Europe, it’s not just home to your ancestors (if you’re white) or ancestral oppressors (if you’re literally any other race), it’s also home to 16 of the top-25 teams in the World Rankings. Sure, FIFA is a bunch of corrupt kleptos, but that doesn’t change the fact that Europe – as a whole – is good at soccer.
Europe’s always fierce World Cup qualifiers started last week and will run until November 2017. The winner of each of the nine groups will automatically qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russian. The eight best second-place teams will then play four separate home-and-home playoff series, with the winner of each also booking a ticket to the World Cup.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at the odds to [qualify for the tournament/win each of the groups], going group by group in alphabetical order. Today, I start with Group A (surprise!), which features two heavy favorites, one team that could surprise, two also-rans, and poor little Luxembourg.
UEFA World Cup Qualifying – Odds to Win Group A
France are the heavy favorite in Group A. Les Bleux haven’t missed the World Cup since 1994, won it all in 1998 (at home), and reached the final in 2006 (losing to Italy). They had a decent showing at the Euro this year, also played on home soil, but were upset in the final against Portugal.
Head coach Didier Deschamps has been decent during his tenure, but hasn’t shown a knack for fixing what ails his team. That said, he’ll have a young crop of stars just entering their prime at his disposal, chief among them: Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba. France will be strong at both ends of the pitch.
They let two points get away in the opener, however, drawing Belarus 0-0 (away).
The Netherlands are used to being feared, but they’re having to rebuild their reputation as a soccer power after missing out on the 2016 Euro. Captain Wesley Snijder is now 32 years old, as is dynamic midfielder Arjen Robben, and their younger generation lacks talent and depth compared to the aging stars.
Can Memphis Depay (22) and Vincent Janssen (22) return the Orange offense to its former formidable self? Manager Danny Blind is counting on it.
The team last missed the World Cup in 2002, reached the finals in 2010, and made the semis in the last tournament. They managed a 1-1 draw (away) against Sweden in the opener.
Sweden haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 2006, when they made it to the Round of 16. They cracked the Euro 2016 field but were bounced in the Group Stage. A 1-1 draw with Netherlands in the first match wasn’t a bad result, but they’ll need to pick up more points at home going forward if they’re going to have any chance of winning Group A.
Their chances immediately got much worse after the Euro, though, when their longtime top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international competition.
Like Bulgaria, Belarus are simply going to be overmatched when they face the likes of France and the Netherlands, their 0-0 draw against France notwithstanding.
They’ve never qualified for the World Cup but went on a decent run in the 2002 qualifiers, winning four games and drawing three others.
Bulgaria used to count themselves among Europe’s elite, but that was long ago. The country of just 7.3 million people hasn’t qualified since 1998. They don’t have the roster to compete with the top-three teams this time out, either.
They did manage a thrilling victory over Luxembourg (4-3 home) in the first fixture, but needing a stoppage time winner against Luxembourg at home is not a good omen for the future.
If you thought Bulgaria was a small nation, think again, or just adjust your perspective to account for countries like Luxembourg, which is home to just 500,000 people. I probably don’t need to tell you that they’ve never been to a World Cup, but I just did, so oh well. Not only have they never qualified for the tournament, they’ve only won four of 124 qualifying matches, losing 113 and drawing seven.
In their first fixture, they almost picked up an important point on the road in Bulgaria after tying the game in the 90th minute, but surrendered the winner just two minutes later.
Photo Credit: Xavier Naltchayan [CC BY-SA 2.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.