The 2018 World Cup is now in the rear view mirror, but the buildup for the 2022 World Cup isn’t all that far away. There’s continental tournaments between now and then like the Copa America, European Championships, African Cup of Nations, and CONCACAF Gold Cup, and then it’s right back to World Cup qualifying.
That means it’s time to start figuring out what nations to watch over the next four years as we build up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and we have a few broad categories to put teams into: the defending champions, the teams that could surge forward, the teams that need to bounce back after disappointing in 2018, and teams that missed out on the World Cup in 2018 entirely.
The defending champions
France did amazing work in the World Cup all the way to their run to the title — and the scariest thing is that it never even quite felt like we saw the actual best version of this team thanks to Didier Deschamp’s more conservative tactical nature. They’re young enough in a number of key positions and deep enough across most of the pitch that they absolutely should be a favorite again in 2022 — but that’s something we’ve said about the last few World Cup champs, and each has deeply disappointed in their next World Cup outing.
France will need to be much more focused and vigilant to avoid the pitfalls that the likes of Germany, Spain, and Italy have fallen into in the last decade, but with a team anchored by 25-or-younger players like Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane, Thomas Lemar, Colentin Tolisso, and Lucas Hernandez — and that list only scratches the surface of France’s young talent — they should have all the talent and then some to be in excellent shape come 2022. But seeing how this team grows and evolves over the next four years will bear close monitoring, because they will need to show that sustained hunger and drive that got them here in the first place if they’re going to avoid falling apart at the last full measure like their predecessors have.
The teams who could step up in 2022
Belgium made it all the way to winning third place in the tournament, a feat that is by no means something to take lightly. But it’s also easy to think that this team could have even more potential in the tank, especially after there were regular criticisms throughout their World Cup run that Roberto Martinez’s tactics and squad choices — specifically leaving out the versatile and high-quality presence of Radja Nainggolan — may have left Belgium playing somewhat below their actual level.
And given how disorganized and incoherent Belgium looked at times, there’s a lot of merit to that statement. But it also has to be borne in mind that a lot of Belgium’s better players — including Nainggolan, Dries Mertens, Vincent Kompany, Moussa Dembele, and Jan Vertonghen — are all on the wrong side of 30, meaning they likely won’t play a big role if any at all in 2022. Now, Belgium has had quite the talent pipeline in recent years, but they’re going to need to not just maintain their level, but beat it — and they’re going to have to get that pipeline into high gear if they’re going to make another push for the final and improve from where they were this year.
Nigeria were a fun team in this World Cup, and it took a big late charge from Argentina to knock them out of the tournament. They had a handful of core players like John Obi Mikel, Odion Oghalo, and Elderson Echiejile who are too old to be around by 2022, but most of the rest of the squad will still be around by then, including exciting and talented younger players like Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, and Kenneth Omeruo. They have the potential to be even more fun if they keep working and growing together over the next four years, and could make a lot of noise in Qatar as a result — should they qualify from the always tricky AFCON field, of course.
Mexico are in something of an odd place, with some core players starting to age out of a useful place for the 2022 World Cup, but with others not quite ready to take their place just yet. But they do have a lot of talented players who will be in their prime once the next World Cup rolls around, like Hirving Lozano, Tecatito Corona, Jesus Gallardo, Carlos Salcedo, and Orbelin Pineda. If they can find the right way to build around that core with some veterans like Jonathan Dos Santos and Raul Jimenez, find a reliable hand in goal, and figure out how to find some reliable pieces to fill in the gaps, they could finally get past their first knockout round hurdle and maybe even become a force to be reckoned with. At the very least, they have the makings of a fun team, especially if El Tri hire a manager willing to cut loose and take some risks.
The teams that need to bounce back
There’s no beating around the bush: Germany were bad in this tournament. They should have dominated a group that included Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea, but instead they finished dead last and looked awful along the way, with their only win coming at literally the last second against Sweden. Their attack was shut out by both Korea and Mexico, their midfield was leaky as a colander, and their defense couldn’t stop a stiff breeze.
That’s nothing at all like the Germany side we’ve come to expect over the last decade or so, and certainly not even a pale shadow of the team that dominated the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They’ve got the youth talent to bounce back in a big way, but they need to start integrating it now to see what they have, what they need, and start figuring out how to avoid a second straight disappointment.
Argentina looked old, slow, and largely disinterested all tournament long, and even once they turned on the jets against France in the first knockout round, they couldn’t keep up physically with the eventual champions. That was not how the script for what was maybe Lionel Messi’s last World Cup was supposed to go, but that’s how it went.
Argentina have been in a seemingly constant state of turmoil for awhile now, with a mass player revolt forcing some degree of change after the Copa America Centenario in 2016. But Jorge Sampaolo continued Argentina’s long-held trend of leaning on more veteran players and too often eschewing bright young talents who could give the team much needed energy, with players like Paulo Dybala, Giovani Lo Celso, and Crisitan Pavon absolutely screaming for a more important role and having things Argentina desperately needed — like energy, drive, and an ability to change ideas on the fly — too often being left out in the cold in big moments. Argentina need a manager willing to bring in these talents who have something to give, and who can take some of the workload off older, overworked shoulders if they are going to make major strides as a national team in this cycle.
Poland aren’t exactly a national team well known for being a top-end squad, but they do have talent in their team and they have shown in the past that they can hang with the big boys in Europe. But because of the way their talent often plays together — with too many players in positions or roles they’re unfamilar or not best suited for — their value ultimately with worth less than the sum of their parts, not more.
That’s a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Yes, Poland likely won’t have Robert Lewandowski at anywhere near the level he’s at now by the time 2022 rolls around, and several other key players will be aging out as well. But they have a good young core with players like Piotr Zielinski, Arkadiusz Milik — if he can stay healthy, that is — Jan Bednarek, and other younger talents scattered around Europe. What they need is a manager with the vision to bring them together into a more cohesive unit in the national team and take advantage of their talents, not one who continues to try to force octagonal pegs into triangular holes. If you want to watch a national team that has real boom-or-bust potential, keep a close eye on Poland, because they can be very good and a lot of fun — but unless they make some real changes, they will continue to be a bang-average team with the potential to disappoint again instead.
The teams who missed out on 2018
This was a failure to qualify that made waves around the world, but surprised very few calcio fans who have spent the last decade-plus watching the Azzurri get older and older, with fewer and fewer ideas, much less real chances given to players who can make a real difference. Their qualifying cycle was nothing short of disastrous, especially after their tepid showings at Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup. It was a chance to re-establish themselves and to bring some new blood in to kick ass and take names — and instead, they kept on with business as usual and fell even shorter of expectations than normal.
Like the other teams in this section of the list, the Italian national team setup needs wholesale changes from top to bottom, and it’s not clear if the changes they’ve made since their failure to qualify will be enough. Their league system’s failure to consistently develop young Italian talent to a high level is catching up to a terrifying level, and even with the expanded field that’s coming to the 2022 World Cup, there’s no guarantee that Italy will make the tournament as things stand. They need to start showing meaningful change and development soon if they’re going to give their fans any sort of confidence.
The failure of the Netherlands to qualify is kind of a sad reflection of the way the Eredivisie has fallen in quality and importance over the last few years. They used to regularly have teams making noise in the Champions League, but now we seem to have to count ourselves lucky just to have a Dutch team make a decent Europa League run. The Oranje setup has seen a similar fall from grace over the years, and the team that whimpered their way to a qualification failure was a far cry from the ass-kicking, take-no-shit team that barnstormed their way to the 2010 World Cup final.
The warning signs were there — their hideously poor Euro 2012 showing, having to kick back into gear in the 2014 World Cup to claw their way through the knockout rounds to third place, and failing to qualify for Euro 2016. But the way the Netherlands just kind of drifted through their World Cup qualifying games was shocking to many, and they need to find a hungry young core of players to bring some fire back into the national team if they’re going to even have a prayer of making it back to form to reach the 2022 tournament.
You could copy and paste a lot of what was said about Italy into this description of the United States’ failure to qualify — tired ideas, a lack of high-level player development, and a need for massive overhaul. But that the USMNT actually has some good young players like Christian Pulisic and still failed to qualify over a bang-average team like Panama in CONCACAF was utterly humiliating, especially since that failure to qualify came because they couldn’t even get a point against Trinidad and Tobago. That’s just... honestly, “awful” is nowhere near a strong enough word.
There is a lot of pretty decent young talent here, but the issue that the USMNT has faced for almost a decade now is that they almost universally fail to take the next big step forward in their development to become actually good, national-team-viable players. But the U.S. can’t afford to mess around with average-on-a-good-day veterans and pet projects of different managers — they need to craft a national team with a cohesive identity fast and start helping it to find success in CONCACAF play. This is a national team that needs confidence and a solid, cohesive core, two things they haven’t had in a long time. They’ll bear close watching to see if they can make the right decisions over the next couple of years to put themselves in position to succeed, because there is a very real chance that the wrong decisions will set this program back a long, long time.