It would be easy to dismiss this generation of Belgium players as a disappointment; they spent nearly a decade, after all, being hailed as contenders for a major trophy. They may not have won one, but they reached the semi-finals in 2018 and have spent most of the last four years ranked as the best team in the world. They enter this year’s World Cup ranked second and in a group where no other team makes the top 10. Belgium’s first match seems to be the easiest, against Canada, followed by another easy match against Morocco. Two early wins would be enough to send the Red Devils into the round of 16 no matter what happens in their last and toughest group game against Croatia.
CanadaThe relief and joy of qualifying for his first World Cup since 1986 should not be confused with the contentment of traveling to Qatar just to catch up. Two players stand out from the generation that ended Canada’s wait: Alphonso Davies, arguably already the best player the country has ever produced, and forward Jonathan David. There’s no easy way out of this group, however, and Canada have their toughest match up first, against Belgium. Things only get slightly easier after that.
For Croatia, reaching the semi-finals in 1998, on his World Cup debut, was quite remarkable. Reaching the final in 2018 was one of the most stunning performances in the tournament’s history. The core of the squad that carried Zlatko Dalic’s side to this final remain in place, including the seemingly ageless Luka Modric. Croatia will look to secure a place in Group F with quick wins against the two easiest opponents, Morocco and then Canada.
Morocco has an encouraging balance: a stubborn defense flanked by two of the best full-backs in the world, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui; a midfielder honored by the intrigues of Hakim Ziyech; and an attack led by Youssef En-Nesyri. Qualification was simple enough and expectations of reaching the knockout stages are high. He opens the tournament with two very difficult matches, however: the first is Croatia, followed by Belgium. If he manages to score a point there, he might still have hope as his last game against Canada should be the easiest.