France | Elo: 6 | FIFA: 4 |

History: For some, there is a line. A line that separates brilliance from catastrophe. It is on this line that Les Blues resides. From the semi-finals in 1982 and 1986, to failing to qualify in 1990 and 1994. From Jules Rimet holders in 1998, to winless in 2002. From finalists again in 2006, to winless again in 2010. France enter Qatar, champions once more. Will disaster ensue?

Piped by England to soccer’s conception as a sport, France retaliated by spearheading the formation of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association(FIFA), the body responsible for governing football world-wide. 

Unfortunately, despite helping codify international football as a concept, France wasn’t actually all that good at it, falling at the first hurdle, or failing to qualify altogether, for 10 of the first 12 editions of the Coupe du Monde. Then, in 1976, a host of new players, headlined by 3-time Ballon D’or winner Michel Plantini, made their debuts. 6 years on, France was in the semi-finals, losing to Germany on penalties in an all-time classic. In 1986, France returned, beating Italy – reigning champs – and Brazil – in another all-time classic – en route to a semi-final rematch against the Germans. Again, France would lose. And again, Germany would lose in the final

Les Blues would have their day in Europe, winning their first major trophy against Spain, before adding to their collection with gold in the 84 Olympics, and a triumph in a precursor to the Confederations Cup. With three major trophies sandwiched between back to back semi-final runs, France had reached a new zenith. And then they failed to qualify. Twice.

Unable to reach the World Cup themselves, FIFA gave the French a spot as hosts. Les Blues, now led by one Zinedine Zidane, capitalized, lifting Jules Rimet after a dominant victory against reigning champion Brazil  before downing the Italians to win a second European championship. And then, as the pattern goes, calamity ensued.

20 years on, France enter Qatar as champions, seeking to defy a trope their countrymen started.

Will history repeat itself? Or will Les Blues defy destiny?

Expected Finish: 2nd

Why?

While history is not destiny, it’s difficult to ignore 20 years of significant champion underperformance, when the current champion has significantly underperformed. France’s most recent underperformance involved being swept by the Danes.  France have also lost key pieces to injury

Still, the French boast a plethora of world-class players, and haven’t really done anything to warrant being rated lower than Tunisia or Australia; two teams who backed into the World Cup on thin margins and have been unimpressive continentally.

France should advance, but history, injury, and recent performance has me pegging Las Blues for 2nd. 

Why not?

Ranking top 3 per TMV and WCDCS, France still has a case as the most talented team in the world, and player for player, no one in group D comes close. 

Or maybe the French collapse all the way, finishing last like every champion has since 2002.

For what it’s worth, I think a first place finish is more likely than an exit.

Key Players

At 23, Kylian Mbappe is already being discussed as the potential GOAT. At 18, the young attacker burst into the scene at Monaco, leading his unfancied side to a Ligue 1 title and a semi-final finish in the Champions League. At 19, he was a World Cup winner. At 20, he was named the best player in France. Now 23, Mbappe has been dubbed Ligue 1’s best, three years in a row. With 29 goals in 60 appearances, including a tally in French’s triumphant final 4 years back, Kylian Mbappe is already the face of France. With a strong World Cup, he could be something more.

Aurélien Tchouameni joined the best club in the world this season. Less than half a season in, the 22 year old has already made himself indispensable. With star midfielders N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba absent, Tchouameni has become irreplaceable. A world-class defender and ball-progressor, capable of creating danger in the final third, Tchouameni could prove vital for a successful title defense.

Denmark | Elo: 9 | FIFA: 10

History: Here comes Danish Dynamite! Many people’s favorite pick for a surprise, Darkhorse Denmark enters the fray.

A “Denmark XI” first played in 1896, making Denmark one of the oldest national teams in the world. Denmark were actually quite good at the beginning, ranking 1st in Elo between 1912 and 1920 after winning two silvers from the 1908 and 1912 Olympics. The problem for the Danes was money. The Danish Football Federation(DBU), wasn’t very interested in international football, and didn’t want to foot the bill for soccer as a professional past-time. Thus many Danish players went abroad… and were promptly banished from the national team. Additionally, the DBU only sent teams for friendlies and the regional Nordic tournament until the 1948 Olympics where the Danes medalled once more. 

Eventually, with many of their best players banished abroad, the Danes started to fall behind. A disappointing quarter-final exit in the 58 Olympics prompted the DBU to stop competing there. After more disappointment in the 60’s, the DBU took action in 1971, finally allowing Danish leagues to turn professional while lifting the national team’s ban on players who voyaged abroad. In 1979 the DBU hired Sepp Piontek as Denmark’s first professional coach. Within a decade, Denmark had assembled all the components they needed for an explosion.

Denmark exploded into international prominence during Euro qualification, being dubbed Danish Dynamite after beating England to qualify for the 1984 European Championship. The Danes would combust all the way to the semis, where they lost on penalties to Spain.

 Denmark reached their first World Cup in 86 and opened with a bang, blasting the World’s first champion. In round two they face the Spaniards again and lost emphatically. Denmark would fully combust a couple years later, failing to qualify for the 1990 finals. Under Moller Nielsen, Denmark also failed to qualify for the 92 Euros, but were given a lifeline by a timely piece of warfare. War would pave a path to victory. Silver-medalists in 1912, the Danes were now the champions of Europe.

Winning Europe qualified Denmark for the 1995 Confederation Cup where they beat Argentina for a second piece of major silverware. The Danes went on to reach 5 more World Cups, memorably reaching the quarter-finals in the 98 edition. 

Thus far, the 2022 cycle has gone well, with Denmark reaching the semi-finals of the Euros while going perfect in qualifying, save for a match which meant a lot more for Scotland. All the Danes need now is a strong resolution. Can the Danish deliver a strong World Cup? Or will the Danes combust?

Expected Finish: 1st

Why?

Denmark are significantly more talented than either Australia or Tusnia, have only ever failed to advance from the group stage once, and are currently ranked top 10 in Elo and FIFA because they’ve entered Qatar in excellent form. They are clear favorites to advance. 

While France is vastly deeper and can field a significantly stronger lineup, Denmark have simply been better over the last 2 years. A lot of that was without their star player

All considered, I’m feeling good betting on some Danish delight.

Why not?

Denmark takes an unusual amount of risk when they attack. An over-eager foray from the wings may result in a speeding Kylian Mbappe breaking Danish hearts. 

Australia and Tunisia are fairly experienced at grinding out results in big games, with both teams reaching Qatar on the backs of 0-0 draws against more talented opposition. 

Denmark will want to avoid the fate of 2018 Poland, a red-hot European side that ultimately faltered when they encountered adversity. Denmark seems good, but the World Cup is hard and there are no guarantees.

Key Players

After nearly dying in the 2021 European Championship, Christian Eriksen’s return to professional soccer went incredibly well. Upon his arrival in 21-22, Brentford experienced an immediate uptick in form, going 7-3-1(W-L-T) with Eriksen on the field(they had a record of 5-15-6 without him). Denmark showed they could succeed without their superstar in 2021, but if Eriksen can do something similar for Danish Dynamite, the Danes may just pop off in all the right ways.

Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg has played every minute he’s been available for a Tottenham side competing to retain champions league qualification.  A strong ball-winner who is reliable in possession, Höjberg has been Denmark’s most reliable metronome. 

Tusnia | Elo: 43 | FIFA: 24 |

History: And now enter the Eagles of Carthage. Tunisia qualified for 6 World Cups, exiting in round one for 5 of them. Will their 6th entry end differently?

Before they gained independence, French protectorate Tunisia established an unofficial national team in 1928. Debuting against the b-team of their Colonial overlords, Tunisia lost by 6. Tunisia would need to wait until 1932 for their first unofficial victory, a 1-0 win over French Algeria. After gaining independence in 1956, Tunisia played their first official international against an independent Algeria. This time it was Algeria, in the midst of a civil war, who emerged victorious.

The 60’s brought a successful spell for the eagles who reached the final as hosts of the 1963 African Cup of Nations(AFCON). Tunisia entered the 1973 Palestine Cup of Nations and went perfect, winning six of six. Tunisia then qualified for the 1978 World Cup, eliminating old foes Algeria in the process.

Tunisia opened their debut with a win against Mexico, becoming the first African side to win at the World Cup. A close loss to the Poles proved fatal, but Tunisia exited impressively, holding reigning champion West Germany to a scoreless tie.

78 would prove to be Tunisia’s best performance at a World Cup. It would also stand as Tunisia’s only World Cup performance until 1998 when the Falcons of Carthage ushered in  a new era by going undefeated through African qualification. 

That success was foreshadowed by a run to the final of the 1994 AFCON. A remarkable achievement for a team that had failed to qualify for 6 of the prior 7 tournaments. Tunisia would reach another final in 96, before emerging as champions in 2004.

Outside of Africa, Tunisia managed to reach five of the seven world cups, finally notching their second win in 2018. After a difficult path to Qatar, the falcons have a chance to build from that base. 

Can the falcons surprise?

Expected Finish: 3rd

Why?

Ranking 26th in TMV and 30th in WCDCS, Tunisia is one of the least talented teams at this tournament. They also reached Qatar unconvincingly, barely surviving a group with Equatorial Guinea – Ranked 93rd by Elo – before edging Mali(56) in a playoff.

Tusnia have managed a total of 2 wins in 5 campaigns, and with the 4th oldest team in the tournament, the eagles may well be on their last legs.

Why not?

If recent history holds true, France will be eliminated leaving two spots up for grab between Australia, Denmark and Tunisia. Tunisia ranks higher in Elo and FIFA than Australia and are more talented per both Transfermarkt and WCDCS. Tunisia also may prove difficult to break down having only conceded 3 goals in 8 African qualifiers.

Tunisia are also battle-hardened, being made to work to reach Qatar. With age comes experience. Perhaps Tunisia can use this to grind out a couple of unlikely results.

Crazier things have happened.

Key Players

Capable on the ball and a strong defender, Ellyes Skhiri is perhaps Tunisia’s least replaceable player. Having played every minute possible for FC Koln in the Bundesliga, Ellyes Skhiri anchored the strongest defense in African qualification. Facing the likes of Mbappe in group D, Ellyes Skhiri may need to play the soccer of his life for Tunisia to survive.

Youssef Msakni missed the last World Cup due to injury. A crushing blow for 17-18 Qatar Stars player of the year and Tunisia’s most capped active player. Now approaching 100 appearances for the eagles, Msakni is both captain and maybe the best creator on the team. At what might be his last World Cup, Msakni may need to lead both on and off the field for Tunisia to make history. 

Australia | Elo: 39 | FIFA: 38 |

History: The Socceroos return… again. With a surprise win against Peru, Australia booked a trip to their  5th straight World Cup.

Representing a country based in Oceania, yet currently competing in Asia, the Socceroos were formed in 1922 for a series of friendlies against New Zealand. The Aussies lost twice, giving New Zealand, for a brief period of time, a monopoly on bragging rights.  With the arrival of cheaper air travel in the 60’s, Australia had a chance to face teams outside of their small corner of the world. This moment proved critical, setting the stage for Australia to establish themselves as one of football’s great paper tigers.

 With all but two national teams withdrawing from World Cup qualification in the Africa, Asian, and Oceanian zone, all Australia had to do to reach the 1966 World Cup was win a two-legged against North Korea. They were destroyed. They lost more respectably to Israel in 1970, before reaching the 74 edition with a hard-fought victory against South Korea. There, a side of amateurs took a point from Chile after losses to both sides of Germany. 

Over these 40 years a dichotomy emerged. Australia dominated their own backyard, reaching 7 inter-confederation playoffs. But Australia were consistently exposed against stronger opponents, losing each matchup with the exception of the aforementioned win over Korea. This came to a head in qualification for 2002 where Australia won went perfect in OFC, racked up a +71 goal differential from 8 games, recorded what is, to this day, the biggest win in the history of international football, and still missed out on the tournament proper thanks to a decisive loss outside of the continent.

Australia finally broke through in 2006, reaching Germany’s World Cup after winning a rematch with Uruguay. There, the Socceroos surprised, beating Japan and tying Croatia to become the first Oceanian team to ever progress past the group stage. A controversial loss to the eventual Champs sullied celebrations, but Oceania had found its great hope… except the Aussies had already decided to turn tail a year earlier.

In 2010 they breezed through Asian qualifying going undefeated and putting up a continent best 22 points in the final round. At the tournament proper, they nearly replicated the magic of 06 only to be denied by a controversial penalty after a second red card. The first sending off, given to 06 hero Tim Cahil, ultimately doomed them to elimination via tiebreaker. While a victory against Serbia would prove insufficient, it would mark the last time the Socceroos won at a World Cup.

Indeed, despite the promise that better competition would make Australia stronger, Australia has not been able to translate regional success – headlined by an Asian Cup win in 2015 – outside of their continent. Perhaps there were bigger bones to pick than the quality of national  teams players face in a small fraction of their professional matches?

Now entering a 5th straight World Cup, Australia have gone from one of the stories of 2006, and perhaps more deserving than the actual story of 2010, to a presumed minnow in 2022.

Can the Aussies flip the script with a November surprise? Or will Australia leave another tournament as quickly as expected?

Expected Finish: 4th

Why?

Australia are the lowest ranked team in this group, and arguably the least talented. They backed into the World Cup with a penalty win against Peru, after backing into the inter-continental playoff with a narrow win against the United Arab Emirates, after backing into the AFC qualification playoff with back to back losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Australia only managed to win one of their last 8 matches in the final round of Asian qualifying, are winless in their last 6 group stage games, and now enter a group with two teams that already advanced past them 4 years prior.

You can never guarantee that a team will fail, but Australia is about as close as you can get.

Why not?

Australia did manage to tie Denmark last time, and if the World Cup curse holds true, that opens up a spot. Australia also may have an advantage with institutional experience over Tusnia or Denmark playing at their 5th straight World Cup.

Anything is possible.

Key Players

When picking potential stars for a team looking to overperform expectations, it’s often a decent idea to take a look at who’s tasked with stopping the shots. Matthew Ryan may be Australia’s best player. With various stints at the big clubs across Europe, Champions League experience, a team-high 76 caps, and experience from several major international tournaments, the 2-time Belgian league keeper of the year, will probably need to be massive for the Socceroos to make some noise.

Aaron Mooy has had a bit of a resurgence at Celtic, getting regular minutes as the Scottish Giants have managed to capture some of their vintage glory. Aaron played a key part in Huddersfield’s Premier League promotion in 16/17, and has played a key part for the Aussies throughout the years, winning Australian Player of the Year three times on the trot. With 53 caps, Win or lose, Mooy will go down as one of Australia’s greatest players. He’ll need to play like that for Australia to survive.

Predicted Group Standings

1Denmark
2France
3Tunisia
4Australia

For more info on the methodology click here.

Group Previews:

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D

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