As European giants falter, Messi and Argentina sense opportunity
Crises are a World Cup hallmark. They’re a natural product of an infrequent event that attracts billions of eyes and expectations. Pressure builds, and cracks even the best international soccer teams, and leaves fragments strewn across several countries every fourth June. It’s inevitable. It’s happening like clockwork in 2022 — only this time, the crises have arrived earlier than ever before.
They are typically a post-World Cup feature. With the 2022 World Cup still two months away, however, they have already spread from Europe to the Americas and beyond. They’ve consumed several superpowers. France is mired in controversy. England has been relegated. Germany just lost to Hungary, and Spain to Switzerland. The U.S. looks toothless, and Mexico has looked worse, and it all begs the question: Is anybody any good?
The answer is yes, and we’ll get to that. But the buildup to Qatar 2022 has been especially chaotic. The COVID-19 pandemic compressed calendars, and canceled countless training camps. The World Cup’s nontraditional autumn timeline has preempted any pre-tournament rhythm. Very few of the contenders to win the 2022 World Cup, which begins Nov. 20, are as refined as they’d hope.
There are two, however, who are humming — and one particularly accustomed to crisis who, contrary to the trend, has finally built a coherent unit around its generational star.
That one is Argentina. The star is Lionel Messi. They’ll arrive at a World Cup in harmony for the first time in a long time, and with so many European counterparts faltering, Messi’s last chance to win soccer’s biggest prize might just be his best.
That’s the main takeaway from these final World Cup power rankings, which assess the relative strength of the 32 participants. They’re divided into five tiers, and yes, of course, they’ll look silly come December, because unpredictability is another inescapable feature of World Cups, and especially this one.
But there’s no harm in trying to rank the contenders. The numbers in parentheses are Elo Ratings and BetMGM odds to win it all. Without further ado …
TIER 1: THE FAVORITES
1. Brazil (Elo: 1 | +400)
The legendary Brazil teams that, thus far, remain unmatched in the 21st century, were all defined by attacking verve and flair. The Selecão have, to varying degrees, strayed from that identity over the past 20 years, but have now rekindled it — and have an overflowing depth chart that will allow them to stick with it in November.
In the past, Brazil became over-reliant on Neymar. Now, in addition to its still-brilliant and increasingly versatile No. 10, it has Vinicius Jr., and Gabriel Jesus, and Raphinha, and Richarlison. It has Antony, Rodrygo, Matheus Cunha and many others who won’t even be on the plane to Qatar. It has depth at central midfield and center back as well, and has won all seven of its games since February by an average margin of 3.4 goals. In 76 games under Tite, it has scored 164 goals and conceded just 27. (Twenty-seven!)
The caveat here, and throughout these rankings, is that Brazil has not played a European team since 2019, and has not played a European World Cup team since its quarterfinal loss to Belgium in 2018. Europe’s insularity, and specifically the UEFA Nations League that now clogs calendars, has blocked nearly all intercontinental competition. England, for example, has not played a South American team since 2018, and has not traveled beyond Europe since 2014. So, it is somewhat difficult to compare Brazil (and Argentina) to their chief challengers.
But squad lists, analytics, betting odds and pedigrees all come to the same conclusion: Brazil is the favorite.
2. Argentina (Elo: 2 | +600)
Messi’s evolution into more of a classic 10 has coincided with Argentina’s evolution into a machine that accentuates his otherworldly skills and compensates for his flaws. Lautaro Martinez, who’s equal parts active and clinical, will start alongside Messi up top. Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul will sit behind him in midfield, and allow him to drift wherever he pleases. At the other two spots in the front six, manager Lionel Scaloni has his pick of runners who get on the end of Messi’s magical passes or supplementary creators who take the load off him.
There are question in defense, but Argentina’s record under Scaloni is nearly unimpeachable. He stepped into the job at age 40, after a semi-calamitous 2018 World Cup for La Albiceleste. In 34 games since the 2019 Copa America, including three against Brazil, Scaloni’s Argentina has not lost.
Oh, and with the World Cup on the horizon, and with the major-tournament monkey off his back, Messi is doing things like this:
TIER 2: THE EUROPEAN CONTENDERS
3. France (Elo: 6 | +600)
France is more accustomed than most to controversy and crises. Its greatest 21st-century hits include a sex-tape blackmail case, a player mutiny, racist quotas and a headbutt. But never before have they coalesced into a pre-World Cup storm quite like this one. Over the last two months alone, there’s been a scary extortion case and accusations of witchcraft; a photoshoot boycott and a dispute between the team’s brightest star and the French Football Federation; reports of sexual abuse cover-ups and harassment within the federation; and a raft of injuries that have reduced Les Bleus to a shell of their once-almighty selves.
Oh, and there’s still a coach, Didier Deschamps, who refuses to unshackle his bevy of expressive stars. France plays more conservatively than any other contender despite the unparalleled arsenal of players at its disposal.
The conservatism yielded a title in 2018, and the arsenal, which is perhaps even deeper now than four years prior, makes a repeat very plausible. But recent results — one win in six against Austria, Denmark and Croatia — have been ominous. So is the track record of defending World Cup champs: the last three, and four of the last five (including 2002 France), have flamed out at the group stage.
4. Spain (Elo: 3 | +800)
Spain’s last three World Cup teams have either passed opponents to death or passed themselves to death. This one could do either, or both.
The midfield, stocked with some combination of Pedri, Gavi, Rodri and Sergio Busquets, is lovely in both its structure and ability. It allows La Roja to control games better than any other World Cup team. The problem, as ever, is scoring enough to win those games. Spain enters yet another major tournament without a trusted striker. At Euro 2021, it underperformed its Expected Goals tally by more than 5, and while some of that underperformance can be explained away by misfortune and random chance, some of it was ghastly finishing that could reappear in Qatar.
So, in short, Spain can suffocate opponents enough to win the World Cup, and it can probably create enough chances to win the World Cup. But it doesn’t have the top-end talent that it once did, and at some point, it will likely falter in the final third.
5. Germany (Elo: 10 | +1000)
Germany’s roster, in a way, looks a lot like Spain’s: Deep and balanced midfield, decent-but-partially-unproven defense, and no reliable center forward — with a former Chelsea flop bearing the closest resemblance to a No. 9.
But stylistically, of course, the Germans are completely different. They’ll press like head coach Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich teams did, and take on a very modern German identity. The big question is whether the press can be sufficiently coordinated without any significant block of training in the buildup to the World Cup. (There’s a reason other top international teams, like France and Portugal, have almost entirely ditched this aspect of modern soccer, and succeeded with a less adventurous approach.)
6. England (Elo: 14 | +700)
On paper, there’s a lot to like about England. There were the runs to the 2018 World Cup semis and the Euro 2021 final. There’s a wealth of attacking talent, and a player pool that, according to Transfermarkt, is worth a collective $1.47 billion — over $300 million more than any other nation’s.
But in practice, Gareth Southgate’s side has been impotent and average. Until a second-half outburst on Monday, it hadn’t scored a goal from open play in 522 minutes. It didn’t win any of its 2022 Nations League matches, and got relegated to League B with one to spare.
Its center backs — Harry Maguire, Eric Dier, John Stones — are shaky, and its best chance-creator, Trent Alexander-Arnold, might not even play. Its Monday comeback to salvage a wild 3-3 draw with Germany saved it from full-on crisis, but didn’t solve the various issues that could preempt another deep run in Qatar.
7. Portugal (Elo: 7 | +1400)
For years, Cristiano Ronaldo was a diamond among rubbish with the Portuguese national team. He was the reason for optimism amid question marks and holes. Now, the script has flipped. Portugal has clever creators and a sturdy midfield and its best, most mobile back four in years — and Ronaldo, in partnership with head coach Fernando Santos, might be the one holding it back.
He looked well and truly washed in two Nations League games for Portugal this month, just as he has for Manchester United, which benched him and got better. Portugal likely won’t, in part because it has no obvious replacement, but mostly because he is, you know, Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is still capable of scoring a momentous goal or two in Qatar, but as the focal point — instead of passing that baton to Bruno Fernandes, or Bernardo Silva, or Diogo Jota, or Rafael Leao — he will likely be a hindrance.
8. Belgium (Elo: 5 | +1200)
On one hand, Kevin De Bruyne is brilliant, and Romelu Lukaku can be too. On the other, Belgium still hasn’t found a single next-gen center back.
The Red Devils are, apparently, going to trot out Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld for the umpteenth time at a major tournament, and they will very likely pay for it. Both now play in the Belgian league, for Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp, respectively. Both are nowhere near the elite defenders they once were, and they — or, rather, Belgium’s inability to replace them — are reasons that the Red Devils are ripe for an upset.
9. Netherlands (Elo: 4 | +1200)
The Dutch, in a fascinating reversal of an age-old imbalance, now have the world’s deepest stable of center backs … but a dearth of elite attackers. They recently stymied Robert Lewandowski and then Belgium to earn a place in the Nations League final four. But their top striker is … Memphis Depay, who’s far from a traditional No. 9? Or Vincent Janssen, who, since flopping at Tottenham, has played at Fenerbahce, Monterrey and now Royal Antwerp? The only other option in the September squad was Burnley loanee Wout Weghorst.
They landed a dream draw in Group A, and potentially have a cakewalk to the quarterfinals. But they don’t quite have enough firepower to progress much further.
TIER 3: THE DISRUPTORS
10. Uruguay (Elo: 11 | +5000)
Like the Netherlands, the balance of Uruguay’s squad has swung in an entirely new direction since its 2010 World Cup breakout. The midfield, once full of destroyers and destroyers only, is now class. But the rocks at the back, and the matador and werewolf up front, have aged, and that, therefore, is where the major questions arise: Does Diego Godin, now playing at Vélez Sarsfield in Argentina, have one more inspired World Cup in him? What about Luis Suarez, who’s 35 and back home at Nacional? And Edinson Cavani, also 35, who can still be lethal, but who has scored only three goals in competitive matches since the beginning of last season?
Uruguay probably needs one of the two strikers to recapture old magic and partner Darwin Nuñez. And it suddenly might need Godin more than previously thought after Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo, a probable starter at center back, went down with an injury that required surgery and imperiled his World Cup hopes.
11. Denmark (Elo: 9 | +2800)
Thrilling, inspirational and surprising all at once, the Danes surged to the Euro 2020 semis. They then roared through World Cup qualifying to suggest their European run was no fluke. Christian Eriksen, whose heart stopped on that harrowing day last summer, is, remarkably, back and … not quite better than ever but still really freakin’ good. Same goes for the team around him.
12. Croatia (Elo: 13 | +4000)
Luka Modric, at age 37, is still part-Energizer Bunny, part-wizard. And his midfield mates — Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic centrally, with Ivan Perisic on the left — are almost as strong as the group that led Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final.
Youthful reinforcements at other positions, though, aside from defender Joško Gvardiol, have been sparse. A repeat of 2018 seems unlikely.
13. Switzerland (Elo: 12 | +8000)
14. Serbia (Elo: 16 | +10000)
April’s World Cup draw could not have spit out a more intriguing group for the Swiss and the Serbs. They both should beat Cameroon, but not Brazil. They’ll then meet on the final matchday, with a knockout-round berth on the line, in a rematch of the most political game at the 2018 World Cup.
The winner would be a threat to whoever tops Group H, even if that’s Portugal. Serbia stunned the Portuguese on the final day of qualification, and announced itself as the hipster Balkan dark-horse pick of 2022 — the equivalent of what Croatia was four years ago.
TIER 4: THE MESSY MIDDLE
15. Senegal (Elo: 43 | +8000)
Senegal has, at times over the past year, been surging toward Tier 3. Its momentum has since wavered, but enough pieces are still in place for the Lions of Teranga to continue making good on long-held promise. Aliou Cisse is one of international soccer’s sharpest managers. Sadio Mané, the Idrissa Gueye-Nampalys Mendy double pivot, Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy give them unprecedented balance.
All five of those players are now on the wrong side of 30, and most have endured rocky starts to their club seasons. But with one last chance to win an African Cup of Nations this past winter, they won it; with one last chance to make their nation proud on sport’s biggest stage, would you really bet against them?
16. Japan (Elo: 24 | +25000)
Japan sent the USMNT tumbling toward crisis in a 2-0 friendly win for which, among U.S. fans, the Samurai Blue did not get nearly enough credit. They are aggressive, athletic, technical, tactically sound, and capable of doing to Germany or Spain what they did to the Americans.
17. Ecuador (Elo: 17 | +15000)
With the ridiculous Byron Castillo saga (almost) in the rearview mirror — Chile has said it will appear to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but it almost certainly won’t win — attention can finally turn to soccer, and to Ecuador’s impressive defensive record: It has not conceded a single goal in its last five games.
Unfortunately, Enner Valencia has forgotten how to score in a national team shirt, and no other striking options have presented themselves. The back four, anchored by 20-year-old Piero Hincapié and protected by 20-year-old Moises Caicedo, is very solid, but the team as a whole is perhaps too solid to produce enough going forward.
18. Mexico (Elo: 21 | +10000)
For decades, the narrative around El Tri has has focused on its hunt for an elusive quinto partido, or fifth game. Now the question is whether it will even reach a fourth. Head coach Tata Martino and players essentially admitted last week at a media day in California that Martino’s Mexico peaked in 2019, and hasn’t recaptured top form since. Injuries to Jesús “Tecatito” Corona and Raul Jimenez have exacerbated unease. A second-half collapse in their send-off friendly against Colombia on Tuesday only exacerbated it further.
As Emox News’ Andy Deossa wrote from Santa Clara: “Time is running out and the ‘Fuera Tata’ noise is only getting louder.”
19. United States (Elo: 24 | +10000)
It’s unfashionable, and perhaps illogical, to cling to any shreds of optimism after the U.S. laid two eggs against Japan and Saudi Arabia. It’s over-simplistic and foolish to assume that the returns from injury of Yunus Musah, Tim Weah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards will magically fix most faults. But here are the reasons for hope:
A) Musah’s skill set is one of one in the player pool, and he really does change the entire shape and capabilities of this USMNT.
B) These were friendlies! In mostly empty stadiums! With nothing on the line! Players like Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams will meet the moment in Qatar, and the entire team dynamic will feel different.
C) For all the rational concern about the USMNT’s failure to score in six of its last seven games against World Cup-caliber foes, and for all the fatalistic moaning about the team’s weakness at center back, the U.S. has kept clean sheets in four of those seven games. Over the past 12 months, despite deficient personnel and frequent injuries, its defensive record is excellent.
D) Head coach Gregg Berhalter isn’t an idiot. He has, quite clearly, failed to implement systems and plans to the degree he would’ve liked. He has run out of time to rectify that, but he has not run out of time to scrap ineffective plans, put together simplistic ones for three World Cup games, and trust the most talented generation of American male players ever to go out and seize a win or two.
20. Poland (Elo: 23 | +10000)
Poland, with the world’s finest goalscorer (Robert Lewandowski) and not much else, underwhelmed in 2018, and has decayed since. It’s a significant step below the rest of the continental European teams that’ll be in Qatar.
21. Wales (Elo: 26 | +15000)
Wales, struck by just as many injuries as the U.S., didn’t look much better than its opening-day opponent in losses last week to Belgium and Poland. Its midfield is fairly ragged. The other key concern is Gareth Bale, who has been fading at club level for some time now, and who has made LAFC worse since he moved to MLS this summer.
There is still the chance, of course, that Bale and his countrymen could elevate their games in Welsh jerseys, as they have a habit of doing. But the U.S. is rightly favored (+155) in the curtain-raiser.
22. Canada (Elo: 29 | +25000)
A 2-0 win over Qatar and a 2-0 loss to Uruguay over the past week didn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know. Canada’s attacking trident — Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David — is fearsome. Whether the eight players behind them will be able to both support them and keep the likes of Belgium and Croatia at bay is very much up in the air.
23. Morocco (Elo: 32 | +25000)
Vahid Halilhodzic has now managed four different nations to World Cup qualification — but only one to the actual World Cup. The Ivory Coast sacked him months before the 2010 tournament. Japan sacked him months before 2018. And Morocco, remarkably, followed suit last month.
His ouster reopened the national team door to Hakim Ziyech, Morocco’s brightest attacking star, who’d fallen out with Halilhodzic. The Chelsea playmaker returned to the Moroccan squad in September and looked lively in a 2-0 win over Chile. And the Atlas Lions, as a whole, looked like a completely different team than the one which lost to the U.S. 3-0 in June.
Iran was suffering from dysfunction and strained relationships between players and coach entering the summer. So it fired Dragan Skocic, and hired old reliable, Carlos Queiroz, and suddenly, all is well — on soccer fields, at least. Team Melli beat Uruguay last week. With three star forwards and solidity in Queiroz’s 4-1-4-1, Iran will absolutely be a threat to the U.S. and Wales in Group B.
The wild card is politics. The country is currently aflame in protest. The government, which has gotten increasingly repressive in recent times, is now cracking down and brutalizing its own people. It is very much unclear what sort of atmosphere might hang over the soccer team as it heads to Qatar in November.
(The trigger for the wave of dissent was the death in police custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who’d been arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely.)
25. South Korea (Elo: 28 | +25000)
South Korea could, admittedly, prove this ranking to be a gross underestimation. This entire 11-team tier is incredibly tight.
TIER 5: THE BOTTOM
26. Costa Rica (Elo: 35 | +50000)
Los Ticos took a sensational 19 points from their last seven CONCACAF qualifiers to nab an intercontinental playoff berth. They then ground out a 1-0 win over New Zealand to book their ticket to a third-straight men’s World Cup. But they don’t have anywhere near enough attacking oomph to do damage in Qatar.
27. Ghana (Elo: 73 | +25000)
Ghana has been decidedly dreadful in recent years. This ranking — rather than one at No. 30 or 31 — is based almost entirely on the potential of a few new dual-national recruits from the diaspora. The additions of Iñaki Williams, Mohammed Salisu and Tariq Lamptey have turned an underwhelming squad into an intriguing one. But they’ve all happened a bit late for Otto Addo to fully integrate the newcomers into his World Cup plans.
28. Tunisia (Elo: 43 | +40000)
29. Australia (Elo: 39 | +25000)
Group D is easiest of the eight to call. These two are worlds away from Denmark and France.
30. Cameroon (Elo: 61 | +25000)
Cameroon lost 2-0 to Uzbekistan last week. After the match, Samuel Eto’o, who has recast himself as Cameroonian soccer’s controversial president, proclaimed that the team’s aim is still to reach the 2022 World Cup final.
31. Saudi Arabia (Elo: 56 | +50000)
The entire squad plays in the Saudi Pro League.
The positive spin on that is that the players will have loads of time to jell; their clubs will release them to the national team, and they’ll play six more friendlies between now and their World Cup opener.
The more realistic spin on that is that the players aren’t very good.
32. Qatar (Elo: 52 | +25000)
There were times along the way, since Qatar won hosting rights and guaranteed itself a World Cup debut, that many feared it would be in a tier of its own, alarmingly inferior to its 31 guests. Those fears have been eased by a stunning 2019 Asian Cup triumph and a strange march to the semifinals of CONCACAF’s 2021 Gold Cup. This is still the worst team of the 32.