Never has a tournament in any sport been subject to as much controversy as the Qatar football World Cup, which is now suddenly upon us and will indeed kick off on Sunday 20 November, when the hosts entertain Ecuador in the opening game of the competition.
Accusations of corruption have been labelled against the awarding of such a prestigious event to a small desert state, with absolutely no footballing history to speak of, pretty much from the moment it was announced by the now-disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, back in 2010.
It has been plagued with disputes from human rights atrocities, to their stance on homosexuality and other discriminatory laws, which amongst others curtail the freedom rights of women through male guardianship rules.
Then there was the climate situation that has forced the move from summer to winter to escape the unplayable temperatures, and in doing so halting the domestic seasons mid way through all the leading European leagues; plus and certainly of no less concern, the overall environmental impact it will have, with authorities admitting it will leave a much bigger carbon footprint than any other World Cup.
All that said, it is here and despite everything, there is a lot of excitement building; as there should be because when all is said and done, it is the World Cup, and wherever that might be, in whatever circumstances, that makes it special; but then again this time around… is it?
Request to focus on the football not that easy
The official slogan for Qatar 2022 is “Now is All” which probably is an attempt to get everyone to focus on the present and concentrate on the football. However, that is easier said than done, with reports of many migrant workers losing their lives in shocking working conditions, whilst helping to build the new stadiums.
Mistake probably made but time to get on with it
It basically seems to be a case that most people, without actually admitting it, have realised there has been a monumental mistake, but nothing was done about it, and after a certain amount of time, it was just too late to change, or probably more to the point, nobody had the inclination to do so.
There is an argument that Russia and China have shocking human rights records too and have had for a long time, but that did not stop them from hosting: in the Chinese case the Olympics, and the Russians, a Winter Olympics and of course the last World Cup, in 2018.
Arguments continue right up to last minute
It looks like the contentious issues will remain right up to the start, and probably well after the conclusion. Indeed only last week the Qatari World Cup ambassador spoke quite openly about believing that homosexuality is “damage in the mind”, yet in the next breath declared it will be an inclusive tournament.
Emotions are running high as the start gets closer with global superstar David Beckham even allowing himself to get embroiled by agreeing a lucrative ambassadorial role, believed to be in excess of £10 million, working on behalf of the Qataris. He now is coming under intense pressure to step away from any deal he has agreed, from the LGBTQ community.
The football should make it all worthwhile
It genuinely feels like many people have adopted the attitude of “lets just get this over and done with” and learn some vital lessons. Nevertheless, putting all the off-field issues to one side, there will be some wonderful football played, that can be guaranteed, and that is despite some big name absentees, such as the likes of Italy, Sweden, and Columbia; and top players such as Erling Haaland, Mo Salah, and Martin Odegard.
What is the format?
There are eight groups of four teams, with the hosts taking their place in Group A, alongside their opponents in the opening fixture Ecuador; plus the Netherlands and Senagal, who meet the following day. There will be three matches played on the second day, then four every day for the next eleven, with the winners and runners-up progressing to the knock-out stages, and hopefully all the way to the final.
Some groups look tougher than others, but a quick rundown of each team indicates that there are as many as six or seven nations in with a realistic chance of flying home with the trophy:
The Qataris are the first country to make their debut at the World Cup simply by being the hosts. They did however, win the Asian Cup before Covid, beating the likes of Japan, so they certainly are no mugs, and their 47th place ranking confirms that. They will want to get off to a good start and will fancy their chances against Ecuador. If they can make it to the last 16, they will see that as a success and to do that they will probably need star striker Almoez Ali to be at the top of his game.
The inspired appointment of Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro has transformed the fortuned of the South Americans and with a counterattacking style, and a team with pace and youth, they might just surprise a few, beginning with the hosts on opening night. Moises Caicedo has been getting rave reviews at Brighton in the Premier League and will want to showcase his talents on the global stage. Their final group clash with Senegal already looks massive and probably will decide who progresses.
Some shrewd judges see the Dutch as genuine dark-horses for the tournament and they are unbeaten in 15 games since Louis van Gaal returned as coach. In Frenkie de Jong and Virgil van Dijk they have genuine world-class performers and they should win their group. How they progress deeper into the competition may be reliant upon the goings-on in Group B as that will dictate their last 16 opposition. With some fortune in fixtures they could find themselves still involved in the final week of the tournament.
These are the strongest of all the African nations at the tournament and have a great opportunity to progress. They could surprise the much-fancied Dutch in their opening match, who will underestimate the the Lions of Teranga at great cost. They have three players who fall into the world-class category in Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Edouard Mendy. Nobody will relish meeting a strong well organised outfit, who just might take some major scalps. They will be mightily disappointed if they fail to at least make the last 16.
The Three Lions are not coming into the tournament in great shape, but once under way they will expect to make progress. Given the attacking options at his disposal, manager Gareth Southgate is often criticised for not being more expansive, but he prefers the more calculated approach, which will probably get them through the group and as far as the quarter-finals; but to go further the suspicion is that they will need to be more adventurous. Should they do so then they are perfectly capable of going all the way.
With all four teams in the group in the top 20 of world rankings, this is not going to be easy for any team, so tight defences will be necessary and this is a major concern here. They look a little light in that area and could come unstuck against some top quality strikers. Christian Pulisic is their main man and much will depend if he can conjure up some magic at crucial stages of the matches. They will expect to get through, but the hunch is they will be heading home early.
In their first World cup for 64 years the Welsh will undoubtedly give it their best shot. They overcame a very good Ukraine side to qualify, when 95% of the world were cheering on the opposition, which demonstrates the character they possess. They will relish the game against the English and with it being the final game in the group, it could work in their favour. A question mark over talisman Gareth Bale’s fitness should be answered in their first game and a win against the Stars and Stripes in that one would set them up nicely.
Some may have dismissed the Iranians as complete outsiders in the group, but a glance at their 20th place ranking should prove that they cannot be taken lightly. They are geared up for counter-attacking, with a rock solid defensive unit that has served them well in the past. Manager Carlos Queiroz has them organised, and they will look to nick a goal and then defend for their lives. If they can put in a strong performance in their opening game against England, or better still pinch a result, that would give them confidence for their other two fixtures, with seemingly weaker opposition.
Many people’s tip for the trophy, the Argentines are currently on an unbeaten 35 match run. Patient build up play and a reliance on the quality of Lionel Messi have been the foundation of their recent success. They can pass teams to death and defensively they are extremely strong. They will be ready for some titanic battles at the latter stages of the tournament, against some of the leading nations, but the feeling is that anybody beating them will definitely make the final, and probably win it.
The Mexicans are a safe bet to turn up at most World Cups, but equally, whilst they tend to produce some nice football, with the occasional great result such as their victory over the Germans in Russia thrown in, they never really look capable of going further than the last 16, and that seems to be the case again here. They might even have a struggle to get out the group this time around with a strong Polish outfit contesting the runners up spot with them; that is because it would be a major surprise if the Argentines do not secure top spot.
In Robert Lewandowski the Poles possibly have the best striker in the tournament (Harry Kane might be a valid argument), but it is more a question of if the bits around him can perform to their maximum, to enable them to progress into the knock-out stages. In some ways, the reliance on their star centre forward has possibly restricted some of his teammates, but as this is very likely to be his last World Cup, he could just inspire a decent run that will at least get them out of the group.
The Saudis will certainly feel at home in the surroundings and they should not be written off completely. Their players are highly skilled and disciplined, but they do lack the true international exposure at top club level, which often is their undoing. They will again look to winger Salem Al-Dawsari for some inspiration and realistically securing a point or two would be considered an achievement in a strong group.
It is 50 years since a team retained the World cup (Brazil 1962) so it is a huge challenge awaiting the French. However, the strength and talent of the squad certainly makes it a genuine possibility. One of manager Didier Deschamps’ problems has been finding the right balance to accommodate his star strike-force of Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann into the same starting eleven. N’Golo Kante and to a lesser extent Paul Pogba, will be big misses in midfield against the real powerhouses of the tournament and it could be a semi-final is as good as it gets this time around.
Manager Kasper Hjulmand has his team moulded into a cohesive unit capable of frustrating anyone on their day. Every player knows their clearly defined role in the side and in Christian Eriksen they possess the one man capable of unlocking any defence. His remarkable return after last year’s shock collapse has been wonderful to see and he deserves to have a fantastic tournament for that alone. The Danes should ease through their group and could go deep into the competition.
The Socceroos required a dramatic penalty shoot out victory over Peru to make it to Qatar and face a really tough task escaping into the last 16. The appear to need to find a positive result against either France or Denmark, and that just looks a little beyond them. Their game is based around containment and physicality, but realistically it appears to be crucial that they get the better of Tunisia in the middle group fixture to stand any chance of advancement.
This is now an ageing collection of players and whilst they will guarantee a positive work ethic, they look short in all departments to make any impact on the tournament. They have plenty of experience, but they just lack quality where it matters at both ends of the pitch. They have never advanced from the group stages in five attempts and sadly that looks highly likely to become six in a few weeks time.
The Spanish have emerged from a sticky few years and now look ready to once again compete for the major honours. They have a manager in Luis Enrique who wants his team to dominate possession, happily receiving passes in tight spots, with plenty of width and bravery on the ball. In Pedri the have a real star performer, who even at the tender age of 19, can destroy opposition with his technique, vision and dribbling ability. He could make a massive impact on the competition and with him on top of his game, they should progress through the group; then with favourable draws they could be a real danger.
The Germans are another who are back as a genuine power after a couple of poor tournaments. They have a squad of technically gifted individuals, but who play as a team, although question marks still remain defensively. Many are looking forward to seeing how the exciting Jamal Musiala, performs. Another 19 year old, he too could light up the competition with his displays in the middle of the park. Everyone will want to avoid a very dangerous outfit in the knock-out stages, and some smart money has already been wagered on a country that has the World Cup pedigree to go all the way to the final.
Always playing catch-up, the Costa Ricans finished qualification strongly to then defeat New Zealand in a tense play-off and secure their place at the finals. They are in a really difficult group so will need some large slices of luck and decisions to go their way if they are to be able to make any impression. They had a stunning group stage in 2014, where they topped a quartet that included Italy and England, but this squad does not look anywhere near as strong, and the odds are they will be propping up this one after the three fixtures.
This looks a tall order for the Japanese to make it into the last 16, with an unfortunate draw pairing them with both the Spanish and Germans. That said, the have their fighting spirit and a squad of technically sound players, so they should not be ruled out entirely. Takumi Minamino, has been out of sorts of late, but a return to form for him, coupled with goals from Daichi Kamada and possibly they could shock the more fancied outfits.
It would be a huge surprise if the Belgians failed to not only progress, but do it as 100% winners of the group. In Kevin De Bruyne they have arguably the best attacking midfielder in world football and he is currently performing right at the top of his game for his club side Manchester City. Somewhat unfortunately, the opposition in the round of 16 will probably be either Spain or Germany and then if able to overcome one of those two, it could well be Brazil waiting for them in the Quarters. With that in mind, it points to the golden generation of Belgian football having already missed their opportunity to win a big tournament. However, were they able to find a way into the semis, then it would be a brave man to back against them.
Many will immediately write off the Canadians, but the commendable draw and performance away to Mexico in the intimidating Azteca proved that they have something about them. The have pace down the flanks and a solid spine, but they do lack experience and that could be their downfall. Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies is their star man, and he will need to step up if they are to have any chance of making it through the group.
There is a slight stale feel to the set up of the Croatians this time around and the chances of a repeat journey all the way to the final as they did in 2018, look remote. They do retain their classy midfield though, with Luka Modric now 37 years old, still pulling the strings and Ivan Perisic remains capable of causing problems from out wide. They struggled through qualification, but the magic of the tournament could spark them back to life. They ought to have enough to make it to the knock-out stage, but beyond that looks doubtful this time around.
The Atlas Lions strolled through qualification, and the squad is full of players with Champions League experience, many of whom were part of the team that were unlucky not to beat Spain four years ago in Russia. They have recently changed their coach, but the mood in camp seems to be one of genuine optimism. Their opening match against Croatia could hold the key to any further success in the competition; victory in that one will put them in a great position to go through.
The Brazilians are arguably justified in having the favourites tag; however, the five times winners have not actually won the competition for twenty years. Coach Tite has them playing almost the perfect game, ultra tight at the back barely conceding, with top class goalkeeping options behind. Attacking wise there are few, if any better, with the likes of Neymar, Richarlison, and Vinicius Junior; and the whole side press with an intensity not previously associated with the Brazil sides of the past. They should stroll into the knock out stages, after which they will back themselves against anyone.
The Serbs are in good nick at present and will hope to carry that on into the tournament. With national hero Dragan Stojkovic now running the show, the confidence is high and their brand of football is pleasing on the eye. There is renewed spirit in the camp with a real balance to their line-up. In Dusan Tadic they have a real leader with big-match know-how. The final group game against the Swiss looks to be massive in deciding which team follows the Brazilians into the last 16.
The Swiss go about their business quietly, but professionally, rarely making the headlines yet always doing enough and it is that quality that will potentially see them into the knock-out stages. They possess not only the nous to win games, but also the wherewithal of how not to lose. They are a perfect example of a team without stars, but a collective unit that function together superbly. They are again probably going to run into one of the major forces further down the line and pay the price, but not before pushing them all the way. A quarter final place should not be ruled out.
This is a group that the Cameroon’s will feel they can escape out of, but they will need to get positive results against Serbia and Switzerland to do so. They are able to mix up their styles, going direct in their more recent matches. The country’s FA president Samuel Eto’o has publicly criticised his players which won’t help, neither will the pressure he has placed on them by insisting that he not only expects them to qualify, but also go onto reach the final, both demands look too much, so the consequences of failure could be interesting, to say the least.
It is impossible to discuss the Portuguese without turning to Ronaldo. He is having a troubled time at Manchester United and his style doesn’t really fit in with that of his international coach Fernando Santos either. However, it almost seems written for him to not only become the first player to score in five different World Cups, but also produce some of his genius to leave his mark on the tournament. There is not a good atmosphere in the camp due to the stifling effect the coach is having on all the incredible flair at his disposal; but they will need to push hard for a top position finish, otherwise it is almost certain the Brazilians will await them in the last 16.
Who can forget the drama of 2010 when Uruguay, and specifically Luis Suarez, stole victory from Ghana and a place in the semi-final, with his blatant 120th minute handball. They meet up again here in the final game of the group, so although an exact repeat couldn’t happen, it would be no surprise to see some sort of telling incident making headlines. This side sadly are no match for their predecessors of 12 years ago, although there is still quality and energy in the team. The expectation level is not as intense, which may actually play into their hands.
The South Americans have an illustrious history with this competition and often seem to rise to the occasion, even when not performing well in the run up. This could be another of those instances, as qualifying was anything but straightforward. They have picked up of late, but still are striving for the right balance, with various formations and approaches being used. For such a small country with a population barely over 3 million, they keep producing incredible talent, with the old brigade of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin, now complimented by the terrific younger options of Federico Valverde, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Darwin Nunez. They genuinely could be anything, with the prospect of smooth progress just as possible as an early flight home.
The South Koreans have almost become a permanent fixture at World Cups, qualifying for every tournament since 1986, making this their 10th consecutive appearance. The retain their identity of playing high-energy football, pressing at every opportunity, so hopefully the excessive heat will not restrict them in that philosophy. In Son Heung-min they have a player who can genuinely be called word-class after his exploits for Tottenham in the Premier League over recent seasons, so they will be praying that he recovers from the facial surgery he has recently had to receive, and can inspire them to take a grip of a really tight group, which of all of the eight, is probably the hardest to call.
Women officiating for first time
There will be 36 referees, 69 assistant referees (strange it is an odd number) and 24 video assistant referees (VAR) officiating the tournament. FIFA have included two each from Argentina, Brazil, England and France. For the very first time there will be women refereeing games at a men’s major football competition, with officials from Japan, France, and Rwanda taking charge of at least one game each.
Time difference and kick off times
After the opening ceremony which starts at 5pm local time (2pm UK time) on Sunday 20 November, the first game will kick off two hours later at 7pm; then all the remaining group games will start locally at either 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, or 10pm, until the last set of fixtures, which will get going at either 6pm, or 10pm.
Those final two alternative times will be when all the other games will be kick off through the straight knock-out stages, right through to the final on December 18, with a 6pm local time start for the big one.
The ball itself ready for “the journey”
You may think a football is just a football, but the official match ball to be used throughout the tournament will be the “Al Rihla” ball, and is inspired by the culture, architecture, iconic boats and flag of Qatar. In Arabic, the word Al Rihla translates to “the journey”. It was said to have been designed with sustainability as a priority, making it the first ever official match ball created with water-based glues and inks.
Who are tipped to go on and win the tournament?
When it comes to predicting who will contest the latter stages, logic and rational thinking will always steer forecasts towards the favourites. However, so many things about this particular World Cup have been anything but logical and rational, and there is a nagging suspicion that a real underdog might steal the show.
That said, it is impossible to rule out the big guns and it looks set for a titanic battle between Brazil and Argentina in one of the semi-finals. The other is much harder to call, and a last 16 tie which Belgium appear certain to contest with either the Germans or Spanish, could easily see the victor go all the way to the final; although England or France might have something to say about that.
Without too much conviction, the last four are tipped to be the two South American giants: Brazil and Argentina, along with Spain and England; with Argentina taken to win the final in extra-time.
A parallel world idea that is so apt for this World Cup
Just when this strangest of all tournaments seemed to have covered everything, they come up with one last thing. The World Cup mascot is a character called Laʼeeb, which is an Arabic word meaning “super-skilled player”.
His backstory paints a picture of him coming from a parallel world where tournament mascots live; it is apparently a world where ideas and creativity form the basis of characters that live in the minds of everyone.
On that note, hopefully everybody can enjoy the good bits of the tournament, which to be fair will undoubtedly be many, and everything else, will basically be… everything else!