The favourites in focus
With Russia 2018 just days away, it is being widely suggested that this could be the most open and unpredictable FIFA World Cup™ in decades.
But while there is a lengthy list of potential winners, discussion of pre-tournament favourites has tended to focus on four star-studded sides. With that in mind, and the big kick-off looming, FIFA.com takes a closer look at this quartet of leading contenders.
A team transformed under the astute leadership of Tite, Brazil were the first nation - besides the hosts - to book their place at Russia 2018. The ghosts of 2014 and that 7-1 walloping by Germany have been exorcised by some outstanding performances, including a recent 1-0 win over the world champions in Berlin. Gabriel Jesus, the goalscorer in that match, Alisson and Coutinho have also risen to prominence since the last World Cup, and number among several outstanding players in a strong, well-balanced and united Seleção squad.
Key player: Neymar
There was a collective intake of breath when Brazil's talisman suffered a season-ending foot injury for Paris Saint-Germain in February. At 26, Neymar already has 55 goals for his country and is now joint-fourth place with Romario on the list of Brazil's top goalscorers. His comeback against Croatia and his goal against Austria in recent friendlies, both featured brilliant pieces of skill, reminded everyone of this superb player's capacity for the extraordinary.
"Brazil are a favourite at the World Cup. By the football presented, the campaign completed, by level, performance plus results… we are one of the teams [who can win the Trophy], yes." Tite
Didier Deschamps arrives at Russia 2018 with a squad crammed full of individual talent. A mere look at their 23-man list, which contains names such as Pogba, Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele, guarantees a degree of expectation. Should Deschamps settle on a formula that brings out the best of this dazzling array of stars, he could become just the third man - after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer - to win the Trophy as coach and player.
Key player: Antoine Griezmann
Outstanding for the French at UEFA EURO 2016, and the hero once again for Atletico Madrid in their recent UEFA Europa League final, Griezmann has proved himself to be a man for the big occasion. Dynamic and deadly, this speedy forward will again be expected to spearhead Les Bleus' multi-talented attack.
“We have a lot of ambition but if we look at the other nations, there are two in Europe (Spain and Germany) who are ahead of us, and one in South America (Brazil)." Didier Deschamps
Retaining the World Cup is notoriously difficult, and no-one has managed it since Brazil in 1962. Germany, however, arrive at Russia 2018 with a group of players that is arguably even stronger than the one that brought them glory four years ago. Their victory at the FIFA Confederations Cup with a youthful squad heralded the arrival of youngsters such as Timo Werner, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich, all of whom are ready and able to contribute to the team's impending title defence.
Key player: Mesut Ozil
Brilliant on his day, and a stalwart of Low's Germany, Ozil has been criticised in recent years for his inconsistency for both club and country. He remains as talented and creative as ever, though, and if the holders are to retain their Trophy, they will need their assist king at his inventive best.
"Germany will be hunted like never before, and near-superhuman forces will be needed if we want to end up becoming world champions again." Joachim Low
After early exits at Brazil 2014 and UEFA EURO 2016, Spain have rediscovered their swagger and approach Russia 2018 in fine fettle. In mixing heroes of the team that won three successive major titles between 2008 and 2012 with a new generation of exciting players, Julen Lopetegui looks to have found the perfect blend. Outstanding showings in qualifying, and against big-name friendly opponents, have strengthened the belief that this is hungry and hugely talented Spain side is ready to go the distance.
Key player: David Silva
Though a veteran of well over 100 internationals and a member of Spain's golden generation, Silva tended to play a supporting role during that aforementioned, silverware-laden four-year period. Now, aged 32, he is one of the team's undisputed stars, with sparkling performances and five goals during qualifying having cemented the Manchester City hero's place at the heart of Julen Lopetegui's plans.
"You earn the title of favourite when you win. Spanish football has lived through an extraordinary period in 2008, 2010 and 2012, but after that the team has not found the same consistency or success. We have the biggest ambitions but we arrive at this World Cup feeling humble and wanting to prove ourselves." Julen Loptegui