The 21st FIFA World Cup kicks off June 14 and runs wild until July 15
The 21st FIFA World Cup kicks off June 14 and runs wild until the 64th and final match July 15 (FOX, 11 a.m. ET) in Moscow, Russia. The 32 qualified teams have been divided into eight groups, with each team playing three matches apiece in the Group Stage. The top two teams from each group advance to the Knockout Stage. From there, it's a 16-team, single-elimination tournament. Losers wait another four years to compete. The winning side is immortalized in World Cup lore.
First, the bad news. The United States Men's National Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. But hey, Italy also failed to qualify and they're one of only eight nations to ever win the FIFA World Cup Trophy. These 32 teams did make the cut. Each group is listed from favorite to longshot to win the group, according to Las Vegas odds (provided by Bovada.lv, as of June 13).
Saudi Arabia (+4000)
Player to Watch: Luis Suarez, Uruguay
One of the beautiful game's great goal-scorers is also an infamous World Cup villain. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Suarez bit Italy's Giorgio Chiellini and was subsequently suspended for four months, including the remainder of the tournament.
Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
The Matthew McConaughey of soccer, Ronaldo always thinks it's a good time to take off his shirt. But the striking 33-year-old striker is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner led Portugal to an unlikely 2016 UEFA European Championship crown and hopes to defy the odds this summer in Russia.
Player to Watch: Paul Pogba, France
A box-to-box two-way midfielder, the 6'3” Pogba is a physical defensive presence and an attacking offensive force, known for his deft deep passes. The 25-year-old was named Best Young Player at the 2014 World Cup and headlines a youthful French squad just hitting its stride.
Player to Watch: Lionel Messi, Argentina
The consensus greatest player of his generation and record-tying five-time Ballon d'Or winner, Messi is the World Cup's reigning Golden Ball winner after being named the tournament's top player in a runner-up effort in 2014. The 30-year-old creative genius will never match the three World Cup wins of Brazil's PelÃ©, but he can join Diego Maradona in Argentine immortality by winning the ultimate prize this summer.
Costa Rica (+2500)
Player to Watch: Neymar, Brazil
The 26-year-old wunderkind missed Brazil's humiliating 7–1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals with a back injury. Now, the lightning-quick Neymar is fresh off ankle and foot injuries. He has had recent international tournament success, sealing Brazil's first Olympic gold with a match-winning penalty kick in 2016.
South Korea (+1800)
Player to Watch: Thomas Muller, Germany
The reigning World Cup champions are thrilled with the return of Golden Glove-winning goalkeeper and team captain Manuel Neuer, who is battled back from foot injuries to make his first start in nine months during a friendly on June 2. Regardless of Neuer's status, Germany will look to 28-year-old forward Thomas Muller, who has had the Midas touch with 10 goals scored over two World Cups, tied for eighth all-time.
Player to Watch: Eden Hazard, Belgium
A savvy winger with one of the best names in sports, Hazard controls tempo and possession, while headlining Belgium's so-called “golden generation,” which also includes forward Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
Player to Watch: James Rodriguez, Colombia
With six goals scored at the 2014 World Cup, Rodriguez was awarded the Golden Boot as the tournament's leading scorer. Colombia will once again lean heavily on the 26-year-old attacking midfielder in a competitive and unpredictable Group H.