The FIFA World Cup is the single most popular sporting event on the planet. Football fans around the world wait with bated breath every four years for this prestigious tournament to begin. Even many non-football fans tune in only around this time to follow the World Cup and get sucked into the fervour, excitement and frenzy of the showpiece event. Each fan will be praying that this year will be the year for their team to raise the Cup, which is a symbol of excellence in the beautiful game at the highest level.
Even before the tournament has started, the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup has already become a unique one. The decision to hold the mega event from November to December rather than the norm, which is June to July, has already set it apart from the past tournaments. This time the World Cup will take place in the middle of the 2022-2023 season for most European clubs and how the performance of a player or team in at the club stage will affect them on the biggest stage is yet to be seen.
It will also be the final tournament for arguably the two greatest players the world of football has ever seen, as both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will probably be hanging up their boots before the 2026 World Cup rolls around. Qatar will also probably be the host to the last hurrah of several superstars, including Robert Lewandowski, Luka Modric, Thiago Silva, Manuel Neuer, Luis Suarez, and Sergio Busquets.
Joel Campbell’s solitary goal against New Zealand on June 14 saw Costa Rica book the final berth to Qatar and helped round off the 32 teams which will be competing in the tournament. Unlike other editions, this year the eight groups seem to be quite balanced and no single group has truly emerged as a ‘Group of Death’.
Onmanorama analyses the prospects of the teams in this four-part series starting off with Group A and B.
Can Qatar clear the first hurdle?
Group A will have hosts Qatar, along with Senegal, Ecuador and the Netherlands. Although the chances of Qatar qualifying for the knockout stages seem slim, there has been a record of the host nation always doing better than average. Other than the 2010 hosts South Africa all other hosts have made it to the knockout stages. Qatar will hope to use their home advantage to make their maiden appearance a memorable one.
Senegal are looking like the strongest African team in the tournament and they will hope to use their momentum from winning their first Africa Cup of Nations title in 2021 to push through to the finals. No African team has yet made it past the quarterfinals in any edition of the tournament, but this Senegal team could be the one to finally clear that hurdle. The team is packed with superstars such as Chelsea’s starting goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly and of course, the former Liverpool striker and team talisman Sadio Mane.
Ecuador have had a rocky run in the qualifiers and just managed to squeak through in fourth place. Yet their woes didn’t end there as they were subject to investigation by FIFA on the grounds of them using a player, Byron Castillo, who was not born in Ecuador but is rather from Colombia. This investigation was due to an appeal by Chile, who claimed that Ecuador should be disqualified and Chile should take their place instead. Fortunately for Ecuador, FIFA sided with them and said there were no grounds for disqualification. The matter is not over yet as Chile could still appeal the decision and potentially get the matches which Castillo played voided. This would result in Colombia qualifying for the World Cup as they would have the next most points.
Finally, the Netherlands take up the final spot in Group A and are predicted to be the group winner. After failing to qualify for the previous tournament, the Dutch will hope to have a reversal of fortunes and replicate the performances of the past which have led them to three finals. Unfortunately the Cup has eluded them, the last being a 0-1 loss to Spain in the final of the 2010 edition in South Africa. Although they have vastly improved their performance since the 2018 qualifiers, the team is still quite inconsistent. The Oranje will rely heavily on captain Virgil Van Dijk, widely considered one of the best centre-backs in the game right now, as well as youngsters like Barcelona’s Frankie de Jong and Juventus’s Matthijs De Ligt.
No cakewalk for England
Group B is an interesting group as it will include two countries of the United Kingdom - Wales and England - as well as the USA and Iran.
England will start off as favourites to top the group after their performances in the 2018 World Cup (fourth place) and the 2020 Euros (runners-up). Unfortunately, if their current performance in the Nations League is anything to go by, winless from four games, then they won’t be able to top very easily. Harry Kane will look to once again lead from the front as he did in 2018 where he picked up the Golden Boot for scoring six goals. Gareth Southgate will hope to put any doubts about his team to rest and make another charge for the World Cup. Mason Mount, Trent Alexander Arnold, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka will be the base of the team going forward and will hope to have English fans once again chanting Ït’s Coming Home”.
Wales qualified for their first international tournament in 64 years, thanks to wonder goals by their captain and star player Gareth Bale. Although he has barely played 90 minutes for Real Madrid all season, Bale delivered at the time when he was needed most and gave Wales the goals needed to qualify. The Welsh will hope to make it out of the group stages but their performance will undoubtedly rest on the shoulders of Bale.
A surprise candidate to top the group could be the US, coming off a CONCACAF Gold Cup win as well as a slew of excellent displays since then. The current team is one of the best American teams of all time, led by the young left wing from Chelsea - Chrisitan Pulisic. Pulisic and the current team have breathed life soccer in the US. They have been consistently playing at a higher level and for the first time have many of their players also playing at Europe’s top clubs. The US will hope to replicate their success in the first World Cup in Uruguay 1930, where they finished third, their best performance by far. Since then they have only reached the quarterfinals once in 2002.
Iran round off the group and are making their sixth appearance in the World Cup. Although prospects are not high for the team, as they have never made it past the group stages, they could pull off an upset or two and make their first knockouts. They have only ever won two games so far in the World Cup, one of them incidentally coming against the US in 1998. Hopefully this will finally be the tournament where the team has a reversal of fortunes.
(To be continued)