The Scandinavian nation plays in the World Cup for the very first time. An unexpectedly superb performance during Euro 2016 – in which the minnow nation not only reached the knockout stage but upset England in the Round of 16 – saw them take renewed confidence into their World Cup qualifying campaign as they breezed through with seven wins and a draw from 10 matches.
Ironically, having topped its qualifying group, Iceland will face the team that finished second in the group, Croatia, when it travels to Russia and their clash could well be the one that decides who progresses.
Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson generally prefers a 4-4-2 system but he has demonstrated flexibility in order to adapt to various circumstances. One of the most important setbacks he will need to overcome is the absence of injured Nantes striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. That means plenty of extra responsibility will fall onto the shoulders of Everton’s Gylfi Sigurðsson.
Iceland, with just 335,000 people, will have the honor of being the country with the smallest population in this tournament.
Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
FIFA Ranking: 22 Odds: $101.00
World Cup appearances: Nil
The most populated country in Africa has an open passion for soccer. Nigerian teams in the 1990s revealed a new way of playing football that resulted in some impressive success. Their overwhelming physical power and increasing technical talent promised big things on the world stage, however once the generation of Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh and Jay-Jay Okocha retired, Nigeria’s power football began to lose steam.
Since qualifying for its first World Cup in 1994, Nigeria has only missed the tournament once, in 2006.
Despite this, the Super Eagles have never progressed further than the Round of 16. No doubt this will be the target of a fresh generation of players looking to reach new heights.
The man setting the guidelines for the young Nigerian team is a German. Gernot Rohr has been managing the team since 2016 and comfortably guided the side to Russian qualification with a game to spare. They were in fact the first African country to qualify for this World Cup.
Keep an eye on former Chelsea star John Obi Mikel, who will form a lethal midfield combination with current Chelsea man Victor Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi.
Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
FIFA Ranking: 47 Odds: $201.00
World Cup appearances: 5 Best
World Cup performance: Round of 16 – 1994, 1998
Barcelona star Lionel Messi has achieved just about every honor there is, but just like his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, World Cup glory continues to elude him. And while Messi’s standing as one of the greatest of all time is beyond doubt, conquering the World Cup will allow him to step out of countryman Diego Maradona’s shadow and claim the throne for himself.
In Brazil four years ago he took the team all the way to the final against Germany, but fell just short of the ultimate prize in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss. Which raises another point – while the World Cup-winning Argentinian side of 1986 was able to overcome the tight marking Germany applied to eke out a victory, this squad has yet to prove its mettle without Messi firing on all cylinders.
Talent doesn’t appear to be a problem, with the likes of Javier Mascherano, Ángel Di María, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Éver Banega, but the truth is Argentina needs to overcome its dependence on Messi if Messi is to become a World Cup champion.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli is key to solving the puzzle – if he finds the solution, Argentina has enough talent to defeat any rival.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
FIFA Ranking: 5 Odds: $10.00
World Cup appearances: 16
World Cup titles: 2 – 1978, 1986
This World Cup will probably be the last for this current generation of Croatia’s national team. With the majority either nearing or north of 30, this will be the final chance to witness the combined quality of Luka Modrić, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić, Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Perišić.
Croatia hasn’t been mentioned among the tournament favorites but there is no doubt they loom as one of the genuine dark horses. Most of the squad occupy key positions in their big-name European clubs and their tactical and technical skills provide a crucial structure.
Croatia has enjoyed its fair share of superstar players over the years but has always lacked the final piece in the puzzle, which is why they have failed to truly challenge in the years since reaching the semi-finals in France in 1998.
Can coach Zlatko Dalic, who took over the top job in October, find the missing piece?
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
Captain: Luka Modrić
FIFA Ranking: 18 Odds: $34.00
World Cup appearances: 4
Best World Cup performance: Semi-finals – 1998