Only the hardest hearts would deny Lionel Messi, the best player of his generation, World Cup glory.
The biggest prize in soccer is the only one missing from the Argentina captain’s trophy cabinet and in winning it he will follow the great Diego Maradona in adding international titles to club honors.
It is a fascinating group otherwise with Croatia expected to finish second, or even challenge Argentina for the summit. Nigeria’s squad doesn’t have as many stars as previous tournaments but a positive result in their opening match against Croatia would set the Super Eagles up for a shot at the top two. Iceland – the smallest nation ever to qualify for the finals – finished top of a group containing Croatia in qualifying and should not be written off. Just ask England, who they knocked out at Euro 2016.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Lionel Messi (Argentina): €185.6m* ($218.5m)
*According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Alex Iwobi (Nigeria)
Having played for England at youth level, the Arsenal forward has represented the country of his birth since 2015. Still only 22, Iwobi has not had a memorable season for his club but has the power and trickery to make life awkward for defences. Nigeria, who finished top of a qualifying group including Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, have a few striking options but Iwobi has shown he can deliver. The nephew of Nigeria legend Jay Jay Okocha came off the bench to score the winner in a crucial qualifier with Zambia.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Jorge Sampaoli (Argentina)
Sampaoli’s stock soared after he masterminded Chile’s 2015 Copa America win. The win – Chile’s first international trophy – earned the Argentine a nomination for FIFA’s coach of the year and plenty of other praise thanks to his team’s high-pressing, aggressive style. His challenge with his home country will be getting the maximum from star man Messi and hoping his brilliance can compensate for an ageing defence. A mention too for Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who until Euro 2016 combined coaching the national side with his dentist day job.
Nothing major to report, with soccer sometimes the major link between the countries. In 2015, in an effort to boost collaboration beyond only soccer, Argentina and Nigeria announced a plan to strengthen ties through books, by exchanging national literary works.
Drawing on their 1994 World Cup strip, Nigeria’s offeringfor this year is probably the tournament’s most talked about. The vibrant design will make sure the Super Eagles stand out.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
Almost every match in this group looks like it could be a cracker but Argentina vs. Croatia on June 21 will likely decide the group winner.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Nigeria vs. Iceland on June 22. The idea of a “David vs. Goliath” contest is overused in sport but, in population terms, you’ll struggle to find a bigger mismatch than this. Nigeria, population 195 million, has about 577 times as many people as Iceland, population 338,000. This is probably the greatest population mismatch between two teams in World Cup finals history.
The Viking thunderclap. Though it apparently originated from fans of Scottish side Motherwell, Iceland supporters gave the celebration global prominence during their Euro 2016 run. Almost 10% of the country’s population traveled for the tournament and, with similar numbers expected in Russia, the slow clap and war cry will come out – win, lose or draw.
Nigeria to draw Argentina at World Cup 2022. The Super Eagles have qualified for six World Cups including this one and, remarkably, this will be their fifth time playing Argentina in the group stages. They have been paired in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
If Messi performs like the world knows he can and is backed up by an exciting supporting cast including Juventus duo Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín, Argentina can go far. But even with an abundance of attacking options, the defence and goalkeeper look unreliable and may not be strong enough to give Messi his fairytale international finale. Croatia have a great midfield – anchored by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić – but their best finish of third at the 1998 World Cup is unlikely to be bettered.