Group A

South Africa in 2010 were the only World Cup hosts to fail to make it through the group stage. Assessing the form of hosts, who have not had to play in qualifiers, is never easy but Qatar’s string of heavy defeats by Portugal, Ireland and Serbia last autumn, followed by a draw against Azerbaijan raises concerns. They did, though, win the Asian Cup under their Spanish coach, Félix Sánchez, in 2019.

They will begin the tournament against Ecuador, who reached their fourth World Cup despite losing six of 18 qualifiers.

The best side in the group are probably the Netherlands, after they were dragged from the roiling crisis of the past seven years by the reappointment of Louis van Gaal, who led them to third in Brazil in 2014.

Aliou Cissé’s well-organised and physically imposing Senegal are the African champions despite at times struggling to score the goals their attacking talent suggests they might.

Group B

Semi-finalists at the last World Cup, finalists at the Euros, can England go a step further and win a tournament for the first time since 1966? Certainly they should have the squad for it and in Gareth Southgate they have a clear-sighted, sober leader who has shown how a supportive environment can be created; the doubt is whether he is quick enough to react tactically when games begin to slip away from his side.

The USA may be one of the less threatening of the second pot of seeds, but England have failed to beat them in two previous World Cup meetings.

Iran add an element of political intrigue, and beat the USA in 1998. Their Croatian coach, Dragan Skocic, has made them solid rather than spectacular, 10 games in the third qualifying phase yielding only 15 goals for and four against.

Scotland, Wales or Ukraine will make up the group after they conclude their delayed playoff.

Group C

The days when Lionel Messi underperformed for his country while winning everything with his club are long gone. Since inspiring Argentina to the Copa América last year he has become a player far more effective at international level. Having ended Argentina’s 28-year trophy drought, could he cap a magnificent career with a World Cup? Lionel Scaloni’s side might lack the star quality of some previous Argentina squads but they look much better balanced.

Lionel Messi lifts the Copa América trophy as he celebrates with team-mates after Argentina’s victory over Brazil.
Lionel Messi lifts the Copa América trophy as he celebrates with team-mates after Argentina’s victory over Brazil. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Argentina will come up against a former manager in Gerardo Martino, whose experienced Mexico found qualification something of a slog with only two points taken from the four games against the USA and Canada. Poland’s playoff win over Sweden suggested they are rather more than just Robert Lewandowski plus 10 others. Saudi Arabia are grimly consistent under Hervé Renard, the only coach ever to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries. They conceded a single goal in their 10 third-phase group games.

Group D

No nation has anything approaching the depth of the world champions. The question with France really is over the wilful dourness of their coach, Didier Deschamps. It’s easy, of course, for outsiders to appeal for greater entertainment and to wonder whether a crop of players this gifted might not be producing more memorable football, but the performance at the last Euros suggested that Deschamps’s caution may be counterproductive.

Jalel Kadri replaced Mondher Kebaier as Tunisia coach after the Cup of Nations and plenty of his squad have experience of playing in France. The bigger threat to France will come from Denmark, who won nine of their 10 qualifiers and have developed into a progressive and well-organised side with a ferocious team spirit forged in part in the aftermath of Christian Eriksen’s collapse in their first game at Euro 2020.

The group will be completed by the UAE, Australia or Peru.

Group E

There’s no doubting the most immediately attractive tie of the group stage: the clash of the 2010 and 2014 champions as Spain face Germany. After two dismal World Cup performances in a row, there is a sense that Spain are building again under Luis Enrique as he has introduced a more direct style.

For Germany, the last World Cup was a major embarrassment, defeat to South Korea resulting in a first round exit for the first time in 80 years. Joachim Löw, who had struggled to rejuvenate his squad, probably should have left then, but hung around for a disappointing Euros. Since he has been replaced by Hansi Flick, though, Germany have excelled.

Japan, who have a wealth of European experience in their squad, can feel a little unfortunate at yet another tough draw in their seventh successive World Cup appearance.

The group is rounded off by the winner of the Costa Rica v New Zealand playoff.

Group F

The golden generation is looking rather old now, but Belgium still qualified undefeated from their group. The biggest doubts are at the back, where Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will have a combined age of 69 by the time the World Cup begins. Morocco are the fourth side Vahid Halilhodzic has led to the World Cup finals, but this might be the third time the famously difficult coach has lost his job before getting to the finals.

Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen deal with Italy’s Ciro Immobile during their Euro 2020 quarter-final.
Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen deal with Italy’s Ciro Immobile during their Euro 2020 quarter-final. Photograph: Christof Stache/Reuters

Although Morocco had looked perhaps the best attacking side in the group stage at the Cup of Nations, he is feuding with Hakim Ziyech and is wildly unpopular.

Croatia benefited from a relatively straightforward qualifying group, but the runners-up of four years ago remain dangerous so long as Luka Modric defies age. Canada’s only previous appearance came in 1986, but this squad is an entirely different level, led by Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and Jonathan David of Lille.

Group G

It is 20 years since Brazil were the last non-European winner of a World Cup and again they are one of perhaps two non-European sides who might realistically be considered capable of success. Passing unbeaten through Conmebol qualifying is a remarkable achievement and Tite is an impressive coach, but the last World Cup and the quarter-final exit against Belgium was a reminder of the dangers of depending too much on Neymar.

The group is perhaps best described as awkward rather than intimidating. Switzerland, now under Murat Yakin, are solid but over-reliant on Breel Embolo, while Dragan Stojkovic’s Serbia have attacking talent in Dusan Tadic, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Luka Jovic, but kept just one clean sheet in their eight qualifiers.

Cameroon rather scrambled through, thanks to the ancient magic that means they can never lose to Algeria, and Rigobert Song’s side lean heavily on the goals of Vincent Aboubakar.

Group H

This is perhaps the hardest group to call. It feels as if there are more questions than answers about Portugal who, despite finishing behind Serbia in the group, qualified comfortably enough, beating Turkey and North Macedonia in the playoffs. But there are doubts over Fernando Santos’s cautious tactics and the best permutation of their array of attacking talent. Uruguay are resurgent, having won all four qualifiers since Diego Alonso replaced Óscar Tabárez, whose 15-year reign as coach eventually ran out of steam last year.

South Korea qualified convincingly under the former Portugal coach Paulo Bento, winning seven and drawing two of 10 third-phase qualifiers. Ghana were desperately poor at the Cup of Nations and topped their qualifying group thanks only to a highly debatable penalty against South Africa before beating Nigeria in their playoff on away goals. But the arrival of Otto Addo, initially as interim coach, brought calmness and resolve even in the cauldron of Abuja.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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