Spain were the World Champions just eight years ago in 2010 while neighbors Portugal won the Euro Championship in 2016. The two global giants are joined by a couple of solid teams in Morocco, making their first appearance in twenty years, and Iran, who have qualified for three of the last four tournaments.
While there are two clear favorites here and offense tends to carry the day in the group stages, Morocco gave up zero goals in their final qualifying phase and Iran just gave up two, so this might not be as easy as some would expect.
Why do we call this a “primer” and not a preview? Because this is more a lot of key information in one place that I think is a handy reference for viewers rather than a ton of specific analysis on what each team can or could do at the World Cup.
TV SCHEDULE (all times US Eastern)
Friday, June 15
11 AM – Morocco vs Iran, St. Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg, FOX/Telemundo
2 PM – Portugal vs Spain, Fisht Stadium, Sochi, FOX/Telemundo
Wednesday, June 20
8 AM – Portugal vs Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, FS1/Telemundo
2 PM – Iran vs Spain, Kazan Arena, Kazan, FOX/Telemundo
Monday, June 25
2PM – Iran vs Portugal, Mordovia Arena, Saransk, FOX/Telemundo or Universo
2 PM – Spain vs Morocco Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad, FS1/Telemundo or Universo
Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz (POR)
Rankings: FIFA 37 / ELO 21
Nicknames: Team Melli (The National Team), Iranian Lions/Lions of Persia
Qualification: AFC (Asia) Third Round Group B Winners
Appearance: 5th / Best Finish: Group Stage (previous 4 appearances)
Recent Results: May 19, vs Uzbekistan, W 1-0; May 28, at Turkey, L 1-2; June 8, vs Lithuania (in Russia), W 1-0
Player You Should Know: MF Masoud Shojaei, AEK Athens (GRE), 74 caps / 8 goals - The Iranian captain is making his third World Cup appearance at the age of 34 and if he’s playing at his usual attacking midfield spot, could be the catalyst for a pretty solid group of strikers up front.
Player You Should Watch: FW’s Karim Ansarifard, Reza Ghoochannejhad, Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun - Combined 68 goals and 166 caps - It’s very surprising to see a striker group this balanced at the World Cup statistically, usually a team has one or two strikers that do the bulk of the scoring but Queiroz will have a lot of options on the attacking front if he needs them.
Iran won their qualifying group on the back of a stunningly strong defense, allowing just two goals in ten matches in the final stage of Asia’s round-robin play and shutting down a couple of strong teams in South Korea and Syria in the process. They did not however face two teams as talented as Spain or Portugal on offense, but if they can withstand the siege and/or hit back on the counter they might be able to play spoiler as to who wins the group but it will be a very tall task to make it to their first knockout stage.
Head Coach: Herve Renard (FRA)
Rankings: FIFA 41 / ELO 36
Nickname: Atlas Lions
Qualification: CAF (Africa) Third Round Group C Winners
Appearance: 5th, first since 1998 / Best Finish: Round of 16, 1986
Player You Should Know: MF Mbark Boussoufa, Al Jazira (UAE), 59 caps / 7 goals - A former Ajax/Chelsea youth team player and several seasons of play club soccer is wonderful experience to have for a team making their first tourney appearance in two decades.
Player You Should Watch: DF Medhi Benatia, Juventus (ITA), 57 caps / 2 goals - Centerback and captain who led Morocco to an unbeaten record in the final stage of CAF qualification where they gave up zero goals in six games in a group that included the Ivory Coast.
Morocco seems like a slightly better version of Iran or perhaps a more experienced one for a World Cup on paper. Regardless, they’re also going to have to rely on their defense to get through games and hope the offense can do just enough to steal a point against one of the two favorites to get them into the next round. I don’t think it’s impossible for the Atlas Lions to beat Iran and grab a draw against one of the favorites but it’s still a longshot.
Head Coach: Fernando Santos (POR)
Rankings: FIFA 4 / ELO 6
Nicknames: Selecao das Quinas / The Navigators
Qualification: UEFA (Europe) Group B Winners
Appearance: 7th / Best Finish: 3rd Place, 1966
Roster Breakdown: 5 Domestic*, 5 England, 3 Turkey, 2, Spain, 2 France, 2 Italy, 1 Rangers, 1 China, 1 Russia, 1 Germany (*-note that several Sporting CP (POR) based players are now listed as unattached due to events that happened at the end of their club season)
Player You Should Know: FW Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid (ESP), 150 caps / 81 goals - He’s pretty good at soccer.
Player You Should Watch: MF Joao Moutinho, Monaco (FRA), 110 caps / 7 goals - Put him anywhere in the center of the midfield and he’ll be effective. Tremendous passer and a solid deep lying play-maker and at 31 hopefully not his last World Cup.
Portugal have been very impressive the last few years, winning Euro 2016, winning nine out of ten games in qualifying to top their group over Switzerland on goal differential and a third place showing at the Confederations Cup last year as well. Now Ronaldo and company get a chance to prove themselves on a World Cup stage, where they’ve struggled at times in the group stage but did finish fourth back in 2006. Add in a rivalry match with neighbors Spain to start things off and this group could be really fun from start to finish while that Group B opener could be one of the best games in the round robin phase.
Julen Lopetegui (ESP)
Spain sacked Lopetegui, who announced he would take over at Real Madrid after the World Cup. Fernando Hierro (ESP) will coach Spain at the World Cup.
Rankings: FIFA 10 / ELO 3
Nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)
Qualification: UEFA (Europe) Group G Winners
Appearance: 15th / Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Roster Breakdown: 16 Domestic, 4 England, 1 Italy, 1 Germany, 1 Japan
Recent Results: June 3, vs Switzerland, D 1-1; June 9, at Tunisia (in Russia), W 1-0
Player You Should Know: MF Andres Iniesta, Vissel Kobe (JPN), 127 caps / 14 goals - Another midfield maestro, Iniesta just signed in Japan after a storied career with Barcelona. At 34 this might the vice-captain’s last World Cup, so soak in as much brilliance as you can.
Player You Should Watch: FWs Diego Costa and Iago Aspas, combined 30 caps / 12 goals - I wouldn’t call either of these two players inexperienced, but it still seems strange to see such few games and goals on Spain’s forward group. Regardless of those numbers, this team is good, and they’re going to score goals.
Okay, so the changing head coach thing is really, really strange but we know what we’re getting here with Spain. This is still a talented team but a roster in transition from the World Cup winning squad of 2010. There are still a few mainstays like Ramos, Pique and Busquets but the youth that will eventually take over isn’t on the roster now. This might be a very different team in 2022, but for right now, they’re still Spain and they should be in the knockout stages where a wonder matchup with Uruguay or Egypt likely awaits.
I don’t see Spain or Portugal losing a match in this group unless it’s too each other in the opener. While a loss would put pressure on the remaining games, the quality these two sides will win out in the end. I think Portugal has the edge as far as topping the group though regardless, it’s likely Uruguay and Egypt await the Group B favorites in the next round. Morocco I think has the edge to pull of the shock knockout stage advance, but that means a multi-goal win against Iran and then a draw in one of the final two games. I just don’t think either of the underdogs has the offense to pull off a run in the end.
1 - Portugal (7 pts); 2 - Spain (7 pts); 3 - Morocco (1 pt); 4 - Iran (1 pt)