The next incarnation of the FIFA World Cup might still be three years off, but qualifying groups for the tournament have officially been announced, and it's certainly not too early to start analyzing those groups and putting together predictions! Today, we're starting off with 2018 FIFA World Cup UEFA qualifying Group A, which includes heavyweights such as the Netherlands and France, a dark horse in the form of Sweden, and a few national football teams (Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg) that we don't expect to have much of a shot at qualification. Let's dive in!
The Netherlands: Could 2018 Be Their Year?
Based on the outcomes of the last two World Cup events, it would be perhaps even a little unwise to not predict the Netherlands as the eventual winners of UEFA Group A. In 2010, the Dutch side won six of their seven games, only failing in the championship match against Spain's golden age soccer squad. They dominated their group stage, and eliminated Slovakia, Brazil, and Uruguay en route to the final. Furthermore, the Oranje only lost to Spain 0-1, and the final went into extra time before the Spaniards finally got the upper hand.
The Dutch side was almost as impressive in 2014, beating Spain 5-1 in their first group stage match of the tournament, and going on to finish third in the tournament. The soccer team lost to Argentina in the semifinals, and never faced Germany, but their takedown of Spain and their equally decisive third-place match against Brazil (with a score of 3-0) still made the Netherlands one of the biggest success stories of the 2014 World Cup. Add the fact that the Dutch are three-time World Cup runners-up, but have never won, and 2018 could simply be their time.
France: The Potential SpoilerÂ
Not that fans in the Netherlands jersey 2015 2016 should just expect their team to take UEFA Group A. While the Oranje are likely the frontrunners, you can never count France out of the equation. Furthermore, with the Dutch showing some weakness in the qualifiers for Euro 2016 (they're currently third in their group, behind Ireland and the Czech Republic), it's possible that the Oranje have already missed their best World Cup chances.
The French national football team did well, if unspectacularly, at the 2014 World Cup. They topped their group and beat Nigeria 2-0 in the round of 16 before being eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals. It was certainly an improvement over the team's 2010 run, which had ended after the group stage.
Still, while France's recent World Cup resume isn't nearly as sterling as that of the Netherlands, they do have a better record at the event. Indeed, France have played in 14 of the 20 World Cups held over the years (versus the Dutch, who have only appeared in 10). They've also won the competition once (in 1998), were runners-up in 2006, and haven't missed a qualification since 1994. The Netherlands, in comparison, failed to qualify in 2002.
The Other Teams
Still, while the Netherlands and France will be battling for the top spot, there is little doubt that both countries will qualify.
Sweden, the most likely challenger, hasn't qualified for a World Cup since 2006, despite a fairly consistent presence in the European Championship. Bulgaria have played in eight incarnations of the FIFA tournament over the years-and even reached the semifinals in 1994-but haven't qualified since 1998. Belarus and Luxembourg, finally, have never played in a World Cup.
The First Games
Bottom line? Expect strong performances from the Netherlands and France when play starts up in UEFA qualifying Group A! The first matches are scheduled for September 6th, 2016, and will see the following match-ups:
- Belarus (H) vs. France (A)
- Bulgaria (H) vs. Luxembourg (A)
- Sweden (H) vs. The Netherlands (A)