleros will be hoping to cause an upset against Belgium or England. I hope it’s against the former.
Colombia (Group H):
Colombia staggered over the line in qualification and had no victories against the so called Big Boys (Brazil, Argentina, Chile or Uruguay). Supporters of Los Cafeteros will be hoping that Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez, poster boy and golden boot winner in 2014, can inspire the team once again. Keep an eye out too for their salsa inspired goal celebrations. If my predictions are correct, a last 16 match against England awaits them.