A couple of hours of hoopla over and done with and we finally – well, nearly – have the draw for the Qatar World Cup in November this year set out before us.
With the teams in place, the odds on the 22nd winners of the trophy will have been busily re-computed at goldenslot but these initial findings will doubtless leave us with the usual suspects at the top of the heap – Brazil, Spain, Argentina etc.
The permutations of who will play who in the knockout stage will have people poring over the small print for hours in the days to come, but we are surely faced by more imponderables than ever before in trying to find our way towards the winners this time around.
Never before has the competition been held in what is the northern hemisphere’s winter. In theory, that should give European sides a boost, given that players will only be midway through their season and should be at something like their fittest and sharpest in November and December, rather than exhausted after a long domestic season – given the global nation of the European game, that also goes for plenty of players from other countries too, but you get the idea.
The USA and Canada, in contrast, will have only just completed their domestic schedule, the MLS Cup being played on November 5th, just 16 days before the USA’s first game in Qatar. Will that be a hindrance or will those players be in prime condition at that stage?
Then there is the issue of the weather, about which plenty has been spoken. Average temperatures in December are said to be around 75 or 80 degrees, seemingly not unlike a European World Cup in June and July. Most coaches are playing that aspect down, but it wouldn’t take much of a rise in those figures for the conditions to become very difficult indeed for some sides.
But what of the draw itself? For our purposes, Group B is clearly the one that attracts the attention, even if we only know three of the sides so far. That England will be playing the USA on the day after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, is a headline writer’s wet dream, the permutations endless no matter what the result. Having Iran in the group adds further spice, not least given we have no idea what the political world will look like by November should the Russia – Ukraine conflict still be raging in some form.
The fourth team in the group will be intriguing whoever it turns out to be. If Ukraine should come through the play-offs, then they will be propelled forward on a tide of global goodwill that could have some real footballing consequences. Should either Scotland or Wales get through, then their potential for tripping up England should not be underestimated.
Neither should Iran for that matter. They topped their qualification group, losing just once in ten games, away to South Korea, conceding only four goals in total, the trademark of a well organised side that’s hard to beat. Their gradual improvement continues and having come within a point of qualifying for the knockout stages last time, they will offer stiff competition.
But let us be optimistic and take England to qualify from the group as winners and the USA, delighted to be back at the top table after the debacle of 2018, to follow on behind – though given England have played two, drawn one, lost one to the US at World Cups, that’s a big assumption.
This is where the crystal ball is required. For the USA, that would likely mean a round of 16 match up with the Netherlands who must be favourites to win Group A. While the Dutch are not a side you would back to emulate the heights of previous World Cups, it’s hard to see Van Gaal’s side falling at the first knockout hurdle, whoever their Group B opponents.
Predicting England’s opponents, should they win their group, is harder, for both Ecuador and Senegal will fancy their chances of qualifying. Ecuador were solid in qualifying, but they don’t travel well, all their best results coming at home. Senegal are the reigning African Cup of Nations champions and repeated their final success from that competition by knocking out Egypt on penalties to reach the World Cup. The African nation looks the more likely but you’d then expect England to cut them down in the round of 16.
It begins to get interesting for England from there because France, the holders, look their likely quarter-final opponents. Undefeated in qualifying, France must have real potential to be the first side to retain the trophy since 1962, though the fact that it hasn’t happened in nearly 60 years only underlines the sheer scale of that task.
Equally, England will be clutching at the omen that 2022 will be the first time they’ve played on the opening day of a World Cup since 1966. The curse of the reigning champions that saw Germany out at the group stage last time – and France themselves in 2002 of course – will take some erasing too, but it’s hard to see the French failing so early this time.
The semi-final will take some getting through too, because that side of the draw will see them lining up against Belgium or Germany, or maybe even Ronaldo on one last crusade with Portugal. In the other half of the draw, Brazil, Argentina or Spain look the most likely side to arrive at the final, with the possibility of a Brazil v Argentina semi-final a prospect to relish.
The truth is of course that so many things can happen in the next seven and a half months to tip the scales one way or another for all the nations. New players might suddenly emerge from nowhere, injury to key men might decimate plans, changes in coaches could alter everything. From this standpoint though, it looks to be the least predictable World Cup in quite some time, and that, at least, is something to look forward to.