After four long years, the World Cup returns this Sunday. Here are our picks for Golden Boot, key players, best kit, and who will face off in the final.
The first “winter World Cup”—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—kicks off in Qatar this Sunday. Who’s the favorite for the Golden Boot? Who will make a statement in the group phase? And which team has the best kit? The Ringer staff has thoughts on those questions and more.
Brian Phillips: USA-England, because I am a patriot and also a masochist.
Aric Jenkins: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t USA-England, but I’ll go with the second-most-tantalizing choice: Portugal-Uruguay. Just feels like two evenly matched teams with loads of talent but the slightest lack of quality to ensure this isn’t an overly cautious snoozefest (see: Germany vs. Spain).
Isaiah Blakely: My bias tells me USA-England because of the history; the prospect of two young, interesting teams facing off; and, most importantly, the inevitable Twitter content. But Spain-Germany is also an important match in a fairly tough group.
Kellen Becoats: I’m going to skirt around the Revolutionary War Bowl that is USA-England and opt for Germany-Spain. The exciting young stars on display—Jamal Musiala, Pedri, and Ansu Fati were all born after “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy dropped—should make for one of the best group stage games we’ve seen in a while. This is also a rematch of the 2010 World Cup semifinal game that Spain won 1-0 on the way to winning the whole tournament and putting the nation’s tiki-taka style on the map. Both teams have changed dramatically since then. It should be a fascinating match.
Jomi Adeniran: The Spain vs. Germany match has been circled on my calendar ever since the group draw was announced. The last time Germany beat Spain at a major competition was 34 years ago (!!!), but Die Mannschaft come into this World Cup as one of the favorites of the tourney. Can the new faces of Spanish football—Gavi, Pedri, and Ansu Fati—deliver against the old German guard of Neuer, Muller, and Gotze? I’m excited as all hell to see.
Damian Burchardt: Belgium vs. Croatia. It’s just the perfect World Cup matchup, featuring the semifinalist and finalist of the 2018 tournament in Russia. It offers the opportunity to take a closer look at future stars in Josko Gvardiol and Charles De Ketelaere. It’s headlined by a midfield duel between Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modric that will always make a football fan drool. Both teams excel pushing forward but are a little shaky at the back, so goals are almost guaranteed. And the stakes should be high as Belgium and Croatia will either fight for a spot in the round of 16 or duke it out for the top place in the group. It’s hard to oversell this match.
Steve Ceruti: France-Denmark, which is the only battle of top-10 teams in the FIFA rankings during the group stage. It’s also the ultimate test of individual talent (France) versus team (Denmark). Plus, the winner will likely get on the right side of the bracket and have an excellent chance of reaching the semis and even the final.
Blakely: Lionel Messi in a fairly weak group is going to put on a show in what will likely be his final World Cup.
Becoats: The romantic in me wants to choose Messi. He struggled a bit in the group stage last time out but was thrilling in 2014, scoring four goals in three games. Poland has a tendency to concede goals in bunches to elite teams (they let in a total of 11 in two games each against the Netherlands and Belgium in the Nations League this year) so I’m sure Wojciech Szczesny won’t be excited to see Messi running toward him. Saudi Arabia and Mexico can also be got at, so I hope the combination of that and the occasion being Messi’s Last Dance will lead to the Argentine putting on a show.
Adeniran: If you haven’t been watching, get ready to meet the game’s next big star: Darwin Núñez. The 23-year-old Uruguayan forward was Liverpool’s record transfer last summer and has quickly shown to have the talent and skills to make a difference when he’s on the field. Playing in a high-profile game against Portugal will put Núñez in the world’s spotlight.
Phillips: I’m excited to see what Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech does against a Group F field that’s extremely hard to parse. Belgium is either a favorite to win the tournament or a squad of has-beens that’s about to show the world what being washed looks like. Croatia was a finalist in 2018, but now seems to have an average age of around 72. Canada is full of Canadians, and you know how unpredictable they are. Ziyech is an explosive player who’s used to going up against top-class competition. But like essentially every Chelsea midfielder of the past five years, he’s struggled with inconsistent playing time at a club that seems to forget its identity every time it does laundry. If everything breaks right (admittedly a big if!), Group F could be Ziyech’s mini-breakout tour.
Burchardt: It’s got to be France’s finest, Kylian Mbappé. Before the World Cup break, the 23-year-old speedster struck 12 times in 14 Ligue 1 matches and finished the Champions League group stage with season-best 10 goal contributions, finding the net in all but one game. France’s path to the round of 16 is neither the toughest nor the trickiest with Australia, Denmark, and Tunisia standing in the defending champions’ way. Mbappé should be able to put his talents on full display in the World Cup’s early stages, particularly as he’s arriving in exquisite form—just look at how he torched Juventus (in Turin!) less than a fortnight ago!
Mbappé inspiring Paris in Turin @KMbappe || @PSG_English || #UCL pic.twitter.com/72pK5fz3lv
Ceruti: I’m going with Neymar. He’s been in incredible club form but is still somewhat in Messi and Mbappe’s shadow at PSG. This is his chance to be THE guy for what is likely the best Brazil squad we’ve seen in several cycles. I think he comes out with a point to prove.
Jenkins: Christian Eriksen. Denmark should comfortably advance to the knockout rounds and I suspect their biggest competition, France, is a bit vulnerable as they cope with key injuries and a Reigning Champs Hangover. Eriksen is usually terrific for the national team and he’ll be playing with extra motivation after his incredibly scary collapse at the 2020 Euros.
Adeniran: Is it wild to think that Poland could make it out of its group? Argentina are the clear favorites in Group C, so it’s a two-horse race between Poland and Mexico (sorry, Saudi Arabia). What will be the difference between both squads? Soccer is a game of goals. Poland brought two-time Ballon D’Or snub Robert Lewandowski to Qatar while Mexico left its record goalscorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez at home. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
Burchardt: Never bet against Ghana is something the USMNT learned the hard way in their past World Cup encounters with the Black Stars. The team oozes both experience and talent—Ajax starlet Mohammed Kudus has already scored against the likes of Napoli and Liverpool in the Champions League this year. Elsewhere in Group H, Cristiano Ronaldo’s fallout with Manchester United seems to be spilling into Portugal’s locker room, causing internal tensions—a recipe for an early World Cup exit. It’s more than plausible Ghana will come out of the group alongside World Cup veterans Uruguay.
Jenkins: Shit, I hate to be this guy, but after learning of Sadio Mané’s injury, which will keep him sidelined throughout the tournament, I think it’ll be Qatar. With Mané, Senegal are arguably favorites to win the group. Without, I can see the team struggling to score goals while Qatar rides the home-field advantage and an “us against the world” mentality. I can even picture them nicking a point off the Netherlands, who continue to be a shadow of the 2010 squad that made the final. Ecuador, meanwhile, seem likely to be bottom-feeders.
Phillips: Does Serbia count as an underdog? Betting odds seem to put the Serbs just below Switzerland for the second slot in Group G, and yes, ugh, fine, Switzerland always seems to find a way to survive the group stage. But Switzerland is boring, and Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic has nine goals in 12 Premier League games for Fulham so far this year. Also, Dusan Vlahovic is a dangerous young man. So I’m calling it. Serbia is making the Round of 16 and losing to Portugal, which will be an act of service for anyone who wants to keep talking about Ronaldo and the Piers Morgan interview for as long as possible (me).
Ceruti: I really like this Serbia team. They have some legit attacking talent, including a couple fringe world-class players in striker Dusan Vlahovic and midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. They also topped their World Cup qualifying group by beating out Portugal. Brazil is going to win the group. Switzerland is favored to finish as the runner-up, but I like Serbia to beat the Swiss and potentially cause some problems in the knockouts.
Becoats: Most of the groups are pretty straightforward this year, but I have my eyes on Group F. It seems like we’ve been saying “this has to be the tournament where Belgium’s Golden Generation will finally win it all” for four tournaments now. Frankly, I’m tired of the discussion. Belgium obviously have great talent, but I think they’re primed for a slip-up. I feel similarly about 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia. Luka Modric is still the straw that stirs the drink, and being flanked by Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic should make for a dominant midfield display in the group stage. But I’m counting on Canada to catch one of those two teams sleeping. Neither Belgium nor Croatia has a player who can handle Alphonso Davies’s pace on the flank and, generally, I think a lot of people are forgetting that Canada was the best CONCACAF team during qualifying. Canada doesn’t have a ton of big names and their games aren’t highly publicized, which makes them a perfect dark horse to surprise everyone in Qatar. Please consider this my official application for Canadian citizenship, Justin Trudeau.
Blakely: I think Canada gets out of a pretty competitive group. They’re young, but led by Alphonso Davies, and they’ve got a lot of talent in the attack. That will carry them into the round of 16.
Jenkins: Josko Gvardiol. Guaranteed starter at center back for Croatia, who are still good enough to go deep in the tournament. Gvardiol’s one of the highest-touted defenders in Europe at the moment, and he appears destined for a headline move away from RB Leipzig as soon as next season.
Ceruti: At 19, Pedri is the present and the future of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team. If you created the ideal Spanish footballer in a lab it would be him. Look for him to build on his stellar performance at Euro 2020 and drive Spain to a deep run in Qatar.
Phillips: The answer is Vinicius Junior, but he’s 22, which is technically just a hair over 21. So I’ll pick Pedri, the 19-year-old Spanish midfielder who’s one of the most talented young players in the game. He’s a rising star at Barcelona but hasn’t yet had a breakthrough moment for Spain. This could be his time.
Becoats: Very rude to make this 21 or younger so I can’t pick Vinicius Junior, but fine, I’ll choose Jude Bellingham instead. He produces no fewer than three jaw-dropping moments a game for Dortmund—seriously, this dude’s vision, skills, and dribbling ability are mesmerizing. He was so dope at Birmingham City that the club decided to retire his number when he left the club … at age 17. So yes, he is very good. He has the capability to unlock England’s occasionally sleepy and sloppy build-up play, and at the very least, he’ll make their games a lot of fun to watch.
Blakely: It’s incredibly hard to pick one, but Jude Bellingham is the first name that comes to mind. If England go far in this tournament, Bellingham will be a big reason why.
Adeniran: Jamal Musiala can’t even enjoy a beer in the United States but is proving to be one of the best young stars in the game. Despite losing the Kopa Trophy in his first full season as an everyday player for Bayern Munich, Musiala is leading the German champions in goals and assists. Hansi Flick will absolutely do his best to make sure Jamal brings that same production to the pitch in Qatar.
Burchardt: Earlier in November, and right before Germany’s pre–World Cup training camp began, Jamal Musiala played his 100th match for Bayern Munich’s senior team. He is 19. He is already one of the most electrifying attacking midfielders in the world—no one has more goal involvements in the Bundesliga than Musiala’s 15 this season. And his stock should only rise after playing a major role for one of the favorites in Qatar. It’s 2010 Mesut Ozil vibes all over again.
Ceruti: I’ll be fading Belgium throughout the tournament. They’ve been the trendy pick in tournaments for like 10 years, but time has run out on their “golden generation.” Yes, Kevin De Bruyne is still amazing, but the defense is old, their star striker Romelu Lukaku is a huge question mark, and they’re facing a sneaky tough group.
Blakely: Belgium’s golden generation will disappoint once again by not getting out of the round of 16.
Phillips: Team? Belgium feels primed to get a lot of pre-tournament attention while drafting off old golden generation hype, only to fall short when the matches start. Player? I would love to be wrong about this, but even if Romelu Lukaku gets over his hamstring injury, I’m not sure he’s escaping his flop era at this World Cup.
Jenkins: Portugal. Bad manager. Bad Cristiano Ronaldo juju. Plus, they still rolling out Pepe as a starter at 39? I got a bad feeling about this, man. I know I described Portugal as having “loads of talent” earlier and that I was excited to see them play Uruguay; Uruguay will win that game.
Becoats: Lord willing, this will be Cristiano Ronaldo. The vibes around this Portugal team are putrid. CR7’s teammates, both national and club, don’t look like they want anything to do with him. It’s giving France in 2010. It’s giving that one uncle who is “just asking questions” at Thanksgiving dinner. And that’s a real shame, because this team could have been fun! I think they escape Group H but ultimately get throttled in the round of 16.
Burchardt: England. Something’s wrong with the Three Lions. They were toothless in the Nations League this year, failing to score from open play until the very last match of the season—a 3-3 draw against Germany at Wembley. By that time, they had already been relegated from the Nations League’s top tier. Manager Gareth Southgate had been booed by England’s own fans—and questions over his future with the team remain. Not to mention that, despite names of his potential successors already coming up, Southgate apparently still sees Harry Maguire, who’s having a nightmare of a season at Manchester United, as a central figure on his team. Sorry, mate, but football likely isn’t coming home.
Adeniran: They finna kill me for this … but the Argentina gas is WILD. I understand Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player the world has ever seen, and betting against him is nuts. But expecting the Argentines to walk to the final with Nicolás Otamendi and an injured Cristian Romero as their centerbacks is bold. I believe this team is more likely to lose in the quarterfinals than win the whole thing, but if I want anyone to prove me wrong, I want it to be Messi.
Phillips: … nasty, brutish, and short, like my phone calls to my therapist while they’re playing.
Becoats: … underwhelming. This team is young, inexperienced, and has looked like shit during the tune-up games ahead of their flight to Qatar. Many of the team’s best European-based players appear to be out of form and/or not getting a lot of run with their club teams. And you know what? That’s all OK. This is the youngest team in the tournament and, if we’re being honest, this is all just prep for the expectations to peak when North America hosts the 2026 tournament. I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that the USMNT even makes it out of their group, with Wales, England, and Iran all looking competent in this year’s “Group of Death.” I would love to be surprised, but I think this team is destined for a Round of 16 exit at best.
Adeniran: … fun! Why can’t we just enjoy the fact that the United States is actually playing in the World Cup instead of worrying about dumb things like expectations, stakes, and results? Trust me, it’s more fun that way and it hurts less when they end up going out sad.
Jenkins: … a reality check. I see a lot of people saying the USMNT should take this whole World Cup as a learning experience and just be happy to be here after missing out in 2018. But the U.S. has legitimately good players who almost certainly won’t be utilized correctly under Gregg Berhalter. Go out and get yourself a proper manager, America, and stop putting MLS players in your starting 11. I’m sorry. I’d love to see our domestic game thrive, too, but there’s a reason the league’s players are not in Europe.
Burchardt: …about the journey, not the destination. There’s so much to like about this young USMNT team, packed with technically gifted, offensive-minded talents. Gio Reyna or Yunus Musah might well emerge as one of the tournament’s breakout stars. And Christian Pulisic will be determined to put on a show hoping to encourage clubs in Europe to end his Chelsea misery in January.
If the stars align, all that talent and ambition could translate into a round of 16 appearance, perhaps even an exciting trip to the quarterfinals before the inevitable exit at the hands of one of the World Cup favorites. The USMNT won’t win the whole thing, but watching the team’s stars grow with each match on the grandest of stages should make for an enjoyable and satisfying experience nonetheless—even for fans of other countries.
Blakely: … something to learn from. They’re the youngest team in the competition and they don’t have great depth, but regardless of whether they get out of the group, it was vital to get back to this stage. This World Cup will provide an idea of what we should reasonably expect from the USMNT in future tournaments.
Ceruti: … a great litmus test for Gregg Berhalter and the direction of the program. The U.S. should get out of this group—anything less would be a failure. Obviously, just getting to the World Cup is an improvement under Berhalter’s watch, but still, it feels like this team should be better. He has a chance to prove his doubters wrong with a solid showing, but with the 2026 World Cup coming to North America and a group of American players primed to be the best we’ve ever had, a lot will be riding on how he and the team performs in Qatar.
Jenkins: Easily France. The blue and gold is clean AF, and I’m a sucker for bold, accented socks. Matches the flag perfectly.
Montrer au monde ce que la France a de plus beau @nikefootball
Ceruti: The France Blue kit with gold accents, white shorts, and red socks is a stunner. (Honorable Mention to South Korea’s weird away kit, too.)
This South Korea kit is unreal pic.twitter.com/Zpu2j9aAyf
Blakely: I don’t love most of the kits this year, but Mexico’s kits are beautiful.
From our roots to our present. ❤️⚽️
Meet our new away jersey for the World Cup, Incondicionales. #ElOrigenQueNosUne pic.twitter.com/5fib7L44UK
Adeniran: The Mexico away kit is far and away the best jersey this year and frankly, one of the best jersey designs we’ve ever seen at a World Cup finals. Shame there’s a chance we never see them wear it in Qatar.
Becoats: Let’s make something clear right away: Everyone was playing for second after Mexico released its kit. So Mexico takes gold at a trot, point-blank, period. Who deserves silver? I’m going to give it to Japan. So many kits nowadays feel like retreads or like the brand just kind of forgot to work on a new design until the week of the release and tossed in some weird feature to make the new kit different (I’m looking at you, Brazil and your weird jaguar print sleeves). Japan’s kit feels different. It feels vibrant, representative of the culture, and looks badass no matter who is wearing it. 10/10, no notes.
日本を、歓喜で染めろ。#サッカー日本代表 2022 ユニフォームのコンセプトは #ORIGAMI。
https://t.co/bRzdXVKEJA#アディダス #daihyo#日本を歓喜で染めろ pic.twitter.com/oyD82vbSqA
Burchardt: Yes, I’ve seen Mexico’s uniforms. But Germany’s black-and-white tops with golden trim are just so classy. They induce both respect and fear, and evoke the elegance and dominance of German football’s nearly extinct Golden Generation that claimed the title in 2014. Crème de la crème of football fashion.
All the best on your 32nd birthday, @IlkayGuendogan! pic.twitter.com/yEy8CZvsNT
Phillips: I hate basically all soccer kits at this point—I like simple, consistent kits whose refresh cycle isn’t set to “StockX”—but even if that weren’t true, I’d be picking Denmark’s all-black away kit, designed to honor the migrant workers who died building Qatar’s soccer stadiums. It’s a great kit, it’s an important message, and FIFA surely hates it. What’s not to love, other than the necessity for it to exist in the first place?
Denmark’s kit supplier Hummel released a statement on their ‘toned-down’ design being a protest of the World Cup in Qatar:
‘We don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives.’
The third kit is all black to represent mourning. pic.twitter.com/TZKvKbmmZR
Ceruti: I’ll go with Lionel Messi because he takes penalties and free kicks, and Argentina will go far.
Becoats: I think this is all dependent on health and form. Harry Kane is one of the betting favorites but I’m just not sure how much energy he’ll have after the group stages. As I stated earlier, I think Messi could have a field day in Group C if he gets hot early, so I’m going to stick with the Little Magician here.
Blakely: Argentina is going to go deep in this tournament, but I actually think it’s Lautaro Martínez who scores the bulk of the goals—off of Messi’s assists.
Phillips: Harry Kane. I’m not just saying that to jinx England. No, really. No, I mean it.
Jenkins: Controversial choice, perhaps, but I say Richarlison! He’s Brazil’s no. 9, and they’re probably going to reach at least the semifinal. Most importantly, they’re going to score a lot of goals along the way.
Burchardt: Robert Lewandowski and Poland likely won’t hang around long enough to keep the Barcelona striker in the race for the Golden Boot—just like Harry Kane’s England. Neymar and Leo Messi will probably focus on creating chances for their teammates, not scoring them. Barring an unexpected form explosion from one of the breakout stars, Mbappé should scoop the award.
Adeniran: The stat-padding Kylian Mbappé is going to do against Australia and Tunisia in the group stage alone will be GENERATIONAL and should carry him to this trophy pretty easily.
Phillips: England over Brazil. Let’s say 15-0, conservatively? Honestly, quit looking at me like that. I don’t even believe in jinxes.
Blakely: Brazil and France make the final. Brazil wins.
Ceruti: Argentina over Spain. Messi ends the GOAT debate and goes out on top in his last appearance on the international stage.
Jenkins: The football gods make neutrals’ dreams come true with a Brazil vs. Argentina final. And then they ruin those dreams by having Brazil defeat Argentina, robbing Lionel Messi of his final opportunity to win a World Cup.
Burchardt: Argentina vs. Germany; winner: Argentina.
I think France’s short-handed midfield might cost them the title this time around. That should open the door for Germany to return to the World Cup final despite their lack of a renowned center-forward not named Thomas Müller. In the end, after the scrappiest of World Cup campaigns, Argentina will come through for Messi—just like they did last year at the Copa América. Logic-defying forces sometimes dictate results in sports; I just can’t see the football gods letting Messi end his career without that one trophy that would officially make him the greatest ever.
Adeniran: Every time I think about who will be playing on December 18 at Lusail Stadium, my mind comes back to the same conclusion every time: Germany and Brazil in a battle for all the marbles. A potential match between two of the World Cup’s winningest teams makes for an enthralling finale on its own, but add in the fact that the last time these teams faced each other resulted in one the most shocking results in sports history, and you have a recipe for an all-timer.
This time, though? It all ends differently. Brazil gets their revenge and adds a sixth star to their crest.
Becoats: For a bit of historical drama, I’m picking England and Argentina to make the final. These teams have a fascinating rivalry filled with anger, a Hand of God, and a 10-week war. Their match in 1966 is the reason we have the yellow and red card system! These two teams usually meet in the men’s World Cup quarterfinals but I think they both have enough juice to make it all the way this year. Messi will go on a tear and England will continue its hot tournament form from the 2020 Euros, leading to an epic finale. But who will win it all? I don’t believe it’s coming home. It’s been 20 years since a non-European team won the men’s World Cup, and this installment is where that streak ends. Imagine the scenes of Messi walking around the pitch with the World Cup trophy, tears in his eyes as he finally captures the prize that’s eluded him his whole career. It would put him on par with Diego Maradona and Pelé, not in terms of winners medals but in overall dominance and influence. It would only be fitting for Messi’s Last Dance to culminate in him cementing his place as not only the best player of his generation, but arguably the best of all time.
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