Best finish: Round of 16 — 2002, 2010
Manager: Akira Nishino
Star player: Maya Yoshida
Japan is one of the most successful teams in Asia, having qualified for the last six consecutive Fifa World Cups with second round advancements in 2002 and 2010. They are also the undisputed kings of Asian football having won the AFC Asian Cup a record four times — in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011. The team has also finished second in the Fifa Confederations Cup, a feat that they achieved way back in 2001. While Japan has basked in the glory of their achievements, over the past few years teams like South Korea and Australia have joined in to challenge their supremacy.
Prior to the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, Japan have appeared in the finals of the global football spectacle on five occasions, with their debut coming in 1998 where they lost all three group games and finished in 31st place of the 32 teams competing. Masashi Nakayama scored Japan’s first-ever goal in a World Cup Finals against Jamaica on June 26, 1998 in a 2-1 defeat.
Yet another feather in their cap is that Japan’s the only team from outside the Americas to participate in the Copa America after being invited in 1999 and 2011. Although they initially accepted the invitation for the 2011 tournament, the Japan Football Association (JFA) later withdrew following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Halilhodzic’s tactics of using a lone forward back-fired and Japan has slowly reverted to their old style of possession football as they qualified from Group 3 ahead of Saudi Arabia this time. They will have their task cut out of fulfilling on their vast potential as a well-knit side when they take on Colombia (June 19), Senegal (June 24) and finally Poland (June 28) in Group H.
Best finish: Quarter-finals in 2010
Manager: Jose Pekerman
Star player: James Rodriguez
This generation of Colombian players has been called the ‘golden generation’ Starting in 2010, Colombia has consistently gone on to produce some top-class players. Russia 2018 will be Colombia’s sixth World Cup appearance where they will face Poland, Senegal and Japan in Group H. Four years back, and fresh from their exploits at the Copa America, Los Cafeteros managed to make a huge impact while recording their best-ever finish in the World Cup.
Pitted against the hosts in the quarter-finals, Colombia battled well before going down to a disappointing 1-2 result. Their star of the show, of course, was James Rodriguez — now on loan with German giants Bayern Munich from Real Madrid.
Players like Rodriguez and Falcao has been consistent to the national cause. In 2014, Colombia were pitted against hosts Brazil in the quarter-finals. Expectations were high, but the lesser-known South Americans showed great resilience against Brazil. The hosts didn’t disappoint as they led 2-0. But Rodriguez intervened and scored from the spot in the 80th minute to give Colombia some hope. The home stuck in and defended well as Colombia recorded their best-ever result in a World Cup.
Rodriguez’s only goal of the match for Colombia handed the striker the adidas Golden Boot for his total of six goals in the competition, but that was little consolation for the underdogs led by Pekerman.
Going into the 2018 competition, Colombia is brimming with options when it comes to its strikeforce. Alongside Rodriguez there are names like Carlos Bacca, Radamel Falcao, Miguel Borja, Teo Gutierrez, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata — all quality strikers with an innate ability to finish before goal.
And then there is the rock-solid David Ospina on goal, making it tough for opponents to get past. Added to this is the strain of consistency running within the squad that is being overseen by Pekerman since the past few years now. The squad has been with each other over a long period, and that, in turn, has led to stability as the side will attempt to go better than their achievements in Brazil four years back.
Best finish: Third place — 1974, 1982
Manager: Adam Nawalka
Star player: Robert Lewandowski
It is heartening to see Poland make it to the 2018 Fifa World Cup, given the depth of their talent. As expected, Bayern Munich hitman, Robert Lewandowski scored a record-breaking 16 goals as Poland won eight of their ten matches to go through the qualifying rounds from Group E ahead of Denmark and make it to the global football stage after a gap of 12 years.
A glimpse of the current team gives one a walk down memory lane when the nation could boats of one of the best teams in the world during the mid-1970s. Poland held England to a draw in a dramatic match at Wembley Stadium to qualify for the 1974 Fifa World Cup. They went on to reach the semi-finals, where the deciding game against eventual champions Germany resulted in a 0-1 loss.
After missing out on a first-ever final, Poland ended the tournament with a third place after defeating the mighty Brazil 1-0 in the play-off. Striker Grzegorz Latowon went on to claim the Golden Boot for his seven goals signalling their arrival on the international stage. In 1982, Poland once again finished in third place after defeating France 3-2 in the play-off.
Now ranked sixth in the world, Poland has been displaying the same sort of form in recent times. During Euro 2016, Poland had the second best defence in the tournament till the quarter-final stages. But during qualifying, Poland had conceded 14 goals — the most of all groups’ winners — and coach Adam Nawalka now knows that he has to try and stop the inflow of goals somehow by using a formation of three central defenders.
Wojciech Szczesny has shown a pretty decent pair of hands on goal, while players like Kamil Glik, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and a youngster like Piotr Zielinski have shown they are capable of matching the play level of their captain and leader Lewandowski to put Poland among the best nations in European and international football.
They commence their campaign against African qualifiers Senegal on June 19, and then take on Colombia in their second encounter on June 24 before their final group match against Japan on June 28.
Best finish: Quarter-final in 2002
Manager: Aliou Cisse
Star player: Sadio Mane
The Lions of Teranga first created a flutter in African and world football when they qualified to the 2002 Fifa World Cup. Their first-ever match was so huge that everyone took notice as Senegal upset World and European champions France 1-0 to set the tone of the competition.
Senegal eventually made it to the quarter-finals — becoming one of only three African nations to do so — following the footsteps of Cameroon in 1990 and Ghana in 2010. But in the last eight they went down to Turkey. Senegal ensured their participation on November 10, 2017 for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia with a 2-0 win against former World Cup hosts South Africa.
Leading Senegal in Russia will be Aliou Cissé, who was the captain of the 2002 side under the late Bruno Metsu. It is but right that the former player Cissé leads the squad after guided them through a difficult qualification group containing Burkina Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde. Cissé has moulded a team strong in all areas.
The addition of M’Baye Niang to a forward line that includes Keita Baldé of Monaco and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané has allowed Cissé to play a 4-3-3 formation, although in the crucial victory over South Africa West Ham’s Diafra Sakho started in a 4-4-2 system of play.
At 6ft 5in, centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is Senegal’s defensive titan. He plays for Napoli but has been linked with a move to clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea.
There’s a Premier League look to the midfield. The captain is Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham, who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Vieira. Another stalwart is Idrissa Gana Gueye of Everton. Cheikh Ndoye (Birmingham) and Pape Alioune Ndiaye (Stoke) were called up by Cisse in qualifying and should play important roles in Russia.
Much will also be expected of Mané, who has been the star man for several years and has been compared to El Hadji Diouf, the talisman for the 2002 side. His injury problems have slowed down a brilliant start to life at Liverpool and he is expected to be at his best as Senegal tackle Poland in their opening on June 19 followed by Japan on June 24 and finally Colombia on June 28.