FIFA Rank (as of August): 8th
Qualifying Route: 1st in UEFA Group G
World Cup Appearances: 10
Best World Cup Finish: Runner-up (1974, 1978, 2010)
Past Greats: Johan Cruijff, Johan Neeskens, Abe Lenstra, Faas Wilkes, Dennis Bergkamp
Star Player: Virgil van Dijk
With three finals appearances to their name, Dutch honour is once again at stake this winter in Qatar after Louis Van Gaal has revamped the senior setup after returning to the touchline once again while the player pool has an excellent blend of experience and youthful exuberance capable of channelling prior appearances in 1974, 1978, and 2010.
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk headlines a squad that also includes the likes of Cody Gakpo, Memphis Depay, Steven Bergwijn, Frenkie de Jong, Ryan Gravenberch, and Matthijs de Ligt.
Drawn into a group that a nation of their profile should really be winning if they have any ambitions in Qatar, possible dates with the likes of England, France, and Argentina await the Netherlands in the knockout stages should they finish atop Group A. A difficult path may stand in their way, but if 2010 proves anything, they could be capable here once again.
FIFA Rank (as of August): 18th
Qualifying Route: First in CAF Group H - Playoff win against Egypt
World Cup Appearances: 2
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals (2002)
Past Greats: Henri Camara, Roger Mendy, Jules Bocandé, El Hadji Diouf, Papa Bouba Diop
Star Player: Sadio Mané
Senegal has a rich footballing tradition on the African continent that has seen the west African nation produce plenty of talent that has reached the top level of football over the years, with Sadio Mané unquestionably emerging as the nation’s best-ever player. But that success has not transitioned to the international stage and it was only in 2021 that Senegal won its first African Cup of Nations trophy.
Despite that success, they have achieved even less notoriety at the World Cup and have featured in just two tournaments in its history, but their first-ever appearance back in 2002 gave the world one of the greatest underdog stories in tournament history when they reached the quarterfinals while playing their part in France’s early demise four years after their first world cup win.
But the Senegal of today is a far cry from yesteryear and filled with talent that plays at the highest level in England, Italy, France, Spain, and Germany while also coming in on a high from 2021. A true dark horse this winter, should they get out of Group A, or even emerge as winners, their attacking qualities could guide them on a memorable run as the first-ever African nation to win the World Cup.
FIFA Rank (as of August): 10th
Qualifying Route: 1st in UEFA Group F
World Cup Appearances: 5
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals (1998)
Past Greats: Poul Nielsen, Pauli Jørgensen, Ole Madsen, Michael Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel
Star Player: Christian Eriksen
A perennial dark horse on the international stage, Denmark has been on the hunt for a repeat of Euro 96 ever since their unexpected triumph that stands as the nation’s only major international honour in its history. But at the World Cup, De Rød-Hvide has only tasted a deep run in the sports’ premier competition back in 1998 and has not made it past the round of 16 since.
Euro 2020 has breathed new life into the national team under head coach Kasper Hjulmand, however, with their run to the semi-finals capturing the continent’s imagination along the way. That was followed up by two wins over France in the UEFA Nations League while they finished just one point behind eventual group winners Croatia while continuing to prove that they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
The return of Christian Eriksen will grip many of the headlines, but Hjulmand’s proven system with a group of players that - while not as talented as some others around them - can still call upon tactical efficiency and technical proficiency while boasting a collective game that can get the job done. Like Senegal, they’d be a real - and entertaining - dark horse.
FIFA Rank (as of August): 15th
Qualifying Route: First in UEFA Group H
World Cup Appearances: 5
Best World Cup Finish: Runner-up (2018)
Past Greats: Davor Šuker, Dario Šimić, Stipe Pletikosa, Zvonimir Boban, Zvonimir Soldo
Star Player: Luka Modrić
Croatia have steeped themselves in World cup tradition since their inception on the international stage in their first tournament appearance in 1998 when they reached the semi-finals with the likes of national greats Davor Šuker and Zvonimir Boban leading the charge. Despite being a registered member of FIFA for just six tournament cycles, Croatia has featured in five of them while reaching the latter stages twice, including reaching the final four years ago.
Though their other three appearances on record had them crashing out of the group stage, Croatia is similar to the Netherlands in terms of boasting a squad with a very credible blend of experience and budding young talent.
Luka Modrić is the undoubted face of Croatian football, but younger talents the likes of Borna Sosa, Joško Gvardiol, Josip Stanišić, Lovro Majer, and Luka Sučić are supported by veteran members Borna Barišić, Mateo Kovačić, Marcelo Brozović, Ivan Perišić, and Andrej Kramarić. With talent abundance and tournament know-how running through their footballing DNA, one last hurrah for Modrić on the world’s stage would be one heck of a bookend to his storied career.
FIFA Rank (as of August): 9th
Qualifying Route: Winner in UEFA Playoff Path C
World Cup Appearances: 7
Best World Cup Finish: Third Place (1966)
Past Greats: Eusébio, Luís Figo, Rui Costa, Pedro Pauleta, Fernando Couto
Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Calls for Ronaldo to be stripped of his guaranteed starting place for Portugal after their Nations League loss to Spain which led to La Roja’s group win to end the group stage cycle could not have come at a worse time for the nation’s footballing icon, with the same criticism sure to fall on the shoulders on head coach Fernando Santos. But the reality remains that the criticism is a justifiable one.
Currently in the midst of another boon in player talent on par with a generation that gave the world Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Pedro Pauleta, Portugal are brimming with gifted players in all areas of the pitch, especially in attack.
Rafael Leão, Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, André Silva, Pedro Neto, and João Felix headline what is likely the deepest set of attacking options any nation readying itself for conflict in Qatar can offer. Should Portugal move away from its tactical propensity to force the Ronaldo storyline and put faith in the wealth of talent at its disposal, their heroics at Euro 2016 could repeat this winter, just with a bit more style and flair.