Román Torres’s name will forever be ingrained in Panama’s football history. During the final qualifying match, the national hero scored their most important ever goal to claim victory against Costa Rica with three minutes left. Combined with the United States’ shocking loss to Trinidad and Tobago, Torres helped Panama qualify for their first ever World Cup.
Panama’s World Cup quest is truly a fairytale story. Currently sitting 55th in the rankings, with an average position of 89th since FIFA’s World Ranking system began, they reached the World Cup finals at the expense of 24th-ranked USA, who had played in seven consecutive World Cup finals until now.
However, it will be very difficult for manager Hernán Darío Gómez in Russia this summer. The veteran Colombian has led four teams at World Cup finals, including the so-called golden generation of Colombian football in 1990 and 1994, so he knows the huge challenge that awaits.
Panama has the oldest squad among all the qualified teams at 29.4-years-old on average, so experience is on their side.
Coach: Hernán Darío Gómez
Captain: Román Torres
FIFA Ranking: 55
World Cup appearances: Nil
Tunisia qualified for the World Cup by topping Group A in the African confederation, having avoided traditionally strong African teams like Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. They registered four wins and two draws in a group also featuring DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. After missing two World Cup in a row, Tunisia is back on the big stage.
The North African country’s golden era was between 1998 and 2006, in which time they progressed to the World Cup finals three times in a row. But on all three occasions, Tunisia failed to progress from the group stage, showing the gap between them and the world’s big guns.
This summer could be no exception for them. Without talented individuals playing in major European Leagues, Tunisia will struggle against Belgium and England. Youssef Msakni who plays in Qatar’s Al-Duhail is the top goal-scorer in the current squad. The 27-year-old is reaching his prime, scoring freely in the Qatar League, but the intensity and competition of that league is nowhere near the major leagues.
Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
FIFA Ranking: 14
World Cup appearances: 4
Best World Cup performance: Group stage
Russia 2018 presents a far better opportunity for Belgium than Brazil 2014. Four years ago, a team full of talented players like Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku was knocked out by Argentina in the quarter-finals, but the fact was that Belgium had never played in a match that big before.
A change of head coach has brought the team some fresh hope. After the disappointment of that 2014 World Cup and a 2016 European Cup campaign that ended in a quarter-final loss to Wales, the great motivator Marc Wilmots was sacked with Spanish coach Roberto Martinez brought in to replace him.
Belgium has a delicious core within the team. If you have Lukaku up front, Kevin De Bruyne as the creative genius, Hazard attacking from the wing and Thibaut Courtois in goal, the ingredients for success are all there. But in the end it will be up to the manager to turn a team of champions into a champion team. The European Red Devils enjoyed a successful qualification campaign under Martinez’s reign, picking up 28 points from 10 games and scoring 43 goals in the process.
Coach: Roberto Martínez
Captain: Eden Hazard
FIFA Ranking: 3
World Cup appearances: 12
Best World Cup performance: Semi-finals – 1986
If recent football history is anything to go by, we should certainly have expected a successful qualification campaign from England after its disappointing Euro 2016. In fact, England have not lost a qualifying match for any major competition since October 2009, no matter how dreadfully they have performed in the tournament proper.
This year, English fans sense a glimmer of hope. Having taken over the top job as caretaker coach from the short-lived Sam Allardyce, young Gareth Southgate quickly made the job his own by steering the team from qualification to the World Cup with ease.
Southgate made some high-profile changes, including moving out veteran players like Wayne Rooney and switching the system from a traditional bank of four to three defenders. Now, the Three Lions operate with a young and attacking minded 3-4-2- 1 formation, with Harry Kane up front. Behind the in-form striker, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard provide flair and speed.
In the final third, Jordan Henderson sits in front of the back line, dictating the pace of the game, just as he did so successfully for Liverpool this season.
Coach: Gareth Southgate
Captain: Harry Kane
FIFA Ranking: 13
World Cup appearances: 14
World Cup titles: 1 – 1966