England were thoroughly efficient in the qualifying phase, winning their group with ease while remaining unbeaten and conceding just three times.
They did however fail to produce free-scoring displays even against minnows Lithuania and Malta, generating only lukewarm optimism from the majority of the Three Lions support ahead of the tournament in Russia.
The country that invented the beautiful game are still waiting for their first major honour since winning the World Cup in 1966. Promising generations have come and gone since, serving only to raise expectations and then frustratingly fall well short of them.
A group stage exit in the 2014 World Cup, and a humiliating second-round elimination at the hands of Iceland at Euro 2016, were in keeping with the team’s habitual mortification. As a result, despite the global following of the Premier League raising the profile of their squad, expectations have slumped to an all-time low – but that may just be the break they need.
Wayne Rooney was the last of the latest batch of England superstars to step off the international stage last year and the new set-up is atypically understated. Gareth Southgate’s appointment at the end of 2016 was somewhat anti-climactic but he’s gone about his business quietly, putting together a side bustling with pacy, enterprising talents.
England have a severe dearth of quality central midfielders but have managed to fashion a work-around by utilising a 3-1-4-2 formation that plays to their strengths and almost bypasses the middle of the park.
Southgate has embraced the three-man defence prevalent in England’s top flight in recent years that Tottenham and Chelsea live by and Arsenal and Manchester City indulge in as well.
The two-pronged attack accommodates Harry Kane and one of Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy or Marcus Rashford up front while allowing space in behind for midfield runners like Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard to exploit. While players have the freedom to drift into wide areas, the genuine width is provided by the wing-backs with Eric Dier protecting against the counter.
Individual brilliance plays a part in every great side and while there’s enough of that in this England team, they aren’t wholly reliant on it like some of the teams of yesteryear – which is why a mercurial talent in Jack Wilshere has been sidelined with minimal fuss.
Instead, it’s the system and collective efforts of the players as a unit that takes precedence. At the very least, they’re difficult to put away as they followed their unbeaten qualifying campaign by avoiding defeat in friendlies against Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy.
Perhaps without the expectation back home, or even the hope, England can be a pleasant surprise rather than the habitual massive disappointment.
In the absence of a genuine playmaker, his clever runs, pace and dribbling in tight areas will play a big part in creating openings for England. He’s come of age under Pep Guardiola this season and it’s time to replicate that form for the national team.
Having been promoted from the England Under-21s following Sam Allardyce’s short stint, Southgate has shaped a unit capable of competing against the best. He’s already shown his tactical nous but must prove it on the big stage.
If England are to go far in the competition, Kane must lead by example. He is their standout star at the moment, scoring 38 goals for Spurs this season, and if he’s at his clinical best, they stand a real chance of producing the goods.
He has had a stop-start season at Manchester United but there’s no denying the 20-year-old’s quality. His versatility to play through the middle or out wide and searing pace makes him a force, particularly when bringing energy off the bench.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Gary Lineker is England’s top scorer at World Cups with 10 goals. Geoff Hurst is second with five.
– Since winning the competition in 1966, England have only once reached the semi finals – losing to West Germany in 1990.
– Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the 1966 final – he is still the only man to score three in the showpiece match.
– 89.4 minutes per goal contribution for Sterling in the 17/18 Premier League.
80 DEF 81 MID 84 ATT
World Cups competed at
14 (First in 1950)
World Cup record
P62, W26, D20, L16
P10, W8, D2
Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley).
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United).
Dele Alli, Eric Dier (both Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea).
Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal).
Finally, England look primed for a tournament with a clear game plan. With the pressure off, they may just be dark horses this time, perhaps even destined for the final four.
Egyptians have waited 28 years to see the Pharaohs compete in a World Cup, and now it is finally happening, many wonder if this history-making group of footballers have more left in them to step up in Russia.
For a country which has won the African Cup of Nations a record seven times, one that witnessed a ‘Golden Generation’ of Mohamed Abou-Trika, Ahmed Hossam ‘Mido’, Mohamed Zidane and many more; Egypt have only made two previous World Cup appearances – the 1934 second edition in Italy, and Italia ‘90.
Ready to make their highly-anticipated return to the quadrennial showpiece, Hector Cuper’s men and their upcoming mission in Russia is all anyone can think or talk about on the Egyptian streets.
The players are the protagonists of every commercial airing this Ramadan – a month where Egyptians are glued to their TVs post-iftar – as World Cup fever has officially gripped the nation.
Thousands of travel packages have been booked by Egyptian football fans to the cities of Yekaterinburg, St. Petersburg and Volgograd, where the Pharaohs will contest their three group stage matches, and heart rates are already rising.
Egypt and Aston Villa defender Ahmed Elmohamady says the players are just as excited.
“I have to say we really can’t wait. Everyone wanted their leagues to be over so we could return to the national team. It’s not something that happens every year and all of the players are so excited,” Elmohamady tells Sport360.
“We’re in touch constantly, we’re on a Whatsapp group and we’re all really excited about our next reunion with the national team. We’re all psyched about the World Cup and we’re confident we can do something that will make our country happy and hopefully we won’t disappoint our people.”
Elmohamady is one of seven Egyptians playing in England, with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, of course, the squad’s main star after enjoying a record-breaking season with the Reds. They’re a tight-knit group, according to Elmohamady.
“As you can see the number of players from Egypt playing in Europe has increased, so staying in touch with them is much better than before,” adds the 30-year-old.
“There are several players in England, so we’re talking to each other all the time, checking up on each other, I was talking to (Arsenal’s Mohamed) Elneny a few days ago to check on his injury. We’re all communicating well and we can’t wait until we are all together.”
Asked which player is the most active on their Whatsapp group, Elmohamady says with a laugh: “Amr Warda of course, he’s always been a chatter box, on Whatsapp and outside Whatsapp and everywhere, he never stops talking. He’s such a nice guy, he’s loved by everyone and he’s very funny. So he doesn’t stop talking and he’s the most active on the group.”
Landing in Group A alongside hosts Russia, two-time champions Uruguay and fellow Arab nation Saudi Arabia, many believe Cuper’s men have a legitimate chance of making it to the knockout stages.
While securing qualification to the World Cup seemed like the ultimate dream for Egypt, Elmohamady admits the team is far more ambitious than that.
“Before we qualified, people only cared about us actually booking our ticket to the World Cup. It was like let’s just go to Russia, play three games and come back. But of course all this changed after we qualified,” says the former Hull City player.
“Everyone on the street has high hopes for us, they don’t just want to watch us play three games, they want us to go further. As players, we have a goal to play more than three matches. To play three matches and getting knocked out wouldn’t be good for us.
“We are going in looking to make it as far as we can. It would be something big for our fans travelling with us to Russia and the people watching on TV. Hopefully we don’t disappoint.”
Cuper, Egypt’s Argentinean coach, has been heavily criticised for his defensive tactics but the fact remains he will go down in history as the man who ended the North African nation’s 28-year World Cup drought.
“We have a strong group of players, we have a coach of the highest quality in Mr. Cuper. I feel our level and our enthusiasm to do something big for ourselves and our country gives us a strong chance of advancing to the knockouts,” he added.
“Opening games are usually pivotal and they reveal the shape of the group. So I think the game against Uruguay will be the key for us to go deep in the World Cup. It will be a tough game of course but I feel we’re all going there with lots of optimism.”
Elmohamady hails from Basyoun, the same town where Salah was born, in the governorate of El Gharbia. They go way back and Elmohamady admits he’s not surprised by his compatriot’s incredible achievements with Liverpool this season.
Salah broke the Premier League record for goals scored in a 38-game season, amassing 32 in his first year at Anfield and has netted 44 goals across all competitions so far this season.
He scooped countless awards, including Premier League Player of the Season, PFA Player of the Year, FWA Footballer of the Year, and African Footballer of the Year.
Liverpool fans have dubbed him ‘The Egyptian King’ and Elmohamady says Salah is inspiring a whole generation back home.
“Players his age and younger than he is look up to him and consider him a role model,” said Elmohamady. “He is the best role model for them right now. Everyone now wants to go and play football abroad. And that is great, be it for the player himself or for the national team.
“From a behaviour point of view, Salah is a very respectable person off the pitch, very disciplined, and that helps him on the pitch. He is able to perform well on the pitch because of that discipline. He’s a great example to follow.”
Egypt’s preparations for the World Cup included two friendlies contested in March — a 0-1 loss to Greece and a 1-2 defeat to Portugal, where Salah opened the scoring and Ronaldo netted a double in the dying moments of the game.
The two performances raised numerous question marks over the Pharaohs’ form but Elmohamady sees lots of positives coming out of those games.
“Despite those two losses, we gained a lot from those matches. It had been more than three years since we last faced a European side. So it’s good that we started to get used to playing European teams, and big teams like Portugal. It removes the fear factor you have when facing such teams,” he explains.
“In friendlies, the last thing you think of is the result. Mr. Cuper was trying out different players during those games, so there are usually a lot of different objectives with those friendlies. I believe they were two very important games for us.”
More recently, Egypt drew friendly games against Kuwait and Colombia, and lost 3-0 to Belgium – all in the absence of Salah, who continues to recover from a shoulder injury picked up during the Champions League final last month.
Egypt lost one of their goalkeepers to injury in April after Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawy hurt his left knee and was ruled out of the tournament. That leaves the 45-year-old Essam El Hadary as Egypt’s first-choice ‘keeper and captain.
The three-time African Cup of Nations winner will bring a wealth of experience to a squad which includes many players who haven’t competed a lot in front of big crowds, especially with the ongoing stadium ban imposed on the Egyptian Premier League.
“Of course the experience factor is important in every team. In the most recent African Cup of Nations we competed in, there were only three or four players on our team who had ever played in an AFCON before: Hadary, Fathy, Abdelshafy and myself,” said Elmohamady.
“So of course experience helps. And now that these players have played in Africa and made the final (in Gabon 2017), that added to them a lot of experience.
“Add to that the fact that a lot of our players compete in big leagues, there’s a group playing in the Premier League like Salah, Elneny, Hegazy and Ramadan. All this adds to the team.
“Of course our captain Essam El Hadary, he is always in touch with the players, he talks to them, he transfers his vast knowledge and experience through his talks with them before matches. I believe we have a lot of experience in this team, it’s enough that our goalkeeper is 45 years old which is huge for us. We learn a lot from him.”
South Korea’s path to the World Cup was turbulent, they switched managers with two games to go during qualifying.
Out went Uli Stielike, under whom the Taegeuk Warriors were floundering, and in danger of missing out on this summer’s tournament in Russia after a shock 3-2 loss to Qatar. Shin Tae-yong, a former international attacking midfielder of some repute, was drafted in and oversaw two 0-0 draws to ensure his country avoided failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
That’s a formidable record, but it comes with expectation. Fans were irked by the celebrations after South Korea’s final qualifier, against Uzbekistan, because reaching the World Cup is now a bare minimum requirement, with this summer’s tournament their ninth successive appearance at football’s showpiece event.
Indeed, previous national teams have set a high bar, especially after reaching the semi-finals in 2002 as hosts. In 2014, when South Korea crashed out at the group stage having taken a solitary point against Belgium, Russia, and Algeria, the players returning from Brazil were pelted with candy by fans at the airport.
Those memories should serve as a warning to this year’s squad, as they face a tough group yet again, but with far greater doubt over whether the players can live up to expectation.
It’s not inconceivable that they finish with just one point yet again. The first two games against Sweden and Mexico are crucial, as the writing will be on the wall if they haven’t picked up enough points before facing Germany.
How they fare at the World Cup will depend on the exploits of star attacker, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min. There are other exciting young players in the squad and Shin has promised vibrant football now that the burden of qualification is off, but South Korea will go as far as Son takes them.
The national set-up is still trying to figure out how to get the best out of a player who is the most recognisable South Korean footballer since Park Ji-sung.
Son will be heading to Russia on the back of a superb season for Tottenham, but he’ll have to produce something special for his country to stand a chance.
South Korea are still drawing up ways of how to get the best out of the man, who is by far their most high-profile player. Son is coming off a fabulous season with Tottenham, and could spark his national side into life in Russia.
Shin has guaranteed that disgruntled supporters will see a different South Korea come the World Cup, after presiding over 0-0 stalemates in his first two competitive games. If the K-League legend can get the team playing in his image, they should prove fun to watch.
It’s a mark of how important Ki is that Shin named him captain for South Korea’s crucial qualifiers against Iran and Uzbekistan even though the Swansea midfielder wasn’t fit. The team has flashier players, but Ki always ensures his presence is felt both on and off the pitch.
The 22-year-old is on the radar of several Premier League teams after scoring 12 goals in 35 appearances for Salzburg this season. One of only three forwards in the squad, Hwang has the chance to be Son’s leading running mate.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– No Asian team has appeared at the World Cup more times than South Korea, who are making their 10th appearance this summer.
– Their fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Cup is the best-ever performance by an Asian team.
– Legendary Bundesliga star Cha Bum-kun is their most capped (138) and leading all-time scorer (59).
69 DEF 74 MID 70 ATT
World Cups competed at
10 (First in 1954)
World Cup record
P31, W5, D9, L17
Fourth place (2002)
P18, W12, D3, L3
Goalkeepers: K. Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), K. Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), C. Hyun-woo (Daegu FC).
Defenders: K. Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), J. Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), J. Seunghyun (Sagan Tosu), Y. Yong-sun (Seongnam FC), K. Kyung-won (Tianjin Quanjian), O. Ban-suk (Jeju United), K. Jin-su (Jeonbuk), K. Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), P. Joo-ho (Ulsan), H. Chul (Sangju Sangmu), G. Yo-han (FC Seoul), L. Yong (Jeonbuk)
Midfielders: K. Sung-yueng (Swansea), J. Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), K. Changhoon (Dijon), J. Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa FC), K. Ja-cheol (Augsburg), L. Jae-sung (Jeonbuk), L. Seung-woo (Verona), M. Seon-min (Incheon United), L. Chung-yong (Crystal Palace)
Forwards: K. Shin-wook (Jeonbuk), S. Heung-min (Tottenham), H. Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg), L. Keun-ho (Gangwan FC)
If Shin can get the most out of his star player Son, this is a side that can reach the quarter-finals. If not, they’ll crash out of Group F.