FIFA world ranking: 1
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Champions, 2014, 1990, 1974, 1954
How qualified: Won European qualifying group.
Key players: GK Manuel Neuer, F Thomas Muller, D Mats Hummels
It’s a fact: Since 1954, when it was allowed back in the tournament, Germany is the only country that has never failed to get out of the group stage, making it as far as the quarterfinals in each of the last nine World Cups.
The skinny: Germany has the deepest squad in the tournament, but it faces several questions regarding injuries. Coach Joachim Low said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who has not played a competitive match since fracturing a foot in September, will be his starter in Russia. That will send Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who played well at Barcelona this season, back to the bench. But can Neuer stand up to the World Cup grind? Midfielder Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, is in a race to heal his knee before next weekend’s opener with Mexico. Another worry: Germany, which went 10-0 with a plus-39 goal differential in World Cup qualifying, was winless in its next five.
FIFA world ranking: 15
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals, 1986, 1970
How qualified: Won CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
Key players: F Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, F Carlos Vela, D Hector Moreno
It’s a fact: Of the eight countries to have appeared in at least 15 World Cups, Mexico is the only one never to have won the tournament.
The skinny: Mexico goes to Russia with the best team in its history, one thick with talent, experience and 12 players off the rosters of top European clubs. But injury concerns at center back and holding midfielder could force coach Juan Carlos Osorio to juggle his lineup even more than usual. Plus, Mexico was shut out three times in its last four games. El Tri has made it out of the group stage in the last six World Cups, yet has never won a knockout-round game on foreign soil. Getting to that fifth game is the team’s chief goal in Russia.
FIFA world ranking: 61
Last World Cup: 2014
Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 2002
How qualified: Runner-up in Asian qualifying group.
Key players: F Son Heung-min, M Ki Sung-Yueng, MF Koo Ja-cheol
It’s a fact: South Korea is one of just five countries to have qualified for each of the last nine World Cups.
The skinny: Tottenham forward Son Heung-min gives South Korea some attacking quality in front of an able midfield — and South Korea will have to score to make up for a defense that can be dismal at times. Confidence could also be lacking for the Red Devils, who didn’t win a game in Brazil four years ago, then struggled mightily in a weak World Cup qualifying group just to get to Russia. New coach Shin Tae-yong, who took over last June and rescued the qualifying campaign, could have the answer with the 3-4-3 formation he experimented with this spring. But in this group, South Korea can afford no mistakes.
FIFA world ranking: 23
Last World Cup: 2006
Best World Cup finish: Runners-up, 1958
How qualified: Beat Italy in European playoff.
Key players: M Emil Forsberg, D Andreas Granqvist, D Victor Lindelof.
It’s a fact: With national team scoring leader Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the roster, Sweden failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and did not win a game in the 2016 Euros. Without him, Sweden stunned four-time world champion Italy in a two-leg playoff and is back in the World Cup for the first since time 2006.
The skinny: Sweden has reason to feel confident after shutting out Italy twice to punch its ticket to Russia -- and two 31-year-old strikers at the top of static 4-4-2 formation show the Swedes plan to take a defensive posture in the World Cup as well. Without Ibrahimovic, whom no one in Sweden seemed interested in talking out of retirement, this could be the most boring team in the tournament. But if Sweden can master its style, it could squeak past Mexico and South Korea and into the second round.
June 17: Germany vs. Mexico in Moscow; Sweden vs. South Korea in Nizhny Novgorod.
June 23: South Korea vs. Mexico in Rostov-on-Don; Germany vs. Sweden in Sochi.
June 27: South Korea vs. Germany in Kazan; Mexico vs. Sweden in Yekaterinburg.