Publish date:

THE PLOTS THICKEN

SIX MORE NON-NEYMAR STORY LINES THAT WILL DOMINATE THE RUN-UP TO WORLD CUP 2018
Author:

1 FROM RUSSIA WITHOUT LOVE

As the nexus of political controversy (not to mention alleged shady FIFA dealings), the host nation will command the spotlight for reasons far beyond sports.

2 OH, SAY CAN YOU ... QUALIFY?

New coach Bruce Arena appears to have steadied the USMNT ship with eight points in four games. Now it's on his players—hello, Christian Pulisic—to hold onto a top-three place in CONCACAF and earn automatic entry to an eighth straight Cup.

3 ADIOS AND TCHAU

Each of this generation's transcendent talents—Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo—has a World Cup trophy-sized hole in his résumé. This is likely their last chance to fill it ... assuming they, too, qualify. Argentina is onto another manager and teetering close to the edge; Portugal is in decent shape but could find itself in UEFA's do-or-die playoff.

4 OOH LA LA, LES BLEUS

Saying that France is stacked would be an understatement—even its C team could make a deep run in Russia. The battle to make this roster will be fierce. Consider: Out of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Alexandre Lacazette, Ousmane Dembélé, Kylian Mbappé, Kingsley Coman and Karim Benzema, several world-class attacking stars will be left home.

5 WIN, HOIST, REPEAT?

No nation has won back-to-back Cups since Brazil in 1958 and '62. Germany—which steamrollered through the Confederations Cup this summer with its B team—most definitely can end that streak.

6 EL TRI-RIFFIC

Unlike three years ago, Mexico is cruising to the World Cup. And with a golden generation of attacking riches led by Chicharito, this could be the year El Tri breaks its stretch of six straight round-of-16 exits and cracks the world's upper tier.