By Jack M. ’23
The World Cup. Copa Mundial. Svjetski Kup. Coupe du Monde. Weltmeisterschaft. Copa do Mundo. Whatever the name, the World Cup is the biggest tournament of the world’s most popular sport, with a million fans traveling to cheer their nation on in Qatar and a billion more watching from home. This year, 832 of the world’s most talented soccer players descend on Doha with one singular objective: to return home with the sporting equivalent of the holy grail, the FIFA World Cup Trophy. Soccer is a notoriously capricious sport, which grants hope to the minnows of international soccer (see Australia, Group D) while striking fear in the hearts of the sharks (see Argentina, Group C). After all, anything can happen in 90 minutes. In spite of this, the Gryphon Gazette is wiping the dust off the old crystal ball and attempting to predict the entire World Cup from the Group Stage to the Final, featuring the winners, the losers, and everyone in between.
Group A contains the three-time finalists the Netherlands, the reigning AFCON champion Senegal, Ecuador, and the host Qatar.
The Netherlands has far and away the strongest team in this group, led by imperious defenders Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt and creative midfielder Frankie de Jong. The Oranje are ranked 8th in the world by FIFA and should run away with the group.
While host Qatar has little hope of progressing beyond the group stage – in fact, this is their first time competing in the World Cup – Group A sets up a tantalizing battle for the 2nd qualifying spot between Senegal and Ecuador. On first inspection, Senegal should qualify with ease given their world-class spine of Champions League winners Édouard Mendy and Sadio Mané and Chelsea signee Kalidou Koulibaly. However, an injury to Mané puts his participation in danger, and a defensively sound Ecuador squad could challenge the weakened Senegal XI. Nevertheless, the talent level and tournament experience of Senegal’s squad give it the edge over Ecuador in Group A.
With countries more commonly seen together at a UN summit than a World Cup group, Group B promises a fiercely competitive set of matches between 2020 Euro runners-up England, 2016 Euro semi-finalists Wales, 1969 Space Race winners United States of America, and Iran.
England is the overwhelming favorite to advance, led by Manchester United superstar Harry Maguire. While the talented England squad underlies a team capable of beating any team in the world, the Three Lions’ recent form suggests the opposite, entering the 2022 World Cup having not won once in six matches. Thus, England presents an interesting dichotomy (and prediction nightmare), equally capable of losing their group and winning the tournament.
Fellow UK nation Wales boasts a solid squad championed by Gareth Bale, who led his nation to its first World Cup appearance in 68 years. Fortunately for the Welsh, American Exceptionalism does not extend to the football pitch. Hopefully, the US’s young squad will be better prepared for the 2026 World Cup, which will be played at home. Iran has never qualified for the knockout stage in six tries, and Wales’ quality and depth should push them over the edge in a close group to finish second behind England.
Group C contains a similar group composition to Group A, with group and tournament favorites Argentina, a close battle for second between Mexico and Poland, and a decidedly unfrightening Saudi Arabia.
Argentina arrives in Qatar on an astounding 35-game unbeaten streak that includes a Copa America victory over Brazil and a Finalissima victory over Italy. Qualifying for the knockouts should be a relatively easy task for Messi & Co. and the bigger question will be whether they will exit Group C with a perfect nine points.
Mexico’s tournament experience should give them the upper hand, having advanced from the group stage in the last eight World Cups, a record dating back to 1986. However, this is arguably the weakest Mexico squad to arrive in the last 36 years, and 2021 FIFA player of the Year Robert Lewandowski gives Poland the edge. The fates of these two nations may very well come down to their head-to-head match on November 22.
Group D consists of the reigning World Cup Champions France, a talented Denmark team that defeated them twice in the last six months, Tunisia, and Australia. Qualification for the knockout stages should be a relatively easy endeavor for the European nations, as Tunisia and Australia could very well be out of their depth in Qatar.
France is missing two of its star midfielders in N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, but a talented attack led by Kylian Mbappe should compensate for structural weaknesses. However, a France squad is never without controversy (Balon d’Or winner Karim Benzema was recently ruled out with an injury) and the World Cup winners curse which doomed them in 2002 threatens to destabilize Les Bleus.
While the Denmark squad is certainly less talented than their French counterparts, a very tactically sound team led by a rock-solid midfield tandem of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Christian Eriksen is hard to break down, and, as the French team found out twice, harder to beat over 90 minutes. Even if their attack is far from potent, the structural integrity of the Danes echoes the success of a similar Croatian team back in 2018, who could kick off a successful tournament by slipping by the French to first in Group D.
Like Group D, Group E presents a wide talent gap between its first two teams, four-time Champions Germany and 2010 Champions Spain. Unlike the preceding group, the bottom two teams are far from pushovers. Japan and Costa Rica both have history in the World Cup and could very easily spoil the German and Spanish hopes of qualifying.
Spain enters Qatar with the outstanding Barcelona midfield duo of Gavi and Pedri whose quality can all but ensure qualification, but the inability to replace the hole left by David Villa in attack may doom their chances of winning the tournament.
Germany has an outstanding history in the World Cup and is seeking revenge for the humiliating group-stage exit in Russia in 2018. Escaping the group is no easy task, but die Mannschaft should overcome an underrated Japan team and Costa Rica thanks to a team that blends youth (Jamal Musiala, 19, and Youssofa Moukouko, 17) with experience (Manuel Neuer, 36, and Thomas Müller, 33).
Every World Cup has a “group of death,” and this years title is bestowed upon Group F, which contains 2018 runners-up Croatia, 2018 third-place finishers Belgium, a Canada squad that finished first in Concacaf qualifying, and a very talented Morocco squad. Every nation in group F can win the group, making for a set of six must-watch matches between the golden generations of four nations.
Croatia is looking to build upon their success four years ago, retaining the same midfield and an upgraded defense featuring wunderkind Joško Gvardiol. It is impossible to talk about Croatia without discussing their talismanic leader Luka Modrić, the 2018 Balon d’Or winner who at 37 is likely making his last appearance on the world’s biggest stage.
Like Croatia, Belgium is also led by a singular midfield talent, Kevin de Bruyne, arguably the best player this season. Unlike Croatia, Belgium’s team has fallen off, and a new wave of talent has yet to crest, but the individual brilliance of de Bruyne should be enough to fend off Morocco and Canada who do not possess the same experience at the World Cup.
Group G is similarly exciting, including the five-time champions and tournament favorites Brazil, dark horses in Switzerland and Serbia, and an experienced Cameroon team.
Brazil is led by their captain, Neymar Jr., and their surrounding squad reads like an international all-star team: Allison in goal, Thiago Silva in defense, Casemiro in midfield, and Vinicius Jr up top. Brazil seems to go into every World Cup as one of the favorites, but this year seems different, as the combination of ageless experience and skilled youth yields a winning instinct to the Brazilian flair. It may well be time for “Jogo Bonito” to conquer the world stage again in 2022.
The battle for second place pits the solid if unremarkable Switzerland against a similarly solid Serbia. However, Serbian strike duo Dušan Vlahović and Aleksandar Mitrović should give Serbia the edge. If the Vlahović-Mitrović partnership gels, a ticket to the quarterfinals may be within reach.
Bucking a popular phrase, Group H seems to be saving the least for last. The gap between the top two teams (Portugal and Uruguay) and the bottom two (Korea and Ghana) is accentuated by the injury to Korean superstar Son Heung-min and the aging of the Ayew brothers. Neither Korea nor Ghana should threaten either Portugal or Uruguay.
Uruguay’s arrival at the World Cup belies an emotional farewell to Diego Godín, Edison Cavani, and Luis Suárez as a new generation takes their place, consisting of the strong spine of Ronald Araújo, Fede Valverde, and Darwin Núñes. However, 2022 seems to be an intermediary year for Uruguay, and they may be better positioned for knockout success as the new trio enters their respective primes in 2026.
Meanwhile, Portugal presents a fascinating enigma. The Portuguese squad is arguably the most talented at the World Cup but poor coaching and inconsistent results raise questions about how far Cristiano Ronaldo will take his nation in 2022. An incredibly talented group of players should see Portugal through the group with ease, but questions remain about how much further.
Netherlands v. Wales:
The Netherlands has a much more talented squad than Wales, and van Djik leads a strong defense that should shut down Gareth Bale. Outside of Bale, it is difficult to see where the goals will come from, while the Dutch have a much more balanced attack surrounding striker Memphis Depay. The Netherlands should comfortably defeat Wales to secure a spot in the quarterfinals.
Argentina v. France:
A match of this quality typically comes later in the tournament, but a second-place finish for the French puts them up against Argentina in a battle of the two favorites for the tournament. Even though France is a much more talented team than Argentina, the Albiceleste’ have a certain edge to them that Les Bleus lack, and the magic of Messi should elevate the Argentines over the French in a must-watch match in the Round of 16.
England v. Senegal:
Here is where the absence of Sadio Mané will start to hurt Senegal. England’s attacking depth is dizzying, and they should easily dismantle an out-of-form defense with Kane, Sterling, Foden, Saka, and co.
Denmark v. Poland:
A battle between team and individual, this match pits the Danish structure against the brilliance of Robert Lewandowski. Fortunately for Denmark, soccer is a team sport, and the lack of supporting options around Lewandowski could come to hurt Poland.
Germany v. Belgium:
Were this match played in 2018, Belgium would likely be the favorite. However, as Belgium’s golden generation fades, a strong German side that has seen a movement towards youth should best Belgium in the Round of 16.
Brazil v. Uruguay:
These two countries have faced off against each other twice in the last Concacaf qualification cycle, and Brazil defeated their neighbors to the south by a combined score of 6-1. It is difficult to see any other result in Qatar, as Brazil’s talented squad is playing at its peak under coach Tite.
Croatia v. Spain
A matchup between two really talented teams that could easily go either way, Croatia v. Spain pits two midfield wunderkinds in Pedri and Gavi against an aging wonder, Luka Modrić. However, this Croatia team has shown an ability to outperform expectations, an ability that could prove valuable against a Spanish team that has struggled to find form since 2010.
Portugal v. Serbia:
Any team in which Cristiano Ronaldo is not a nailed-on starter is one capable of winning the World Cup. Concerns over team chemistry and tactics abound, but their sheer quality in every single position and a relatively easy group (meaning rested players) should elevate them over a scrappy Serbian side.
Argentina v. Netherlands:
This quarterfinal matchup is steeped with history between the two nations, as Argentina beat the Netherlands to win the World Cup final in 1978. The Dutch may have an edge in defense, but an overreliance on Memphis Depay for goals will doom them against an Argentina side that is proven against world-class opposition.
Brazil v. Germany:
Another historic rematch between two titans of international soccer, Brazil arrives seeking revenge against Germany for their seven-one humiliation in 2014. Fortunately for them, their entire team arrives in good form and without controversy, which should carry Brazil into the semifinals above a German team that is yet to silence the doubters whose voices arose after a recent defeat to Hungary.
Denmark v. England:
Denmark’s squad is significantly less talented than England’s, but they have shown an ability to punch above their weight throughout the tournament. Meanwhile, England arrived in Qatar having not won in six straight games and should be defeated by a superior Danish team.
Croatia v. Portugal:
In the 2020 Nations League, Portugal defeated Croatia twice, and their potential XI features superstars Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, and João Cancelo. However, an injury to key striker Diogo Jota could doom the Portuguese against a Croatia side that has only improved since their finals appearance in 2018.
Brazil v. Argentina:
In perhaps the most anticipated game of the tournament, Brazil seeks revenge for a recent Copa America defeat against Argentina. Both sides are outstanding and the two best in Qatar, but Brazil has done a better job at surrounding their captain and leader (Neymar) than Argentina has with Messi. The winner of this match could decide the eventual champion.
Denmark v. Croatia:
A match between two outstanding teams that could be decided in the midfield, which pits Modrić, Kovačić, and Brozović against Eriksen, Delaney, and Højbjerg. Both squads have significantly outperformed expectations to reach the semifinals, but Denmark’s experience throughout the squad gives them the edge against a Croatia side that includes a particularly green defense.
Ultimately, Denmark has succeeded far beyond anyone’s hopes, but they come up against a Brazil side that could make France’s four-two thrashing of Croatia in 2018 look like a close match. Brazil arrives in Qatar with a side ready to meet the expectations of the world and is playing like the side to beat in 2022. The time is high for Brazil to add a sixth star to their badge.
Golden Ball: Neymar Jr. (Brazil)
Golden Boot: Leo Messi (Argentina)
Golden Glove: Allison (Brazil)
FIFA Young Player Award: Jamal Musiala (Germany)