The Sialkot-manufactured official FIFA World Cup 2022 Al Rihla football along with the winner’s trophy
The Sialkot-manufactured official FIFA World Cup 2022 Al Rihla football along with the winner’s trophy

We have less than a month and a half to go till the whole world sets up camp in the Middle East, both literally and figuratively. Anticipation is building, the passion and fervour in fanatics is starting to reach its peak. The biggest sporting spectacle in the world in terms of viewership returns for its 22nd edition. The FIFA World Cup is coming.

Qatari authorities predict they’ll be hosting more than 1.5 million people during the months of November and December, more than half the population of the tiny Arab state. Sure enough, a whopping 2.5 million tickets have already been sold. There’s even significant Pakistani involvement, with the official ball, ‘Al Rihla’, being manufactured in Sialkot and a contingent of the Pakistan Army deputed for the security of the tournament.

There is a debate raging about how the tournament being scheduled in the middle of the league season would affect the quality of the football being played. Recap: The 2022 World Cup is the first-ever to be held in winter, to protect the players from the soaring temperatures of the Qatari summer. But multiple former players, including David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, reckon that the football will be better owing to the players being in rhythm and less burnt out, despite not having many opportunities to play with the national squad.

Whether you’re an avid follower, a seasonal supporter or just fancy a particular player, it’s time to pick your national team jerseys, dust them off and get back in the saddle. Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit too excited and mixing metaphors; let’s dial down on ‘Waka Waka’ and look forward to some scintillating action come November 20.

The wait is almost over, as 32 nations get ready to fight for glory next month on the biggest stage of them all, the FIFA World Cup. Here’s a preview…

THE GROUPS

As is tradition, the 32 teams have been divided into eight groups of four.

The hosts have been pitted in Group ‘A’ along with the Netherlands, back after missing the 2018 edition, Ecuador, and the African champions Senegal. Qatar have been dubbed the weakest hosts ever, but it would be foolish to write them off, considering they are the current Asian champions and especially after Russia swatted aside similar predictions with their dream run to the quarter-finals in 2018. However, the favourites to qualify from the group will be Netherlands and Senegal.

Group ‘B’ features the British duo of England and Wales, the United States and Iran. While England will be the clear favourites to progress, Gareth Bale will be optimistic he can extend his nation’s first appearance in the finals since 1958 to the knock-out stages. The Iran-US game will be interesting, as the geopolitical rivals clash in a politically-charged environment not too dissimilar to their 1998 meeting, when Iran prevailed.

In Group ‘C’, the great Lionel Messi has hinted that, at 35, this might be the last time he features on the grandest stage of all. His native Argentina, with a fresh crop of players to help propel him to the one trophy which eludes him, is drawn with Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Mexico always seems to punch above their weight in big tournaments and Poland boasts the 2021 Ballon d’Or winner Robert Lewandowski in their ranks. It’s a tough group, with Mexico vs Argentina, one of the games of the group stages, becoming the first match to be completely sold out.

The defending champions France return to defend their title in Group ‘D’ along with Denmark, Tunisia and Australia. France is still blessed with the kind of squad depth normally found in FIFA Manager Mode, and are again one of the favourites. Denmark have been impressive over the past couple of years and were the first European nation to qualify for the tournament. The two European nations should be too powerful for their African and Oceanian counterparts.

Group ‘E’ features arguably the match-up of the group stages, in the form of Spain vs Germany, the winners of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Japan and Costa Rica complete the line-up, both strong enough to cause an upset. A group too close to call. There’s also the mouthwatering possibility of either Germany or Spain facing off against Belgium in the Round of 16.

The year 2022 will probably be the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation to vie for the global crown but, before that, they’ll have to navigate a Group ‘F’ containing 2018 finalists Croatia, Canada, and Morocco. Again, the two European nations contain too much firepower, but Alphonso Davies of Canada and Hakim Ziyech of Morocco will try to weave a bit of magic and cause an upset or two.

The nation most synonymous with the FIFA World Cup, having won an unparalleled five editions and featured in every single tournament, Brazil, joins Switzerland, Serbia, and Cameroon in Group ‘G’. Brazil will be the outright favourites to top the group, but all the other three nations will feel they have a chance to reach the knock-out stages.

This will likely be the last time we see Cristiano Ronaldo, almost 38 and having recently scored his 700th club career goal, compete at the World Cup. His native Portugal has, however, been drawn in arguably the ‘Group of Death’ of this World Cup, Group ‘H’, alongside Uruguay (who knocked out Portugal in 2018), Ghana (who will be looking to avenge Luis Suarez’s handball in the 2010 quarter-finals), and South Korea (who dealt the final blow to Germany’s failed title defence in 2018). Ronaldo will need to be at the top of his game and add to his seven goals at the finals to help Portugal get out of the group stages.

THE FAVOURITES

One of the reasons the 2022 World Cup feels so exciting is that there are no two or three favourites to win the trophy. A whole host of nations will be licking their lips at the possibility of having strong runs into the deep end of the tournament.

Yes, a few do stand out: Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, and most notably, France. But the defending champions have gone out in the group stages in each of the last three World Cups. And you can never discount Germany, Spain, and Portugal, especially if Ronaldo is in form. With England’s run to the finals of Euro 2020 and semi-finals in 2018, they’ll also be optimistic to bring it home this time.

PLAYERS TO OBSERVE

The cream of the footballing world will be on show in Qatar. Ronaldo and Messi are the obvious highlights, as they always are. The 2018 Golden Boot winner Luka Modric will also be featuring in his final World Cup with Croatia, along with Uruguay’s iconic attacking duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Kylian Mbappe, the only teenager to score in a World Cup final — barring the great Pele — will be the talisman for France this time around. France also have the 2022 Ballon d’Or favourite Karim Benzema back in the national squad.

Then there’s Robert Lewandowski for Poland, Brazil’s Neymar Jr — who has already passed Pele on the list of top goal scorers for Brazil — Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne, England captain and 2018 Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, South Korea’s Son Heung Min, Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Netherlands’ Memphis Depay. Christian Eriksen will be captaining Denmark, a year after suffering a cardiac arrest during a group stage match of Euro 2020.

WHO MISSES OUT?

The most notable answer is Euro 2020 winners Italy, who were knocked out by minnows North Macedonia in the playoffs. This will be the second successive tournament without the four-time winners.

Another glaring absentee will be Manchester City’s goal-scoring machine Erling Haaland, as Norway finished third in the qualifying group behind Netherlands and Turkey.

Mohamed Salah, who so agonisingly played the 2018 World Cup through an injury, misses out on 2022 completely, as Egypt fell to Senegal in the African playoffs. The 2015 and 2016 Copa America winners Chile will be absent too. They also missed the 2018 edition like Italy.

The writer is a sports enthusiast with a background in supply chain management

He tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 16th, 2022

Opinion

Editorial

Losing grip
Updated 29 Jan, 2023

Losing grip

The state and the government are responsible for providing Imran with the security he deserves as a former prime minister.
Telling silence
Updated 29 Jan, 2023

Telling silence

THE silence of the Sindh government over the recent exposé in this paper about Karachi’s water tanker mafia ...
Palestine escalation
29 Jan, 2023

Palestine escalation

THE fire of conflict once again threatens to envelop the land of Palestine, as the growing cycle of violence refuses...
IMF package
Updated 28 Jan, 2023

IMF package

While it is crucial to seek immediate IMF funding to shore up its reserves, the govt shouldn’t focus only on short-term relief.
Dar unpegged
28 Jan, 2023

Dar unpegged

IT is over. Nearly four months after Ishaq Dar descended on the cash-strapped economy with some decidedly outlandish...
Lurking hazards
28 Jan, 2023

Lurking hazards

OVERSIGHT of illegal industrial activity occurring within residential areas in the country is weak, especially in...