We’re in an unusual position here folks. As I write this, it’s October, yet we have not had the World Cup. For the first time in the history of the competition, the FIFA World Cup, traditionally held during the European summer, will be held in November and December. There is a good reason for this. In summer, host nation Qatar regularly experiences temperatures as high as 43C (109F). Even at night, the mercury barely dips below 30C. Such conditions are far too hot to play football, so alternative arrangements were made, and now we have a winter World Cup.
A lot can be said of the dubious process through which Qatar won hosting rights. There are many concerns over the conditions of workers who built the stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament. People all over the world have raised questions about Qatar’s record on LGBT rights. However, there is nothing that can be done to stop the World Cup now, and no one is prepared to boycott it, so here we are.
With that in mind, what are the prospects for the tournament? Who will emerge as surprise contenders? Who will disappoint? Most of all, who will come through it all to be crowned world champions? This rundown will not over every team, but will look at the key nations, along with one or two others, and I will offer my personal thoughts about who will be triumphant, come the final, at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, on the 18th of December.
It feels appropriate to begin with the hosts themselves, so let’s get to it.
I will confess to knowing absolutely nothing about the footballing history of the hosts. I include them in this rundown for the sake of completeness. Every Qatari player plays in the Qatar domestic league, and I have never heard of any of them. They have never qualified for a World Cup in which they have entered. Their prospects of escaping Group A are probably slim. The Netherlands, Ecuador and Senegal stand in their way, and it would unlikely that Qatar will get a single point. Then again, they drew 2-2 with Chile in a recent friendly, so the potential for a surprise exists. I don’t think they will get thrashed, but they won’t get beyond the group stages.
Ah England. My beloved, frustrating, inconsistent and under-achieving England. Where do I begin?!
I want to have faith in manager Gareth Southgate. He took us to a semi-final at the 2018 World Cup, and to the final of Euro 2020. Football does not do sentiment, and in the build-up to the World Cup, England’s results have been poor. Two defeats against Hungary (including a four-goal defeat at Wembley), and mediocre performances against Germany and Italy have not suggested England can be contenders. The team has struggled to score goals (notwithstanding a 3-3 draw with Germany in their last game before the World Cup), and conceded far too many. England have looked lacklustre, and it appears as though we are afraid to lose, and therefore do not try to win.
It could be argued that this has been England’s problem for many years. The fear of losing (and the accompanying mauling from an unsympathetic English media) has paralyzed the England team. It is not an exaggeration to say we have some very good players, and historically we’ve had some great squads, yet an unwillingness to have a go and take a risk has stifled us. Of the current crop, the likes of Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish the qualities to help control the midfield and play at a high tempo, but Southgate will prefer to restrain them, even though we are at our best when the shackles are removed. Harry Kane is a known quantity up-front, and Raheem Sterling can be a great player (even if he frustrates me enormously). There is more to come from Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho too. However, if they are not given the opportunity to play with attacking intent, there is no hope that they, or England, will shine.
Perhaps the greatest mistake of recent times, is Southgate’s insistence on playing Harry Maguire. The central defender became notorious for making errors last season, and has been dropped as a regular starter for his club, Manchester United, yet Southgate continues to name him, and play him. Loyalty is a commendable quality in many situations, but not here. There are better defenders (such as Milan’s Fikayo Tomori) who deserve to be ahead of Maguire in the pecking order. I deserve to be ahead of Maguire in the pecking order, and I am an unfit guy, more than a decade his senior. Maguire will be a liability if he plays.
Speaking of playing, England will face Iran, the USA, and Wales in Group B. At the risk of sounding conceited, Iran are very beatable, but the USA will present a challenge. I suspect many of my fellow England fans will be surprised by this, but I’ll come to that later. Wales will be up for it against England, and anything less than commitment, focus and intensity will see us falter.
All in all, if we reach the quarter-finals, we’ve done well, but most permutations mean that’s as far as we go, and with good reason, because of who we’ll probably face…
France won the World Cup last time around, though they had a disappointing Euros, given the quality of their squad. I don’t expect them to struggle again, even if history is full of the winners falling at the first hurdle next time. They have a squad that blends youthful talent with wisdom and experience, and in forward Kylian Mbappe, they have one of the heirs to Ronaldo’s and Messi’s thrones.
Mbappe is still only 23, yet he is already a World Cup winner (and only the second teenager to score in a World Cup final, after Pele). He has scored 114 goals in 123 appearances for club side Paris St Germain. He has 59 caps for France, and 28 goals. He oozes confidence, has incredible pace, and if he produces his best, will be nigh-unstoppable.
Nor is he France’s only goal threat. Antoine Griezmann has 110 caps and 42 goals for his country, and is considered by many to be an accomplished striker. Karim Benzema is another experienced goal scorer.
Elsewhere, France can draw upon highly experienced midfielder Paul Pogba. Pogba blew hot and cold in his time at Man Utd, but in French colours he tends to produce his best, and that best is a midfielder capable of controlling the game. Alongside him, there is every chance of seeing N’Golo Kante in action, who can be relied upon to win the ball back, and play with patience.
France should win Group D, where they will play Australia, Denmark, and Tunisia.
Expectations always run high when you’re the most successful team in World Cup history. Winners in 58, 62, 70, 94 and 02, there is a lot of pressure on Brazil (particularly from Brazilians) to emerge victorious.
Recent history would not back up that expectation. Since their last triumph, Brazil have only reached the semi-finals once, on home soil in 2014, and that ended badly (see Germany’s epic victory over the hosts). It could be that Brazil’s problem is similar to England’s, namely an unrelenting demand for success, and in Brazil’s case, this demand is worse, because Brazil have form for succeeding, and therefore anything less than a repeat is unacceptable.
Brazilian fans will also want to see their team play with flair. Brazil are credited with perfecting the ‘beautiful game’, and players like Pele, Romario, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, and many more, have embodied this style of play. The current talisman is Neymar, and the forward will bear a lot of the pressure. He has scored 75 goals in 121 appearances for Brazil, but he has never quite been able to develop the same reputation for excellence as Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi. Part of this may be down to excessive theatrics and diving, something for which he has been roundly criticised, and for which he has pledged to do better.
Neymar isn’t the only player that could make a difference. Bobby Firmino has had some injury niggles lately, but he is an accomplished goal-scorer in his own right, and Brazil can also look to Gabriel Jesus. Up-and-coming Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior could be another player to watch. However, Brazil’s attacking line-up needs to be backed up by a strong defence, and Brazil’s most experienced defenders are also getting old (in football terms).
Thiago Silva has 109 caps for his country, and Dani Alves has 124, but in the environment of Qatar, can the 38 and 39 year-old provide the defensive resilience Brazil will need?
Brazil’s path through the tournament will begin with Serbia, then Switzerland, and their final Group G game is against Cameroon. If things pan out, they could meet Argentina in the semi-finals, and that leads me to…
If Neymar feels the weight of a nation, his Argentine counterpart (and club colleague) Lionel Messi will be perfectly positioned to sympathise. For years, Messi has lit up the scene at Barcelona, and has been heralded as the world’s best player by many. At club level, he has won it all, but the biggest prize in world football has eluded him. At 35, it is entirely possible this will be his last chance.
Messi, scorer of 90 goals in 164 caps, will not be joined by prolific striker Sergio Aguero, who retired from international football in 2018, and there is no chance of him reserving that decision, following the latter’s cardiac scare that forced his retirement. This could leave Argentina short of firepower. The young Julian Alvarez could step up, and Lautaro Martinez has 21 goals in 40 caps, which isn’t a bad record. More will be expected of Paulo Dybala, who hasn’t lived up to expectations at international level.
Angel Di Maria will bring experience to the adventurous midfield region, Marcus Acuna will bring a fair bit of it to the defence, as will Nicolas Otamendi, whilst Alexis Mac Allister might be a surprise package. However, should Argentina get as far as the semis and face Brazil, I would expect Brazil to win. Argentina are in Group C, where they will face Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Poland.
It’s impossible to compose a list of World Cup teams, and not include Germany. Four-time winners (most recently in 2014), the Germans have a habit of being at the sharp end of World Cups.
That being said, at the 2018 World Cup, Germany failed to progress beyond the group stages for the first time. At Euro 2020, they were dumped out in a fairly straight-forward manner by England, of all teams. Of their 2014 line-up, the likes of Hummels, Schweinsteiger, Özil, Khedira, Lahm, and Klose are no longer involved, among others, and whilst Germany still possess a lot of talent, will they be as potent as then?
Nevertheless, write them off at your peril. Experience and skill remain deeply embedded in this German squad. Marco Reus, Julian Draxler, Ilkay Gundogan, and Joshua Kimmich sport 238 caps between them. In goal, Manuel Neuer has 113 caps, and fellow ‘keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has emerged as a strong contender for a spot in the starting XI. Werner, Gnabry, Muller and Sane are all capable of scoring goals (if guilty of being a bit inconsistent at times). The Germans have been better of late, and usually save their best for World Cups. They could end up against France in the semi-finals, but to get there, they must overcome Japan, Spain, and Costa Rica, in Group E. Two of those games should be straight-forward, but one stands out…
Spain will play Costa Rica, then Germany, and finally Japan, in Group E. The 2010 winners (in-between Euro titles in 08 and 12) fell victim to the winner’s curse in 2014, when they were thumped 5-1 by the Netherlands in the group stages, and they only made it as far the 2nd round in 2018. They were semi-finalists at Euro 2020 (undone by Italy), but Spain’s biggest recent problem has been goals.
Spain’s 2010 squad boasted some of the finest passers of the ball. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Xavi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets lit up the stage. Of those players, only Busquets remains, and whilst Spain still have some great passers of the ball (Thiago comes to mind), this team doesn’t conjure up the same sense of magic as it did before. However, there are some bright young prospects. Gavi is only 18, yet has played his way into the side. Pedri will turn 20 right ahead of the tournament, as will Ansu Fati, and Ferran Torres is only 22. It’s entirely possible some of these players will be omitted, in favour of experience, but it does seem that Spain are tapping into their youth, and if they are good enough, why not? I don’t expect Spain to win it, but their younger players might just play with the freedom of being unburdened by expectation or history. Keep an eye on them.
It is impossible to mention Lionel Messi, and then not discuss the national side of his great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo. It is also virtually impossible to separate Portugal and Ronaldo.
At the time of posting this, Ronaldo has 192 caps, and 117 goals. He is the leading all-time men’s goal-scorer at international level. He has had a glittering career, and is frequently regarded as the best player in the world, but whilst he has gotten his hands on European Championship glory (in 2016), the World Cup has escaped his grasp. Portugal reached the 2006 semi-finals, but since then, and despite Ronaldo’s efforts, they have gone no further than the 2nd Round.
This will be a source of tremendous frustration for Ronaldo, who has held himself to some incredibly high standards. He has never truly shone at a World Cup, and at 37 years old, he is unlikely to get another chance. Ronaldo will hope and need his compatriots to step up, including the likes of Diogo Jota and Joao Felix up-front, and the experienced Bernado Silva, Joao Mario, Bruno Fernandes, and William Carvalho in midfield.
In fact, it’s fair to say Portugal have a lot of experience available to them. Should they be chosen, midfielder Joao Moutinho has 146 caps, and defender Pepe has made 128 international appearances. ‘Keeper Rui Patricio had featured 104 times for his country. Some of these players are entering into what might be considered the twilight phase of their careers, but they could yet end up going to Qatar.
The overriding question of Portugal, is how much will they depend on Ronaldo? My gut feeling tells me they’ll make it out of Group H, but Uruguay and South Korea might push them harder than people think. Ghana might also offer a surprise, but are less likely to.
I include the USA in this as a possible wildcard element. The USA has come a long way in the sport of football. After decades of false starts in terms of domestic leagues, the sport took off after the 1994 World Cup, which the USA hosted. Major League Soccer has become a huge part of the American sports scene, and a number of Americans play for top European leagues. ‘Keeper Matt Turner has fought his way into the Arsenal starting XI, midfielder Tyler Adams has been a regular at Leeds United, and forward Christian Pulisic has often featured for Chelsea.
Nonetheless, there is the temptation (particularly in England) to underestimate the Americans, even though history would suggest this is foolish. The USA knocked England out of the 1950 World Cup, and held England to a draw in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup. Arrogantly underestimating opponents at this level is always the pathway to disaster.
One factor that could count against the USA is a lack of overall experience. Very few players in their recent squads have been over 30, and many are 25 or younger. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, and some of these players have spent some time playing at club level, but it adds an uncertain factor to everything. The USA has named a lot of different squads in recent times, and ideally, there needs to be a measure of consistency, especially as we gear up for the tournament.
One thing is certain, the Americans will be motivated to beat England. They will also be highly motivated to beat Iran, owing to historical political issues. This doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to win either game, but no one can afford to take them lightly. They could also pose a threat to Wales, in what is perhaps Group B’s most uncertain game.
In recent years, the Belgian squad has involved some of the world’s best players, leading some to refer to them as the nation’s ‘golden generation’, but Belgium have not quite clicked enough to win a major competition. For the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, this might be their last chance to leave their mark on a World Cup. They midfield duo have a wealth of experience (De Bruyne has 93 caps, Eden Hazard has 122), and they boast other, highly experienced players. Axel Witsel (also of the midfield) has made 126 appearances for his country, and Thorgan Hazard (younger brother of Eden) has pulled on the Belgian jersey 45 times. Defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have 123 and 141 caps, respectively. Highly-rated ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois has nearly reached a century, on 96 caps, and strikers Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku have both breached the century mark, on 106 and 102 caps.
The question mark is whether the best days of these players are behind them. There are fewer youth prospects with the Belgium squad than with other teams, and therefore the hopes of the nation will rest heavily on the shoulders of the likes of De Bruyne. It is entirely possible the Belgians will encounter the Germans in the knock-out stages, but will they go any further? I’m not certain. Before they can even consider such a clash, they will need to overcome Canada, Croatia, and finally Morocco, in Group F.
The final profile goes to the bridesmaids. The Dutch have been beaten finalists on three occasions (74, 78, and 2010). They also lost semi-finals in 98 and 2014. Given some of the great players to wear the famous orange jersey, the Dutch are arguably the best side to never win the World Cup, and sometimes, they have been their own worst enemy. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and were dumped out of Euro 2020 by the Czech Republic in the 2nd round.
It’s difficult to judge where the Dutch sit in the hierarchy of this World Cup. In Daley Blind and Virgil van Dijk, they have two experienced and robust defenders. They also have Nathan Ake, Stefan de Vrij, and Matthijs de Ligt to call upon, however in the midfield area, it could be argued the Dutch a bit lacking in experience (though not ability). Frenkie de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum bring a fair bit of quality, and there is some youthful enthusiasm to call upon. Ryan Gravenberch has fought his way into the Bayern Munich side, and the Dutch national team.
Up in attack, Memphis Depay is likely to be the Netherlands’ most crucial player. Of the most recently capped Dutch players, he has the most goals. He also has the best ratio of goals to games. Beyond him, goals from the strikers are in short supply. That might scupper them, though I would still expect them to top Group A. Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar will not stop them.
The permutations that lead to the final are varied, but they offer up some exciting, potential clashes. England vs the Netherlands could be a 2nd round tie. Brazil could meet Uruguay in the 2nd round, and Belgium could face Germany. There is the possibility of some electrifying quarter-finals, including Netherlands/Argentina and Spain/Brazil. At the semi-final stage, Argentina/Brazil and France/Germany would be two cracking games, and any final out of those four would be a game of intensity.
This might well be the farewell World Cup for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Two of the greatest players the world has ever seen, might they finally taste World Cup glory? Who will be the breakout sensation of the tournament? Could it be England’s Phil Foden, or will it be Spain’s Pedri? Might it be Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, or will France’s Mbappe remind everyone that he is the heir to Messi and Ronaldo’s throne? There is much to look forward to, in this unusual winter World Cup.