At last, the sport's biggest event is finally here. The lasting tale of this Qatar World Cup will likely not be the events that take place on the pitch but another chapter in the tournament's position as a geopolitical football, its status as a force for the projection of soft power as apparent this year as it was in 1934 and 1978. It rather makes the crowning of international football's best side seem rather small fry.
Still, if the World Cup does serve one purpose it has tended to give a relatively accurate measure of which nation is the best at each four year interval. Unlike the European Championships, this 32 team behemoth iswith that one extra knockout game affording more time for the cream to rise to the top. What impact the will have on that remains unknowable, let alone how the nations whose best ply their trade at top clubs will fare.
Before a ball has been kicked this tournament does seem to have two front runners, squads around whom the questions come at the edges of the squad rather than the peripheries. Brazil and Argentina have put together impressive runs of results over recent years though has that simply been because they have not faced that many European opponents. UEFA's best and brightest will all feel as if they have a puncher's chance but none can point to a single spot in their squad that is free from question marks.
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Might a fringe contender such as Uruguay or Denmark discover they have as good a chance as an England or France? Inevitably, much will come down to how the draw unravels in the knockout stages but for now here is how we rank the 32 teams based on their likelihood of hoisting the World Cup on Dec. 18.
For more World Cup coverage, make sure to check out our United States men's national team will fair in their group stage matchups, and also how the
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|If you're picking holes then their full back corps does not look entirely convincing but set against that is a fleet of talent in attacking areas and a spine full of players at the peak of their powers. That Neymar has hit an impressive seam of form in recent months only makes this team look more dangerous.|
|Take your pick of who ranks one and two, not least because, like Brazil, Argentina have a world-class forward from Paris Saint-Germain who has excelled early in this season. There is a sense of destiny around Lionel Messi at the moment, aided by the fact that Lionel Scaloni has given him a team that accentuates his qualities and keeps clean sheets.|
|Spain have plenty going for them, a clear identity and a midfield that can dictate the pace of the game. They create plenty of chances too but unless Alvaro Morata catches fire in long overdue fashion they might lack the killer instinct.|
|The holders have plenty of players to get the ball in the net at one end and keep it out at the other. Doubts surface when you consider what happens in between with N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba sidelined, Aurelien Tchouameni might star but needs a better partner than Adrien Rabiot.|
|The draw looks to have been kind to Louis van Gaal's side, who appear to have belied the stereotype of the Dutch as being the most unsettled of camps. A back three anchored by Virgil van Dijk has looked rock solid of late but if it is breached none of their goalkeepers inspire much confidence.|
|A young squad that has already made a habit of deep runs in tournaments, everything should be looking rosy for England. And yet their travails in the Nations League have hurt Gareth Southgate's standing with a public perception that he gives far more rope to his favorites. Harry Maguire in particular has some vindicating to do.|
|The dark horse selection du jour, Uruguay's standing on the world stage has increased notably over the last few months thanks to the form of one player in particular. Federico Valverde has established himself as one of the best midfielders in the world, paired with Rodrigo Bentancur this could be a team to dominate opponents.|
|Twice victorious over France in the Nations League, this is a team that tick a lot of tournament boxes, most notably a solid defense and a deadly attack from set plays. If one of their forwards catches form this team could make an impact.|
|Their 3-3 draw with England rather pointed to the problem with this German team. They're just not killers, as Logan Roy might put it. The talent pool is up there with the best at the World Cup but the defense looks shaky and the attack could misfire at any moment.|
|Cristiano Ronaldo is already making his presence felt at this World Cup for all the wrong reasons. If his on field relationship with Bruno Fernandes was iffy before what about now? This team could really miss Diogo Jota, who seemed to knit the disparate parts together.|
|Zlatko Dalic's side begin the tournament unbeaten in their last five with the Luka Modric-led core showing little inclination to obey the ageing process. With young stars like Josko Gvardiol in the mix this team could impress.|
|Ever fewer of the golden generation still seem to be in their prime years whilst the Achilles heel of a defense somehow still includes Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Their last chance might already have passed.|
|Seven players in this squad have over 50 caps to their name and the likes of Granit Xhaka and Manuel Akanji are shining at the highest level. No one tends to pay much attention to Switzerland but look away for a moment and they may slip into the quarter finals.|
|With Hakim Ziyech available once more this suddenly has the look of a threatening side, one that can ally his creativity to the defensive solidity that took them to Qatar. Their group is challenging but this may be Africa's best candidate to go deep.|
|Their assertive 2-0 win over the USA in a recent friendly highlighted that this side is an impressive blend of technique and physicality. The draw has been unkind on them but neither Germany nor Spain should take their points for granted.|
|Sadio Mane's may be the most impactful injury imaginable at the World Cup, robbing Aliou Cisse of the killer forward who allows them to keep it tight at the other end and win the tight matches. There is still enough talent to just about escape the group stage but not much more.|
|This side have talent in abundance and it is easy to see Filip Kostic crosses to Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic proving effective. Will their lack of big tournament experience hinder Serbia though?|
|La Tri have not conceded in their last six international matches. The problem is rather that they've only scored twice in that timeframe. Still this young side is one to keep an eye on.|
|The loss of Tecatito Corona could be a significant blow for Mexico and with Raul Jimenez not the force he was before his head injury it is hard to see this side racking up the goals. All they need, though, is enough to beat Poland .|
|Gareth Bale's declaration that he can play three 90s in a row if required is a reminder of how much the forward raises his game in Welsh red. If he does then Rob Page's side might just have enough to sneak out of Group B.|
|However, Carlos Quieroz's side should not be taken lightly. So much is unknowable about this team given the circumstances back home but in Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi they have game-winning forwards.|
|Even Heung-min Son doesn't seem to know what sort of Heung-min Son South Korea will be getting after he underwent surgery to get him to the World Cup without any game time. Kim Min-Jae anchors a strong defense and if their star forward is fit this could be a tough opponent.|
|It is all well and good having Robert Lewandowski at the tip of the attack but you will only be so successful if you cannot get the ball to him that often. That seems to be Poland's big issue heading into the tournament and will need addressing swiftly.|
|There is young talent in midfield and on the flanks but Gregg Berhalter seems to have lost certainty in his vision for center forward and central defense. Those are two key components to the US's pressing game and they're in flux going into the World Cup. That is not a good sign.|
|Beating Switzerland 2-0 in a friendly offers a welcome boost for Ghana heading into the tournament but they may simply have been cursed with a group that includes two top tier sides. Still, this side has youthful talent that could surprise a few opponents.|
|Alphonso Davies should be fit. Jonathan David is in fine form. Those might be the most important factors in raising Canada's ceiling but the unity and familiarity of this squad means the floor is rather high too.|
|Their ranking should not so much be viewed as a reflection of their quality but instead the simple reality that they are among the few sides in a group with three extremely good opponents. Can Keylor Navas play the spoiler role against Spain or Germany?|
|Jalel Kadri's side are not going to be fun to watch but they will gamble that a dour approach can keep them in the hunt in Group D. The worry is what happens if it backfires, as it did when they picked up a red card in a 5-1 loss to Brazil.|
|Unlike most of the teams at the World Cup, Saudi Arabia have been able to run a training camp during the autumn months and victories over Iceland and North Macedonia point to a decent side who might struggle for the goals to get them out of their group.|
|This does not look like the team who went deep at the Africa Cup of Nations with Rigobert Song, installed in February, baffling his compatriots with some of his selections. Watch out for Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who could dominate midfield battles.|
|The Socceroos have won plenty of admirers for their vocal stance on Qatar but they just lack the striking talent - although Jamie Cummings may surprise a few - to fire themselves deep into the tournament.|
|Arguably the most unknowable team at a World Cup in a generation, all Qatar's players feature in their domestic league and lost to Croatia Under-23s in September. Even the customary host bounce might not be enough.|