211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XIV) – Groups Of Life, Groups Of Death

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This is it then. Starting tomorrow the 32 nations that have been able to rise above the rest of the 211 will begin the 2022 World Cup. All the eyes of the world will be on the group stage, as the limited number of games magnifies every success, every failure, every beautiful bit of skill and every disastrous mistake. More than one of the pools has been dubbed a “group of death”, but there are groups of life also, where teams have the chance to make their dreams and the dreams of everyone watching at home come true. In this entry in the series, we take a look at all eight groups and all 32 teams in turn, as we await the beginning of the tournament.

Part Fourteen: Groups Of Life, Groups Of Death

115. Four Dark Horses: Group A

116. Game For A Re-Match: Group B

117. Almost: Group C

118. High Water Mark: Group D

119. Fallen Giants: Group E

120. Time To Make Good: Group F

121. Ghosts Of World Cups Past: Group G

122. Just Glad To Be Here?: Group H

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115. Four Dark Horses: Group A

(19/11/2022)

Any one of Group A’s teams could be the surprise package of World Cup 2022

In Benjamin Disraeli’s 1830 novel The Young Duke, the titular Duke of St. James attends a race meet that has an unexpected finish: “A dark horse which had never been thought of…rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.” Perhaps Disraeli meant for the reader to take his description of the unlikely victor more literally, but the phrase has since passed into parlance as a means of describing an individual or team who, on paper at least, do not seem likely to make a large impact or claim victory, but for whatever reason might just be able to accomplish such a feat. The term has been used throughout the history of the World Cup to describe a number of varying sides, from 1954’s West Germany to 2018’s Croatia. It just so happens that in 2022 the words could be used to describe any one of the four sides that have been drawn into Group A: four teams that, on the face of it, few would back to go all the way, or even all that far really, but all four of which have the capability of springing what could be the surprise of the cycle.

For Qatar, this is the moment of moments, the end of a 12-year road that began with that oh so controversial awarding of the hosting rights for the tournament. The decade since has been filled with criticism, rancour and no small degree of scorn towards a country whose record on human rights has never convinced when it didn’t simply horrify. It has also been filled with the evidence of a footballing side, once a running joke in their confederation, very much on the rise. The 2019 Asian Cup triumph is evidence enough of the improvements that have been generated in Qatari football in the last decade, but, with the greatest of respect to the AFC’s international show piece, even that must be considered preamble to Qatar’s role on this grander stage.

Long before the hosting confirmation, the Qatari leadership were happy to spend billions on the nations footballing set-up, from state-of-the-art academies to some creative recruitment. Naturally, the eyes of the world have been on a Qatari team that has taken full advantage of FIFA’s eligibility rules as they pertain to “naturalised” players. There were warnings made after a 2015 friendly when six of the stating 11 were born outside Qatar, with players coming from countries in Africa or South America. In fairness to the Qataris that friendly was something of an outlier, and a large proportion of more recent matchday squads have been Qatari by birth or have spent the majority of their lives there. But still, the worry remains that Qatar are an example of a side that have the resources to make up for their shortfalls by parachuting in players from other parts of the world, and thus have an unfair advantage. The evidence for that is in the way the underage sides, and then the senior, have excelled. In 2014, they won the U-19 Asian Cup. In 2018, the U-23’s finished third in their equivalent. And in 2019, the senior side won the Asian Cup, stunning many who had dismissed them before the tournament, and creating a growing suspicion that Qatar’s ability to punch above their weight could not possibly be legitimate. The sides participation in the Copa America, the Gold Cup and as an unofficial extra side in UEFA qualification has also drawn scrutiny, the Qatar senior team getting more opportunities than any other World Cup host to have competitive games in the run-up to the tournament: one suspects such opportunities will not be granted to the 2026 co-hosts. Ala South Korea in 2002, the current squad has been pulled from league duty this year, spending their time playing a long list of friendlies, something other teams in this group are not in a position to do. The results in some of those games – two of their final friendlies before the tournament saw Qatar lose 2-0 to Canada and 3-0 to a Croatian U-23 side, before a more creditable 2-2 draw with Chile – remain a concern, but will it all pay off?

The man behind the side is Felix Sanches, a one-time Barca youth coach who has an intimate history with the Qatari set-up, having managed at several underage levels before taking the senior reins. He leads a team that has racked up an enormous amount of caps over the last few years, and whose decade of preparations now relies on the performances of a few key individuals: Saad Al Sheeb in goal, who has faced an average of 15 shots a game over the last few years; left-back and one-time Asian Footballer Of The Year Abdelkarim Hassan, whose runs forward will be critical; fiery midfielder Abdulaziz Hatem, who will be called upon to provide much of the needed drive in the centre of the park; and, most importantly perhaps, Almoez Ali, the top scorer of the 2019 Asian Cup and 2021 Gold Cup, whose proven ability to find space in the box and nail the back of the net with accurate shots will never be more important. The worries for Sanches will be simply that the side may not have the necessary talent to hang long enough with some of the best teams of Europe, South America and Africa, but it can’t really be argued that Qatar could have done much more over the last few years to prepare. In the run-up to the tournament Sanches has kept the team in strict isolation, and it’s hard to know what kind of side will come out against Ecuador on Sunday.

The point of all this is so Qatar can go into the World Cup with confidence, and come out of it with their heads held high. In terms of practical things that will accomplish that goal, well, getting into the knock-outs would be a start. Qatar wouldn’t be the first host to fail to get beyond the First Round – South Africa gained that unfortunate distinction in 2010 – but such a result would be deemed as a disaster by a country that has invested so much in its football team and in this World Cup, and which needs a good result if it is to shake off the never-ending criticism of the larger football watching public. Qatar, the Asian Champions, are more than capable of getting to the last 16, and the manner in which they are so casually dismissed, described by some as the weakest World Cup host ever, is liable to prove one of their most powerful weapons: a dark horse indeed.

If there should be a favourite for this group, then it really should be the Netherlands. Hell, if you’re talking World Cup contenders, then the Dutch are usually in the conversation. But not this time, not really. The history of the Netherlands in the World Cup is one of tantalising brushes with immortality, in 1974, in 1978 and in 2010, but the current Dutch team is unlikely to go one step further, still appearing to be in the process of arresting a decline, one that started with the disastrous EURO 2016 qualification campaign where they could only finish fourth in a group of six, and then a subsequent failure to make it to Russia 2018. The last eight years is one that has seen a succession of managers, a phasing out of an old guard, the introduction of a new breed and a struggle to retain a position as one of Europe’s pre-eminent teams. Often, it has seemed like a difficult process, with the Netherlands lacking a solid identity or a firm ability to look to the future: evidence of that perhaps is the appointment of Louis van Gaal as manager after the teams unworthy exit at the last 16 stage of EURO 2020 to the unfancied Czech Republic, his third stint as Dutch boss. That said, the Dutch will take it after the stormy waters of Frank de Boer’s time in charge.

Van Gaal’s appointment was surely a sign of the Dutch looking backwards, to memories of their last major tournament run in 2014 when Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Stefan de Vrij all lit up the stage, but for qualification at least the nostalgia factor produced results. After losing their opening game, 4-2 away to Turkey, the Dutch went unbeaten, finishing top of Group G. The highlight was undoubtedly a blistering annihilation of Turkey in Amsterdam, Memphis Depay notching a hat-trick in a 6-1 rout with the team eventually accepting Van Gaal’s insistence on 5-3-2 over the more traditional Dutch 4-3-3. But it was still tight enough: after giving away a two-goal lead to draw in Montenegro on the penultimate matchday, the Dutch needed to beat Norway to clinch automatic qualification They were able to do so, but it took late goals from Steven Bergwijn and Depay to do so. The occasionally stumbling nature of the Dutch qualification performance naturally took on a greater aura when van Gaal was obliged to watch the final match from the stands and take training sessions in a golf cart, owing to an injury sustained after falling from a bicycle. His later reveal of a prostate cancer diagnosis has been similarly unwelcome, but he insists he’s ready and willing to lead the team.

The Netherlands, on paper, look very strong: Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij form one of the most impressive back lines at the tournament, Frenkie de Jong is one of the best in the business playing ahead of such a defence, and Depay rarely under-performs in an orange jersey. But at times the sum of all these parts has added up to less than you would expect, especially when the Dutch face well-drilled opposition unwilling to let them have it all their own way. A concern will surely be the limited playing time that some of the big names, like de Jong and Depay (recovering from injury), are getting for their clubs this season, while others, like van Dijk, have become posterboys for a suggested potential for burnout in a November/December World Cup. A decision on the goalkeeping position, with no-one being especially convincing there recently, must also be made. There does seem to be a stronger team ethic in the Netherlands than we have seen since van Gaal’s last stint in charge, and in the pressure-cooker of a World Cup Finals that could count for a lot.

The Dutch will never accept mediocrity easily, and this return to tournament football is no exception. Even if the rest of the world has little regard for their chances, those who will pack out squares in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven certainly will. Getting out of the group is a bare minimum; a run to the Quarter-Finals might be deemed just about acceptable; in reality the Netherlands faithful expect to go beyond that and into the realm of genuine contenders. It’s hard to envy van Gaal really, or a squad that still doesn’t quite measure up to those that came before. The Dutch may be on the up again, but 2022 is still a step too far in the search for World Cup redemption.

Senegal enter the World Cup with different pressures beyond hosting or history. In many ways, they are the great African hope of these Finals, easily seen as the best side from the CAF contingent, a side with an immense sporting ethos and potentially the only one with the talent and the capability to go as far – or farther – than any African side that has come before. They do so on the back of their breakthrough triumph at the 2021 AFCON, the first major trophy won by a side who have been one of Africa’s best for many decades now. The leadership of Aliou Cisse, after some stumbles, has thus far proved very productive and if the scenes in Dhakar when that victorious team returned from Cameroon are anything to go by, he and his side have bought themselves about as much good will as they can. But that could all be squandered very quickly, as it very nearly was during qualification.

For them, most of qualification was a breeze. In CAF’s Second Round they dropped points just once, in a draw away to Togo, and only one other side in that whole round scored more. A full eight ahead of second place, Senegal’s position in the decisive play-offs was assured long before the end of that section of play. But that play-off brought the stand-out tie, in a re-match with the beaten AFCON Finalist Egypt, a game that attracted huge international attention owing to the perceived showdown of two of Liverpool’s best players in Sadio Mané and Mohamad Salah. They were two tension-filled contests, low on chances but awash with dread: it’s possible that Senegal’s comparatively easy ride before then might have been to their detriment. It was important to remember that Senegal, despite being Africa’s best side, had little World Cup pedigree, qualifying only twice. A narrow 1-0 loss in Cairo was followed by a narrow 1-0 victory in Dhakar: with dozens of spectators helping out with the use of laser pointers, Senegal went on to win the resulting penalty shoot-out and insure their first ever consecutive qualification to a Finals.

Cisse has had a squad bursting with talent for years now, and it can be argued that they should be operating at the peak of their powers: a spine that contains names like Mendy, Koulibaly, Gueye, Kouyaté and Mané is nothing to underestimate. It’s that stability and continuity in management – even if Cisse is frequently described as a dictator – and squad make-up that could be the real X-factor. The side are defensively very solid, having last conceded more than a single goal over two years ago, though you have to balance the remarkability of that feat with the reality that Senegal haven’t played anyone from outside their confederation in the same time frame, other than recent pre-tournament friendlies. Other issues include an injury that has forced first choice keeper Mendy out of the team, a doping ban for winger Keita Balde and the iffy form of Mané for new club Bayern Munich this season. That was all before Mane suffered a serious injury shortly before the tournament: Song included him in the squad, but he has now been belatedly ruled out. His absence could be key.

After winning the AFCON, and after the extremely strong few years they have demonstrated overall, for Senegal progression to the knockout stages is fully expected. From there, an effort to match their 2002 heroics would not be too far away from becoming a reality. And from there, who knows? No African side has ever made it as far as the Semi-Finals: I’m not sure that Senegal are the team to beat that curse, but they are the most likely of the 2022 crop to do it. With the belief that comes with success and the desire driven by a fanatical home support, this is a dark horse with more than enough in them to upset form books and ruin someone else’s Finals.

For Ecuador, the World Cup has become more than just the opportunity to make the very best out of an exciting group of players, it’s an opportunity to move past the danger that they might not make it there after qualification was over. The legal saga surrounding the registration of defender Byron Castillo was an unfortunate blight on the Summer and early Autumn as far as Ecuador were concerned, with Chile’s complaint about the player – they alleged he was representing Ecuador on the basis of a forged passport, having actually been born in Colombia – dragging on and garnering much international media attention. Rumours that Ecuador were going to get thrown out of the competition, to be replaced by one of Chile, Peru or maybe even Italy as the highest ranked side not to qualify, became widespread in early June, and continued on though appeals, but it all eventually came to naught: Castillo had been declared an Ecuadorian by Ecuadorian courts, and it isn’t FIFA’s job to rule on players’ nationality, only their eligibility. The entire affair has been a serious distraction for La Tri, but at least they had plenty of time to re-adjust ahead of the Finals, and to attempt to recreate the kind of spark that saw them be a major force in the early stages of CONMEBOL qualification.

Ecuador lost their opening qualification game, away to Argentina, and then went on a roll. Uruguay were eviscerated first, their two late goals putting some gloss on a 4-2 scoreline created by aggressive Ecuadorian attacking. A rare away win in Bolivia followed, then an utter annihilation of Colombia, 6-1 in Quito. But if this burst of attractive football and better results stoked interest, the slump that followed did the same for all the wrong reasons, coming amid the COVID pandemic, several managerial changes and a raft of departures within the leadership of the EFF. Following a not unexpected reverse in Brazil, Ecuador stumbled repeatedly, failing to beat Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay in a run where they took only eight points from a possible 21. Wins against Venezuela and Chile later in the campaign kept them on track, as did a hard-fought point won against a visiting Brazil in January of this year, those results coming either side of a desperately poor Copa America campaign where Ecuador failed to win a game. They hit further roadblocks repeatedly at the end of the journey, taking just two points in their last three games, and very reliant on home form. In the end Ecuador had a two-point cushion in the automatic qualification places, but the memory of the side that, pre-COVID, seemed like they could be conquering all before them had been largely banished. What was left was a team that showcased inconsistency and bad results leading to more of the same.

Head coach Gustavo Alfaro has bet on friendlies and training camps in Spanish climes to help prepare his squad, and in a positive ethos and team spirit he has been at pains to play up. The veterans include the forward duo of Enner Valencia and Ángel Mena, leading a number of exciting young players behind: among them Valladolid’s Gonzalo Plata on the wing, Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo dictating things in the middle and Bayer Leverkusen’s Piero Hincapié in the centre of defence, when he isn’t bombing forward like a man on a mission. Indeed, Ecuador will be relying a lot on youth over experience, with the South Americans fielding the youngest selection of the 32 Finalists. That might be the Achilles Heel, aside from occasional struggles to perform as well going forward as they do in defence: this might all end up as preparation for a planned stronger showing in 2026, when the squad is older, wiser and more accomplished. One person not in Qatar is the aforementioned Castillo, the Ecuadorian FA choosing to bar his selection to avoid further controversy: something Alfaro, whose preferred line-ups are quite stingy at the back, was very unhappy about.

It is difficult to put a precise definition on the expectations that Ecuador should have. The work done at underage levels and on re-vitialising the club game in Ecuador has been stellar, and this current generation of international players is one of the first major results of that process. But it might be a case that they are yet too young, and need a few cycles under their belt before really making good. If they get everything right and the squad clicks, they certainly have the potential to not only ease out of this group, but to make a deep run into the tournament proper, one that could exceed their longest run of the Second Round back in 2006. If they play more like they did in the second half of qualification, they could be candidates for bottom of the group. Discovering which Ecuador shows up to Group A is going to be one of the most interesting outcomes of this World Cup.

All four sides have the chance to get out of this group. Going even further, all four sides have the chance to make it one, or even two steps more, if they were to play to the very highest water-mark of their ability. Write off any of them at your peril. Qatar have the rub of the green that hosts tend to get and years of preparation, the Dutch have their always talented squads and legacy, Senegal have loads of confidence to go with their generational squad and Ecuador have proven they can light the pitch up when the need requires. Every last one of them is a dark horse in the making, but only two will fulfil that tag: Group A may very well be one of the most fascinating in the history of the World Cup.

116. Game For A Re-Match: Group B

(19/11/2022)

A lot of history, memories and opportunities.

It is inevitable, in the course of a tournament that has as long a history as the World Cup has, that we get re-matches. Indeed, we’re going to get re-matches upon re-matches when you get right down to it. Occasionally, we will also get a group that through the vagaries of fate, allows us the chance to get more than one such re-match, with the pressures and tension that came standard with any World Cup suddenly added to by the weight of history and memory, good or bad. Group B, containing within it some of the very best teams from their respective confederations, is one such group.

Funny to say for a side that reached the last four in 2018, and the final of EURO 2020, but England come into Qatar 2022 under something of a cloud. Results over the last year have tended more towards the uninspiring than anything else, with a 4-0 reverse in London to Hungary, relegation from the top tier of the Nations League, and the example provided by the successful women’s team, stacking the pressure on Gareth Southgate to right the ship and deliver a men’s tournament success 56 years on from the last. To do so they will have to get past a team they have faced twice before at this level in the United States. They will hope for a different outcome than those two matches. The first was the famous 1950 defeat to Joe Gaetjens goal, regarded as the greatest underdog victory in World Cup history: the English, competing in their first ever Finals and confident of a success, were ambushed by a well-drilled American side roared on by 10’000 Brazilians, and were largely eliminated on the back of the reverse. 60 years later the two came together again in South Africa, where, the infamous predictions of English tabloids be damned, the United States ground out a 1-1 draw, Clinton Dempsey cancelling out Steven Gerard’s opener thanks largely to a terrible error from Robert Greene in the English goal. Both results can be seen as a sign of doom for those respective generations of English teams: the 1950 side were just a few years away from having their entire identity called into question by Hungary, while the 2010 golden generation would very soon be shown up by a rampant Germany. Should a similar loss of points occur this time, it would be hard not to imagine a similar moment of incoming doom.

For the Three Lions, qualification was a routine event. Two draws, to Poland and Hungary, constituted the only dropped points, with a final day 10-0 scoreline over San Marino just the last example of England’s dominance. There were a few moments when Southgate’s charges rode their luck a bit, like the very late Harry Maguire strike that secured victory over Poland at Wembley, but for the most part Group I was marked by thumping’s of lower seeds and besting of the others. Coming amid the EURO 2020 campaign, England’s route through the group emphasised the seeming strength of the squad, now maturing to the point of being not just credible contenders, but among the favourites. It’s the form since that 10-0 thrashing that will have people concerned, with England winning just three points from 18 in their Nations League group, among the reverses that embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Hungary.

Despite all of the good work done over the last few years, England’s recent form – they haven’t won a game in six ahead of the Finals – has heaped the pressure on Southgate, and bar a second World Cup triumph his time might well be up. Question marks remain over the centre of the defence in particular, with Southgate much maligned over his continued faith in Harry Maguire, a man very much on the periphery at his club, and with his continued hesitance to play Trent Alexander-Arnold. The refrain of “Attack, attack, attack” from fans frustrated with his conservative attitude will probably be heard more than once. But it’s hard to look at the kind of players England have to hand – Kane, Mount, Foden, and that’s just the offence – and not conclude that they have a serious chance to win the World Cup. Much attention will be on 19-year-old Jude Bellingham in midfield, as the next superstar-in-the-making.

England historically have come into these tournaments with warped expectations, seeking to lift the trophy and falling short in various circumstances. But, on this occasion, such expectations cannot be so easily dismissed. This is a side that came reasonably close to 2018, and very close last year. While recent form is a concern, it would be an unwise person who would write-off the English before the tournament started, with a very winnable group lying before them. A deep run into the knockout stages is the least that the rabid fanbase will tolerate, and a failure to finally end the “years of hurt” may well do for Southgate.

The United States, returned to this stage again after the 2018 disaster, will obviously be thinking a lot about the challenge presented by England, which will be a real test of where they, and North American football in general, is at the minute. The legacy of those two previous matches won’t be forgotten either. But the truth is that a lot of American attention will be on a very different World Cup re-match. It was 24 years ago that one of the best American squads ever assembled, the side that had beaten Brazil in the Gold Cup earlier that year, came face-to-face with Iran in Lyon. It was one of the best games of the 1998 tournament, and maybe the World Cup in general: an attack-focused back-and-forth affair whose political edge – both in terms of the geopolitical rivalry of the nations concerned, and the Iranian protestors who littered the stands of the Stade de Gerland that night – made the whole affair entrancing. Iran’s victory, 2-1, also insured the game would go down in history, as the moment when Iran one-upped their great rivals and sent the first golden generation of America soccer packing from a tournament they had serious ambitions of going far in. Things are, perhaps, less acrimonious between the two countries nowadays, but only just: the match, when it comes on the 29th November, is bound to have much of the same edge, interest and entrancing nature as that which took place in France.

For America, qualification was less straightforward than they would like, the memory of what occurred in the 2018 cycle the kind of thing that was never very far from minds. And they came alarmingly close to repeating that catastrophe, dropping points to nearly everyone in the Third Round Octagon group, and being over reliant on their home form: they would end up getting 19 of their 25 points in a variety of American stadiums, some of them picked deliberately to inconvenience visiting Central American sides with cold temperatures. In the end, four points picked up over Mexico, and three from Costa Rica, were the critical ones to allow the United States to scrape over the line on goal difference, albeit they were also only three points from top spot. But only four years removed from the lowest moment in their history, this new young team had done the necessaries.

Like England, the centre of defence is a tricky area for Gregg Berhalter to decide upon, with numerous options to partner the vital presence of Walker Zimmerman, not all of them very popular with fans. Not that attack should be ignored either: the United States drawing a blank against Saudi Arabia in their last pre-tournament friendly in September will be a concern regards the likes of Christian Pulisic, on whom the US will be very reliant for goals. American form seems to be dipping at just the wrong time, and they will need to be at a much improved level for their opener against Wales: perhaps an ask that might be beyond one of the youngest squads at the tournament, who may well be looking more to 2026.

But having gotten back to the top table, the people behind American soccer will not be willing to rest on their laurels. Ahead of a co-hosting of the tournament where they will surely once again be making noises about being potential winners, they will want a return to the days when US involvement in the knock-out stages was routine, and perhaps even an effort to match their greatest ever result in the modern era when they reached the last eight in 2002. A positive result against the English will go a long way towards that goal, but so would a manner of revenge achieved against Iran for the game where it all went wrong in 1998. It’s a tough enough group though, so some tempering of expectations – never very likely, given who we are talking about – might not be the worst thing.

The other half of that fateful match in 1998, Iran, probably hold that moment much higher in their collective memories. It certainly has the feel of a modern high-water mark for a side whose last real period of success came in the 1970s and who, despite consistently being among the higher-ranked of Asian nations, have only won a single World Cup Finals game since (against Morocco in 2018). The side that beat the Americans in Lyon seemed like the kind of attack-minded, brave and gutsy team that could make a serious mark on world football, but a 3rd Place finish in the 2004 Asian Cup is as much as Iran have been able to do since. 2022 allows for the chance to create newer, better memories, and to demonstrate that they have more in them than just being the kind of squad good for one result and nothing more.

Qualification was mostly routine this time around. AFC’s Second Round passed with six wins and top spot in their group, with only a famous loss to Iraq, a game marred by protests over Iran’s political interference in that country, and a more unexpected reverse to Bahrain, there to spoil the record. The phase was marked by an aggregate 24-0 win in two games against Cambodia. Onto the Third Round, and there things were even more straightforward, Iran dropping just five points, all to South Korea, and still finishing ahead of them by two. Iran were the most consistent side in this AFC cycle, and their qualification for Qatar never seemed in serious doubt.

Less solid has been stability in management. Changes in the IFF saw Dragon Skocic relieved of his position early in September in dubious circumstances: it has been alleged that pressure from on high for Iran to be coached by an Iranian did for him. The backlash was enough that Skocic was briefly re-instated, then replaced by Carlos Queiroz, back for another go, having led Iran at the last two World Cups. He has little more than two months to fashion a side that can make a go of this World Cup and a couple of friendly games where, to their credit, Iran have performed well, adapting quickly to the old 4-1-4-1 employed before. For the Finals Queiroz will have to rely a lot on the established veterans of the side to bring continuity and performance: Sardar Azmoun of Bayer Leverkusen and Porto’s Mehdi Taremi upfront, Ahmad Nourollahi and Alireza Jahanbakhsh in the middle (where Iran look especially short of players), captain Ehsan Hajsafi in the heart of defence and Alireza Beiranvand in goal. Coming into the tournament on the back of major protests at home over the treatment of women, protests where Team Melli have taken a part, the pressure is on to give the country something worth cheering for.

No matter how good this squad have been in qualifying, they still come into the World Cup Finals the favourites to finish in the wooden spoon spot of Group B, and to stretch an unwanted run of five tournament appearances without a knockout match. But Iran have shown they can get results at this stage before, and make things difficult when they are not able to: it wouldn’t take too much more for them to be propelled into a higher tier. A repeat of 1998 would be just the ticket to forward that cause, and they have enough in them to perhaps spring a shock against either one of England or Wales. That’s what the rabid home support will be looking to happen anyway, long starved now of meaningful international success. A place in the last 16 would certainly be that

In amidst all this talk of fateful re-matches and entire eras being signified by a single 90 minutes of football against one adversary, Wales might be considered the odd man out. They’ve played all three of their World Cup opponents before, though never at a World Cup: Iran were dispatched in a 1978 friendly, the US beat them in 2003 then drew a game two years ago and Wales have had over a hundred run-ins with their eastern neighbours, most recently in a 3-0 friendly defeat a few years ago. Amid all of these encounters the EURO 2016 Finals game with England, where Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions escaped a scare to get out of Lens with a hard fought 2-1 victory, stands out the most, and there are few in Welsh football who will not relish the opportunity of taking another crack at the English in a major tournament setting. But other than that Wales will be focused very much on themselves, and of making good on their first World Cup Finals appearance in 64 years

Facing accusations that the best generation of Welsh footballers ever had seen their apogee come and go, this was a crucial qualification cycle for the Dragons. Early results painted a bleak enough picture: getting out played in Brussels in a 3-1 defeat, just about getting past the Czechs at home, then needing a 93rd minute goal to put Belarus away in Minsk. When Wales had to settle for a scoreless home draw with Estonia with just four games to play after, home supporters would have had a right to feel worried. But they came good: a point in Prague, a 5-1 thrashing of Belarus and a stalemate with Belgium on the last day assured second spot in the group and a good seeding for the play-offs. Austria were dispatched first, Gareth Bale scoring twice in a 2-1 win where the narrow score line belied Wales’ dominance. Then the neutral favourite in Ukraine, with Bale’s deflected free kick enough to break their hearts and end the wait for World Cup qualification. It wasn’t pretty a lot of the time, but Wales delivered when they needed to most, and ended that long, long wait.

If Wales has one thing going for it, it is experience: the core of the team in goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, defenders Chris Gunter and Ben Davies, midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, and forward Bale have over 500 caps between them, and thus can rarely be considered to be easily rattled. A concern is over some of those bigger names, with Bale in Los Angeles and Ramsey in Nice struggling for game time this season, and no spring chickens besides. Injury worries abound, and Wales will struggle to fill gaps if they appear: moreover, if Bale doesn’t perform, as he sometimes fails to do, then they may well be sunk (at the same time such a scenario could allow the likes of Neco Williams the chance to solidify themselves as Wales’ next top star). Recent form, where Wales laboured against big names like Belgium on their way to relegation in the Nations League, will need to be dispelled quickly. But they have proven they can do it before.

The peril facing many teams that have just ended a lengthy wait for this kind of position is that thy consider the job already done, with anything that occurs in the Finals just a bonus. Wales’ World Cup experience will be defined by how they react to that kind of thinking, and whether they will be able to rally themselves for the kind of challenge that England, the United States and Iran represent. There will be no easy points on offer from any of them, but Wales won’t be giving up anything too easily either. They’ve waited too long for that. A place in the last 16 is the minimum expected from them, with anything less liable to be seen as a disappointing close to a generation of players that is going downwards more quickly than they would like.

Whenever Group B has concluded, the annals of World Cup history, and that of these four teams, will have a great deal more to add. England seek to make good at the third attempt against the United States, both the United States and Iran are well-aware of how pregnant a moment it will be when they face each other, and Wales will be looking to leave a better account of themselves then they gave previously. Those re-matches will all be critical, and this is one group that is genuinely hard to call: whomever can shrug off the results of games past and forge a new legacy will be best placed to advance.

117. Almost: Group C

(19/11/2022)

Tantalisingly close.

World Cups tend to be full of nearly men. Only eight sides have actually won one. Only five more have made it to a Final. Only 11 more than that have made it to a Semi-Final. A good few others have the honour of making it to various knock-out stages, and then a great deal more have had to make do with just an appearance in the opening rounds. Then there are those who were able to make it to the top of the mountain a very long time ago and have spent the reminder of their history scrambling to reach that height once again, unsuccessfully. Group C is a pool that contains four teams that, all in different ways, could be described as nearly men, the ones for whom every World Cup is an effort to echo former glories or to reach beyond their own demonstrated ceilings of accomplishment. So far, those efforts have been summed up by the word “almost”. Can 2022 prove different for any of them?

On the face of it, not much has really changed for Argentina since 2018. The squad, on paper, hasn’t really evolved much, Messi has gotten older. And yet, expectations well remain high in Buenos Aires, as Argentina enter a World Cup Finals on the back of both their first Copa triumph in 28 years, and an unbeaten qualification campaign. Many would have been forgiven for thinking that the 2014 runner-up spot represented as far as an Argentina including Messi was likely to get, as over-reliant on their star man that they were and as weighed down by the name and era of Diego Maradona. 2018 was a tournament to forget in many ways, Argentina struggling to reach the knockouts, and dispatched quickly when they did. But somehow, from those disappointments and low ebbs, Argentina have managed to fashion a side for 2022 that simply has to be considered among the contenders.

Given the drama of their 2018 qualifying near-miss, Argentina’s run for 2022 was remarkably straightforward. The side will be somewhat disappointed with the six draws that came with their 17-match unbeaten run, and with the ridiculous manner in which their away tie with Brazil was called off minutes into the game: probably the standout incident of the campaign if we’re being honest. But they certainly will have been happy with the ease and early nature of securing that Finals berth, with Messi and company able to spend the last few matchdays at their ease, getting to just watch the scramble for places behind them, the work long done beforehand. Of course they didn’t hit the summit in qualifying – though of course they did in the Copa held in the middle of it all – so there is always room for improvement.

Lionel Scaloni has long since gotten used to his squad, having led them on a 36-match unbeaten run (the record is 37) at this point: he knows who works, and who doesn’t, a marked contrast to the chaos of previous head coach’s who struggled to manage the squad and home expectations. Messi remains the talisman, but it has been genuinely rare that he has had the chance to lead the line of an Argentina squad this all-round good, with a solid defence that allowed only eight goals in 17 qualifying games and a plethora of attacking options to help him out. That is, if they are fit: Ángel Di María and Paulo Dybala are among those operating from recent injury recovery, and Messi has had his own muscle issues so far this season. But if playing and if on form, the spine of Argentina’s current side is enough to make any opponent they are liable to face in 2022 worry. There is a peace and sense of stability that hasn’t been there in a long time.

Expectations in Argentina will always be as high as memories of Maradona. Indeed, given this is the first World Cup since his passing, and comes on the back of a continental triumph, it’s probable that many people in Argentina expect nothing less than a third World Cup crown. Those outside the country with a more realistic viewpoint will expect a deep run, perhaps as far as the Semi-Finals, but will stop short of thinking that an aging Messi is capable of matching up to European sides whose strength in depth dwarfs that of South American teams. Still, anything less than a victory will be deemed another “almost” in a country as football mad as any.

For Mexico, it can only be a case of “this time, please”. If there is “Almost” in World Cup history to beat all others, El Tri have a hand on the title, tortuously stuck at getting to the last 16 and never any further. For a nation as utterly football obsessed as Mexico, it is a state of affairs that is simply intolerable, and any further extension of it is liable to have fans back at home tearing their hair out at the cosmic injustice of it. The idea of winning the tournament is a distant echo of a dream: just getting beyond the Second Round would be a victory of enormous proportions. Until they do, it will seem as if Mexican football is forever stuck when it comes to the international game, at a time when they have perhaps never had as much competition just to be top dog in North America.

Getting to the World Cup has never been the problem, albeit Mexico have cut it close on occasion. This current cycle saw them caught up in a tightly wound race, with away losses to main rivals the US and unlikely success story Canada their two defeats going along with eight wins and four draws against the rest of North America. The final table perhaps looked closer than it really was, but it was a campaign where Mexico were dependent for most of their points against the lesser lights, a reflection perhaps of a certain stagnation in Mexican football of late. The victories tended to be narrow, and sometimes goals were hard to come by. But the legacy of their appearances at the big stage – only three times have they failed to do so when they actually competed – remains strong, and it was rare when people genuinely thought Mexico were in danger of not getting to Qatar.

The need for goals will not have been helped by the ligament injury that has left Sevilla’s Tecatito Corona, one of Mexico’s most consistently used forward options recently, at home, or the groin pull suffered by Wolves’ Raul Jimenez. The rest of the squad is among the most experienced in Qatar, with multiple players at their fifth World Cup, but it is generally agreed that the current incarnation of El Tri might be the weakest of that time period, with too many aging stalwarts and not enough in terms of star power. Pre-tournament friendlies were mixed: a win against Peru was followed by a capitulation against Colombia, showcasing the inconsistency in form that has marked Mexico’s year. With the latter came coming with a stoppage over homophobic chanting from the home fans, it seems more clear than ever that Mexico could do with a good news story on the field.

No more “almost” sentiment is going to be readily accepted in Mexico. Getting to the fifth game: that is the expectation, as it has been for decades at this point, with the goal of a Quarter-Final berth more than enough to placate fans if it were to be attained. To do so they will face tough opposition, in the group and potentially against the defending champions or one of the form sides of recent years in Denmark if they make it to the Second Round. But the identity of the opposition no longer matters. All that does is quinto partido. A Mexican management and team that could get that far would be among the most praised in the footballing history of that nation: the knives are sharpened and ready if they fail to do so.

Poland are in a different place. They can be a strangely forgotten side when it comes to determining contenders, but they have had one of the surprisingly strong teams of Europe for many years now, a claim bolstered by the sheer consistent quality offered upfront by Robert Lewandowski. When he plays, the sum of Poland’s parts seems like an enormous number. When he doesn’t, they are still a tough team to break down and beat, but perhaps much less likely to hit the front foot. He’s not the first talisman to lead a Polish side to glory that has subsequently been largely forgotten: one thinks of the Grzegors Lato-inspired Polish side of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, that finished third in two World Cups but has never really garnered the same kind of laurels as other contemporary teams, like Cryuff’s Dutch for example, that didn’t achieve much more really. A succession of dud appearances at tournaments since – their last three showings have ended at the group stage – perhaps explains why Poland never seen to feature very high in people’s estimations when it comes to World Cups. 2022 is likely to be Lewandowski’s last tournament, as the 34-year-old can’t be expected to prop his nation up much longer. As such, it’s easy to view 2022 as a case of Poland almost being out of time with their current generation and arguably their best ever player, if they want to make a World Cup splash to rival those that came before.

It was a difficult qualifying for Poland in some respects, in a group that contained a stand-out side in England and numerous combative teams eager to have a bite out of Poland in Albania and Hungary. Lewandowski was needed to rescue a draw in a thrilling 3-3 opener in Budapest, and scored twice more as Poland laboured to a win over minnows San Marino. But an injury to the star man then exposed Polish shortcomings, a partial factor at least in a critical loss to England. His return heralded better times, and a snatched late draw at home to England and six points against the Albanians was enough to insure a final day loss to Hungary in Warsaw could be dismissed as a non-factor. Drawn against Russia for the play-offs, Poland were among the first countries to publicly avow that they would refuse to take to the field against such opponents in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion, and when Russia was excluded Poland went straight into a single do-or-die match with Sweden. Lewandowski was again on the mark to set things going with a fine strike, Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski added a second and that was all that was needed. Form since then has been iffy, with a 6-1 humiliation in Brussels during the Nations League raising a lot of eyebrows at home.

While I have mentioned Lewandowski repeatedly, Czeslaw Michniewicz – only head coach since the start of the year, on whom the jury remains very much out – will be looking for others to provide spark in other areas of the pitch. Matty Cash will need to be at his best racing forward from full back to whip in crosses, as will Arkadiusz Milik as a supplement to Lewandowski upfront and Piotr Zielinski in midfield. Having tried a multitude of formations in his few games in charge, Michniewicz will be under a lot of pressure to find the best system fast when the Finals start, and that tie with Argentina will be a critical sign of just where Poland are.

Getting out of the group would probably be enough for Poland, given that it would represent their best World Cup since 1986. But one senses that they are capable of more than that, would be dissatisfied with just a spot in the knockouts, and consider anything less a total disaster. To have a player of the talent of Lewandowski and be relegated to picking up scraps amid the bottom half of World Cup rankings is not something that any self-respecting Poland fan will deem acceptable. But whether the team are capable of avoiding such a fate, again, remains to be seen.

Saudi Arabia have a different perspective on this group, their appearances in the World Cup, and the idea of “almost”. In 1994 they made it to the Second Round on the back of famous and impressive wins over Belgium and Morocco, but in their four Finals appearances since they have managed to win only a single game, and that was a meaningless finale after elimination. There have been some embarrassing setbacks in that time, like the 8-0 demolition they suffered at the hands of Germany in 2002, or the five goals conceded against the hosts in 2018. Saudi Arabia are a side that are consistently among the heavy hitters of the AFC, but when it comes to tournament Finals – and recent showings in the AFC Cup back the assertion up – they find themselves out of their depth and easy prey for those teams looking for a handy three points. Anyone with a rational mindset will look at Group C and think that much the same will happen again. This is a side for whom “almost” means being good enough to get to the dance, but being a joke at it.

Their qualification was straightforward. 20 points from a possible 24 saw them top the first group stage in the AFC: twin victories over second seed Uzbekistan were especially impressive, with the results helping to condemn that nation to an unfulfillment of potential some, like myself, thought would propel them to the Finals for the first time. The second group stage was arguably just as straightforward: 23 points from a possible 30 saw the Saudis ease to World Cup qualification. In all this, a 2-0 away loss to Japan was the only time Saudi Arabia were defeated. Whether it was picking up points in tricky away ties to lower seeds or defeating bigger names in Jeddah, it is safe to say that this qualification cycle was a doddle for the Saudis, and has perhaps raised expectations that they may be in a position to perform better at a Finals for the first time since 1994.

The biggest concern for Herve Renard is probably the defence, with the Saudis leaking goals in pre-tournament friendlies. Considering the names that defence will be up against at the Finals, they will need to be playing out of their skins, and a 0-0 draw with the United States in late September gives hope in that regard: Abdulelah Al Amri and Ali Al-Bulaihi were the key men in that instance. But there has also been a shortage of goals scored at the other end as well, with just four in the last 11 games played up to October: Fahad Al-Muwallad is the one to watch in that regard. Renard and the Saudis have the advantage of having played a number of friendly games in the weeks ahead of the tournament, something their opposite numbers in Group C will not have been able to do as much, so lack of game time together cannot be taken as an excuse if they fall short.

For all of the hopes that their qualification campaign would have engendered, it is still hard to foresee Saudi Arabia making a big splash in this tournament. Doing so would essentially necessitate getting out of the group, and to realistically do that they would need a win and a draw against the South American champions, a side that has made getting to the last 16 routine and one of the stronger mid-tier teams of Europe. It is a huge ask of a squad that only gets to face this kind of opposition once every four years, if even that. But they might well be worth at least one shock, even if it is just a snatched draw against an unwary opponent who should know better.

To be an “almost” team, to be nearly men, is perhaps the worst thing that can occur to a World Cup finalist. The complexes that can result when a one-time giant struggles to regain former heights, when a team is unable to get past a certain stage no matter how many times they try, when a side fails to make good of a fine generation of players or when they are unable to translate continental success into global triumph, these are the things that can come to define players, squads, nations. For at least two of the teams in Group C, the word of “almost” will continue to haunt their footsteps, and it might well for the other two as well. Or maybe, just maybe, one of these teams, or more than one, will be able to banish it forever. We shall see.

118. High Water Mark: Group D

(19/11/22)

Can they reach any higher than this?

For some teams, the World Cup is about disappointment, either when they fail to get to it, or when they fail to do anything especially noteworthy in it. For others, the World Cup is all about the apogee: the moment when an international side reaches the zenith of its powers and performs the most magnificent feats of its existence. Group D is a pool that contains four teams that one can either say have reached a high water mark or are trying very hard to get to that point: Qatar 2022 will be a crucible for all of them, where apogees are reached or rediscovered, or become manifest as unattainable.

Our defending World Cup champions are France, who stormed to their second triumph so memorably in Russia four years ago. Discussions remain ongoing as to whether the current side of Pogba, Griezmann and Benzema are a match or excel in comparison to the 1998 side of Deschamps, Petit and Zidane. The latter went on to claim the double of World and European titles in 2000, something that has eluded the current side, dumped out of EURO 2020 on penalties by Switzerland in probably the most extraordinary game of that tournament. Winning a second World Cup in a row, a feat accomplished only twice in the history of the tournament, would probably settle the debate. But is it a case that the 2018 winning team has only improved and matured in the interim, or are they already looking up in envy at a high water mark they are no longer able to attain? Recent form has been decidedly iffy: are they capable of doing it all over again?

The new mandatory nature of holders qualification has raised the spectre of a defending champion not getting the chance to actually defend their crown since it was brought into being in 2002, but France never seemed in danger of falling victim to such a hypothetical. Only second seed Ukraine – with whom they shared two 1-1 draws – and another draw at home to an Edin Dzeko-inspired Bosnia and Herzegovina, were able to dent France’s World Cup aspirations, in a qualification group marked by mostly workmanlike victories (not withstanding a late 8-0 demolition of Kazakhstan, Kylian Mbappe scoring four times). Never unduly troubled, it can be said that France have yet to face a major World Cup related test in this cycle.

Leaving aside the cheat code in human form named Mbappe, France have undoubtedly faced the unwelcome headache of multiple injury issues in the lead up to the Finals, with Benzema, Kante, Lucas, Lloris, Varane and Pogba among those dealing with injuries or recently dealing with them, with Kante and Pogba confirmed as not travelling. A perception that various off-field problems, especially with the French FA, are distracting key players has also emerged. Deschamps sets his teams out to wear down opponents in battles of attrition, and if it doesn’t get the required goals and results, frustration is liable to set in quickly. For all the outstanding showings of the last 25 years, there are plenty of examples of French sides falling to pieces under pressure, and with so many big names out or not fully fit, this could be a difficult one for Les Blues. The winners curse hangs over them as well: not since 2006 has a defending champion made it out of the following group stage, though France still seemed well-placed to break the cycle.

Still, there is only one expectation in France, and that is that they will be leaving Qatar in December on the back of their third World Cup triumph. The idea that they will fail to do so is anathema to a country that is still enjoying the fruits of a fine generation of footballing talent, and which must consider the events of EURO 2020 a freakish aberration. Going out in the knock-outs would be considered a bad return, a group stage exit a catastrophe. It is win, win, win, and win only. The high water mark is still within reach, and can still be exceeded. But to do so France will have to get their house in order.

The previous ascent of Denmark was undoubtedly their shock win of EURO 1992, a stunning comeback for a side that hadn’t even qualified for the tournament on the field of play. Since then Danish sides have ebbed and flowed, always good enough to provide a substantial challenge, but never good enough to ever be considered actual contenders for anything. But now, in this cycle, to treat them as anything other than contenders arguably flies in the face of what the team has been able to achieve over the last few years. Denmark want a new high water mark, and they want to leave the increasingly ancient memory of 1992 behind: the most unexpected World Cup triumph in the history of the competition would undoubtedly supply that.

The Danes’ campaign to get to Qatar was almost all conquering. Only on the last day, long after they had secured their place at the Finals, did they drop points to a more motivated Scotland: other than that it was nine straight wins, and 30 goals scored to three conceded. In the middle, they found a way to get past a disastrous start to their EURO 2020 campaign, marked by two defeats and a life-threatening heart issue suffered by Christian Eriksen, to make it to the last four. They could have gone further, but were undone by Gareth Southgate’s England only in extra time. Regardless of that disappointment, these have been halcyon days for the Danish, and they rightfully enter Qatar as one of the most in-form sides in Europe.

A triumphant Nations League skewering of France in September showcased how far Denmark has come, with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings in midfield to a wonderful effect. If he remains on-form, then he could prove as devastating a weapon for Denmark as Luka Modric was for Croatia four years ago. A bigger concern might simply be playing time for the really important members of the team, with Simon Kjaer, Andreas Christensen and Thomas Delaney among those struggling to play regularly for their clubs. But going by the nations form recently, the defence is solid, the attack is prodigious, their ability to change formations at need is unmatched and the team ethic seems incredibly strong. Where are the weakpoints?

Expectations in Denmark could probably not be higher, higher than they even were for the side in the aftermath of 1992. Having made it to the Semi-Finals of Europe, it will be felt that a similar aspiration on the global stage is not unreasonable. It will not be all that easy: first getting out of a group that has a tricky third and fourth seed, then managing what is likely to be an exceptional Second Round side, and then beyond. But this is a Danish team that has proved they can handle the worst kind of adversity and they can put on a good run through tournaments. Beating France in that Nations League game showcases a team ready once again for the pinnacle. For them, destiny very much awaits.

For some teams, the concept of glory days can seem strange. For Tunisia, it’s undoubtedly the period between 2002 and 2008, when the Roger Lemelle managed side won their first and only AFCON and qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Given the amount of time Tunisia has regularly spent at the top of African rankings, and the number of quality players they have been able to put on the field over the last 20 years – Radhi Jaidi, Issam Jemaa and Wahbi Khazri spring to mind – such a return may seem small to the point of being embarrassing. For Tunisia it was a truly happy time, but the myriad of tournament and qualification failures since points to a side that has become too comfortable with its lot, and seems unable to really push itself at the critical moments. Their 2018 Finals performance, where they failed to defend their way to a draw against England, got walloped by the Belgians and then beat Panama in a dead rubber, is just the most recent example. This is a side whose high water mark looks increasingly distant, and increasingly unlikely to be reached again soon. But still, they are in Qatar

The first part of Tunisia’s qualification journey was straightforward enough, with only one loss, away to Equatorial Guinea, denying them a unbeaten run through CAF’s Second Round. The problem was more with goals, with the Eagles struggling to get the ball in the net through the latter part of 2021 and the early part of 2022. Perhaps because of that the second part of qualification was far more tough, with Tunisia scraping out of Mali’s Stade to 26 Mars with a 1-0 lead courtesy of an own goal, and then settling for a tense 0-0 draw back in Tunis to get them through. It was a result against one of the continents form teams and so not to be sniffed at, but yet again there was that problem of goals and where they are to come from for a side with pretensions of going further than they have gone before at World Cup.

Jalel Kadri, appointed only in February, has been very much focused on the defensive side of his squad, and if the seven clean sheets he has managed to pull off are any indication he’s doing something right. But then again the recent 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Brazil show that Tunisia might only be watertight inside their own continent. The likes of Wahbi Khazri and captain Youssef Msakni – making his belated World Cup bow after missing Russia through injury – will be critical in terms of their performances. There are plenty of World Cup veterans in the side, but much attention may rest instead on younger players like centre back Montassar Talbi, who has so recently impressed in Ligue 1 with FC Lorient. Tunisia, especially given the opposition they face, are likely to play conservatively, and much will depend on that back line. Kadri has essentially said he will quit if the side don’t get out of the group.

For all of the hopes that Tunisia can re-live, and perhaps fully inhabit, the glory days of a decade-and-a-half ago, a more realistic judgement must surely be made about their chances at this World Cup. Getting beyond Group D seems a task that will be beyond Tunisia with France and Denmark in their way, never mind not-to-be-dismissed Australia. An improvement on previous performances, with three points to be sought against the Socceroos and fighting performances against the other sides, should perhaps be considered enough. Anything beyond that would be the territory of dreams.

I have spoken quite a bit about Australia already in this series, and more particularly about their manager Graham Arnold. It’s hard not to talk about him in fairness: it really does seem at times as if the entire identity of Australian association football is wrapped up in a debate about whether he is a net positive or a net negative for the Socceroos. Without doubt he has fulfilled his cyclical mandate in getting Australia to the World Cup, extending an unbroken run of five consecutives Finals appearances, but the manner in which Australia achieved this feat, and the way that Arnold has conducted himself in the process, means that nothing is really settled yet on the question of his suitability. The larger question facing Australia in Qatar 2022 is whether Arnold is a good enough manager to successfully coach a side at a Finals, and whether Australia should really have any realistic aims of being anything more than an also-ran before they even begin.

The Second Round of AFC qualification seemed to have paved the way for Australia to ease into the Finals before they even had to face another continental heavyweight. A 100% record, featuring five wins by three goals or more, certainly made Arnold’s case for his own tactically rigid form of coaching, but only against the minnows of the confederation: what worked against Chinese Taipei in a 7-1 rout ended up working much less effectively against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Japan. Australia lurched into crisis mode in the Third Round, propelled by a single point from a possible twelve being garnered from the games with the other top seeds and, but for the inability of surprise package Oman to pick up just two additional points, Australia would not have even made it to the play-offs. A squeaked victory against the UAE followed by Andrew Redmayne’ penalty shoot-out heroics against Peru left Arnold feeling vindicated against those who had called for his removal after the poor results in Jeddah and Tokyo, but hardly painted an overly positive picture of what Australia are capable of.

Playing time might well be an issue for those players of the Australian A-League – Jamie Maclaren and Mathew Leckie among them – who only started their season little more than a month ago. It’s upfront where the main worries will be, with Arnold’s side rarely very lucrative in goalscoring: that’s perhaps why Australia have spent pre-tournament friendlies trying brand new options there, like Newcastle bound Garang Kuol and one-time Scottish cap Jason Cummings. Still, the likely absence of vital playmaker Adjin Hrustic, owing to an ankle injury, will be keenly felt, as will the deteriorating club form of Aaron Mooy in midfield: only the bravest Aussie will not feel trepidation at the idea of this defence and midfield going up against the likes of Benzema and Eriksen.

Australia’s last few forays into the World Cup arena have ended in disappointing fashion. Group stage exits are not what people expected when the Socceroos moved into the AFC, and especially not after their own high water mark of 2006, when they were not all that far from a place in the last eight. But reality must be able to shine through: to get the needed results against the World Champions, one of the Europe’s best teams in Denmark and a hard-to-beat Tunisia seems beyond the capability of Arnold, and it might be considered unfair if he was to be castigated for a likely failure to get out of the group. But there is enough groundswell against Arnold that such a failure will surely see the end of his tenure. The only way to avoid it will probably be to get to the knock-outs: such a feat would be Arnold’s masterpiece, if he was to pull it off.

Have these four teams already hit their highest mark? Do they have more to do, and farther to go? Are they now at risk of falling backwards? We will answer those questions in November and December. It seems too easy to handwave the group away as an inevitable French success with the Danes coming in behind them, Tunisia and Australia left to scrap for the less-than-stellar reward of third. At least one surprise seems more than possible here, whether it is Denmark getting top spot, or one of Australia or Tunisia getting a shock result against a higher seed. However it ends up, two sides will be continuing a quest to achieve their brightest ever result in international football, two others will be contemplating a serious darkness.

119. Fallen Giants: Group E

(19/11/22)

Time to be great again.

Every World Cup has the greats of yesteryear, but it is perhaps rare for one group to contain so many, even if you are just using “great” in a relative sense: Group E of the 2022 World Cup is one of those groups. Every one of its four teams could be said to be chasing after a repeat of past glories, whether they were some time recently, or further back in history. The sport-watching public are always fascinated by the idea of the fallen giant, a once great team struggling to find their way again: two of Group E’s sides will end up on the way to an attempt at redemption, while the other two will be continuing down a path towards mediocrity and a fight for relevancy in a changing footballing landscape.

Can it really be only ten years since Spain were the undisputed masters of international football? Just ten years since they humbled Italy in the EURO 2012 Final, cementing an unbroken run of three consecutive continental and world successes? Just a decade since tiki-taka seemed positively unassailable as a form of football? How times have changed since. The disaster at the 2014 World Cup where Spain were ruthlessly exposed was followed by a disappointing EURO 2016 campaign, the side now in transition and struggling with finding any kind of identity and a succession of managerial dramas. 2018 saw a toothless possession-based approach come up short against the hosts in the last 16, with the Spanish, only six years removed from the halcyon days, looking distinctly ordinary, and more like the nearly-men they had been for decades previously. A run to the Semi-Finals of EURO 2020, achieved underneath Luis Enrique and his direct, counter-attacking style, spoke of better days to come, but it will not be until Spain have showcased that they are still a force to be reckoned with at the very highest level that claims of La Roja being just another European side, as opposed to the European side, will be dismissed. This will be Enrique’s biggest test in the role, having brought an end to the chaos that saw four managerial spells in three years before he took over, treating the international side like a club he is building more than a country it’s a reward to play for.

Certainly the manner of Spain’s qualification indicates strength, but that’s been proven false before. A draw with Greece and a loss in Stockholm were the only blemishes on the way to a comfortable automatic qualification, where Spain rarely looked like they were seriously troubled but never looked like they were about to light the world on fire either. Eleven times in a row Spain have reached the World Cup now, but bar 2010 they’ve only ever made it to the last eight. If Luis Enrique is to really put the stamp on his time in charge, it will be by doing better than that.

Much of the focus for Enrique’s squad selection has been on defence, with question marks over whether Sergio Ramos would make the cut after omissions earlier this year. Other big name exclusions include David de Gea and Thiago Alcantara, with Enrique consistent in having little time for established veterans if they are not meeting his expectations. There will also be some concerns about Spain’s ability to rack up goals despite the likes of Pedri and Morata being mainstays, and if Enrique can settle on a team and formation that always seems to be tinkering with just a little. Only a couple of players from the 2010 team remain, so this tournament really does represent a changing of the guard.

Expectations the length and breadth of Spain will be fixated on one thing: a second World Cup triumph. Spain undoubtedly has the talent to be a challenger, and in Enrique have a coach who is capable of propelling his side all the way. Yet there remains that sense that Spain simply aren’t at that level just yet. Their game against the other top seed in Group E will go a long way to showing where there are, and what they can reasonable expect out of Qatar 2022. The last eight would be a bare minimum, and even that is unlikely to feel like enough.

If it has been a long ten years for Spain, we could say that it has also been a long eight years for Germany. The triumph of Joachim Löw’s side in 2014 was a just reward for decades of work done beforehand, but has been followed by a nadir that has threatened to match the post-1996 days when Germany were becoming just another European team. Successive tournament disappointments in 2016, 2018 and 2021, with Die Mannschaft looking especially out of sorts in the last, spelled the end of Löw’s tenure, and a realisation that Germany needed to leave behind the memory of the exceptional squad of 2014 and look to building up something for the future. The task to at least begin that journey has fallen to Hansi Flick, and he has righted the ship to the point that he could have in this World Cup cycle. But whether or not this presages a new high point, or just more evidence of an extended fall, remains to be seen.

Under two different managers, you might expect that Germany’s qualification campaign would have been a messy seat-of-their-pants affair, but of course it was not. This is Germany; the only World Cups they didn’t qualify for were ones where they choose not to try or were banned from competing for. Nine wins from ten games saw first Löw and then Flick’s side soar into the Finals yet again, and it seems unfair that so much of the discussion of Germany’s qualifying campaign was based around the sole defeat, a shock 2-1 home loss to North Macedonia. That Germany then went to Skopje and won 4-0 is apparently less important. That defeat was very much a solitary blip, and while it foreshadowed Löw’s departure a few months later, it should not be allowed to detract from the fact that Germany strolled into Qatar’s chosen 32.

Few teams can boast as experienced a spine as Germany, with names like Neuer, Kimmich, Gundogen and Muller all likely to increase their already impressive run of World Cup caps, but there is youth in the mix also: Dortmunds Nico Chlotterbeck and Munich’s Jamal Musiala will have a lot resting on their shoulders too in terms of the expected stamina and verve to be shown on the pitch. Flick’s Germany lacks a stand-out option upfront, especially now that Timo Werner has been ruled out with injury (Kai Havertz is likely to be played in his stead), and it is likely the manager will continue utilising a four-pronged attack in place of something more singular: the recent 5-2 win over France and the 3-3 draw in London shows how it can work, but also the gaps it can leave at the back.

It is very difficult to pronounce a firm set of expectations that will cover what it is Germany wants to get out of Qatar. It’s impossible, on the basis of squad strength and qualification form, to entirely rule Germany out as potential challengers, but one does feel as if this is at least a tournament too soon for that label to stick. Doing better than the disastrous 2018 showing will be a minimum, and if progression from the group comes with a result over Spain, then Flick will already have accomplished much. After that, a place among the last eight would signify Germany’s gradual return to the ascendency, ahead of perhaps a more likely shot in 2026.

Japan were so very close in 2018, so very close to pulling off what would have been the shock of shocks of that tournament. Two goals up against favourites Belgium, they seemed likely to make one of the greatest splashes that an AFC nation would ever have made in a Finals, but in 25 miserable minutes it all disappeared, Nacer Chadli’s 94th minute winner capping the Belgian comeback and leaving Japan once again having to settle for a Second Round exit: their third experience of such a thing. Now, in 2022, it is not untoward to suggest that simply getting out of Group E could be considered an upset of equal or greater measure, necessitating as it will at least one positive result against Spain or Germany. Japan, a footballing nation long used to a level of continental domination South Korea can only exceed in terms of successive qualifications, is not liable to be fully satisfied with a litany of underwhelming Finals performances, but one cannot help but think that Hajime Moriyasu’s side may be scuppered before they have even gotten a chance to start.

Perhaps part of the problem for Japan is the ease with which they are capable of dealing with the early games of AFC qualification. An aggregate 24-0 scoreline over a diminished Myanmar was just the pick of the results, with Japan ending with a +44 GD on the way to eight facile victories and a 100% record in the Second Round. Maybe that’s why they were ambushed at home so famously by Oman in the first game of the Third Round, but only a loss in Jeddah and a dead rubber draw with Vietnam would take any more points off the Blue Samurai, who cantered to second spot in the group seven points clear of Australia. For Japan, this part of proceedings has rarely been anything more than a doddle, with the side having gotten very good at getting maximum points off the lowest seeds and the needed results against everyone else when they really have to.

As has been the case before, Japan enters a World Cup with some of its most important players, like Monaco’s Minamino, struggling to find game time with their European clubs, though others – Itakura in the Bundesliga, Tomiyasu in the Premier League, Ito in France – have quietly been putting together great seasons. They’ll be needed to make sure that Japan’s attack-focused game, one that relies on a high press and swift counter-attacks down the wings, gets pulled off to the utmost. The question is whether this current squad has learned the lessons of 2018, and will know when to ease off the throttle to protect a lead: only four players from 2018 remain in the team now, so history might just repeat itself if Japan are not careful.

Japan would so desperately wish to get the chance to make-up for those final 25 minutes in 2018, but it is hard to foresee. Unless Germany are caught off guard as they were against AFC opposition in 2018, unless Spain really self-destruct, unless Costa Rica prove a more pliant opposition than you would expect, then the possibility of Japan gaining the needed points to get out of the group, let alone go on to reach beyond the last 16, seems doubtful. It is now over ten years since Japan’s last continental triumph, and they risk becoming a fallen giant in the sense of accepting a certain level of mediocrity below the level of true champions. Getting out of Group E would be a major riposte to such a sentiment, and could be placed as above the wildest of hopes.

Rounding off the Group E contingent is a fallen giant we have already had the time to discuss previously in the series regards their one-time apogee and subsequent inability to keep it up. Costa Rica will long cherish the memory of 2014 when they shocked the world and proved that Central America is not just a source of Finals whipping boys, but in the years since the opportunity garnered to turn that wonderful Summer into the foundations for lasting success have been largely squandered. The side have not hugely impressed on a continental level, or back at the World Cup in 2018, and by now only a few players remain of the side that beat Italy and Uruguay in Brazil. Luis Fernando Suárez has a job to do to make the current batch of players capable of repeating those results, because they are gong to have to: there isn’t a team in Group E that seems likely to either give up points easily, or underestimate Costa Rica as others have in the past.

It wasn’t quite by the skin of their teeth in the end, but Costa Rica cut it a bit close in getting to Qatar. After the departure of Rónald González after a disappointing Gold Cup campaign, Suarez was brought in to get the side to the Finals, and did largely on the back of a player-centric approach. The third highest ranked CONCACAF side when the process began, Costa Rica struggled, taking only six points from their opening seven games, which included a farcical draw at home to Jamaica. But they finished much stronger, unbeaten in the second half of the campaign following a 95th minute winner from Gerson Torres at home to Honduras, with a draw in Mexico City, and wins against eventual group toppers Canada and the United States in San Jose, especially crucial results. That got Los Ticas to the Intercontinentals, where Joel Campbell’s goal in the opening minutes would end up being enough to put a hard battling New Zealand away. It was hardly a comfortable journey, but Costa Rica will have been satisfied with their late run of form when it really counted.

Costa Rica are strong defensively, with much of their back line veterans of the 2014 campaign and still playing at a high level, though Navas has recently had to settle for the PSG subs bench. Suarez’ over-riding concern will be goals, with Costa Rica scoring one in most of their qualification games: the likes of Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and newcomer Jewison Bennette will need to up their game significantly. No matter what, this Costa Rica team, that has become well known for an unattractive, attractional style of football, is doubtful to wow people from an aesthetic viewpoint: if they are to squeak into the Second Round, or relive the glory of 2014, expect it to be with as low a GD as possible.

Costa Rica have the misfortune of having one of the hardest groups for a fourth seed to get out of: getting the required results against at least two of Spain, Germany and Japan is something that would be hard for any CONCACAF side, let alone the one that only just managed to get into the last 32. Costa Rica came out of 2014 with a stature out of all proportion to the country’s size and footballing resources: you could have called them a giant, or at least a continental giant in the making. They have since misspent the rewards of that position, and getting it back in 2022 would require the kind of campaign that would put 2014 in the shade. It seems like something Costa Rica must be reasonable about, as they continue to build a side that can move beyond the towering example of eight years ago.

To have hit a height – whether that is to be a World Champion, to be the head of a continent or to be an example to an entire region in terms of what can be accomplished – is no easy thing to reckon with in the aftermath. Spain, Germany, Japan and Costa Rica all have reason to consider themselves as fallen giants, all from their relative heights, with a lot to live up to in the not-too-distant past. For two of them, the chance to advance deeper into the tournament will accelerate that process for sure, but the scramble for re-invention will go on for all four, long after the last ball is kicked in Qatar.

120. Time To Make Good: Group F

(19/11/22)

Destiny awaits.

The teams in Group F have a bit of a different challenge ahead of them than the others. Some comprise squads that have been on the cusp of true greatness for a while now, and are rapidly running out of time to get over the edge and establish a place in the annals of international football. Others have shown they have the ability to reach beyond their nominal stature, but not far enough to really be considered among the truly great. Others have been at this stage time and again, and failed to make any kind of worthwhile mark. Others still are heading into their first World Cup Finals in some time, feeling the pressure of a once-in-a-lifetime group of players that must achieve if they are to fully deserve the plaudits they have gotten so far. In other words, for the four teams of Group F, it is time, past time in some cases, to make good on what they have available to them.

I sometimes feel that I am repeating myself a bit over the last decade or so with Belgium, but that’s only natural when you get a squad of this much talent and brilliance, who are unable to get over the line. Ever since they failed to qualify for EURO 2012, Belgium have been on top of the world, literally in the case of the rankings for a time, steamrolling through qualification campaigns and routinely tagged as favourites in Finals. But they haven’t been able to convert this once-in-a-lifetime golden generation of players into tangible success, with the third-place finish in Russia as close as they have been able to come, surrounded by a succession of Quarter-Final defeats. It always seems to be a case of the side not being able to turn it on when it really matters, and Belgium currently have the unenviable title of the only nation to have held the #1 spot in the rankings without having won anything. For successive tournaments now many, not just myself, have claimed that Belgium are running out of time. Qatar is the chance, potentially the last chance with this oh so special squad before time takes its effect, to make good at last.

If qualification is anything to go by, Belgium have no intention of leaving anything behind them in this cycle. Belgium dropped points just twice in UEFA’s Group E, in away draws in Prague and Cardiff, and racked up some impressive results elsewhere: a dominant 3-1 disposal of Wales in the first game; an 8-0 home mauling of Belarus; and a confident, rarely troubled, performance in dispatching the Czech Republic 3-0 in Brussels. Belgium ended up five points clear at the head of the group, equalling their previously held record of five consecutive tournament qualifications. For Roberto Martinez and company, this was all just preliminaries.

Martinez’ problem is the age of the team, which has ticked up and up. The defence in particular has erred over the 30 mark generally (the Alderweireld-Vertonghen axis has seen its best days you feel), and there hasn’t been a huge influx of youth stepping up. Because of that huge pressure will be on the likes of Kevin De Bruyne to bring that special X-Factor he routinely does at club level and be the talisman again, and for players of the calibre of Romulu Lukaku – only just recovered from a hamstring problem – to be the goal-scoring behemoths they were before. This is the golden generation in its figurative winter, but the hope is that they still have enough to do something special before time runs out completely.

There really is only one thing that will satisfy the people at home for Belgium. You can’t have a team this good, for this long, riding this high, and still be considered a great side without an actual triumph. They will feel that this group is easily navigable and, even with a potentially tricky last 16 tie afterwards, nothing less than a very deep run in the tournament, to the point of leaving Qatar with the World Cup trophy, is going to be considered enough. But are Belgium strong enough, able to get past previous defeats well enough, to actually achieve such a thing? I suppose we shall see, but evidence provided to this point indicates not.

For Croatia, a very different question needs to be answered one that is simply put: “Is this as good as it gets?” The Luka Modric inspired run to the Final four years ago stunned the world and, leaving aside the nature of the actual final score, Croatia were not really that far off France in that contest. Much of the squad that pulled off that incredible feat are still with the Croatian team, but there remains an undeniable feeling that a repeat of such things might well be beyond them. Their performance in EURO 2020 gives evidence for this. There, they struggled out of a group that contained an English team they played off the park for large stretches of their 2018 encounter, but lost far too easily to this time around. That was before only just about bringing Spain into extra time in the last 16, finally succumbing then to fatigue and pressure. Critics could naturally be forgiven for saying that this tournament was a fairer reflection of Croatia’s level, than what has been seen more and more as a fluke in 2018. 2022 provides Croatia with the latest chance to respond to such accusations, and to showcase that they are more than just one set of good results.

Croatia were pressed hard in qualification, playing catch-up with Russia from the start after something of a shock defeat away to Slovenia. Narrow wins against Cyprus and Slovakia would not have inspired confidence, while the side might have been lucky to get out of Moscow with a scoreless draw. In the end it was probably Slovakia whom Croatia can thank as much for their qualification as themselves: Russia’s loss in Bratislava combined with Croatia’s ten points from 12 in matchdays six-nine brought it down to a do-or-die clash with the leading Russians on the very final day. Fyodor Kudryashov’s 81st minute own goal decided it, and Russia’s two-point advantage turned into a one-point deficit to the Croatians. Not exactly convincing, and of course none of it really mattered in the end: three months after that game Russia was invading Ukraine, then banned from World Cup contention, so Croatia would have been going to Qatar anyway. The general impression was of a side that was just about good enough to get beyond the mid-tier opposition, but reliant on more than their fair share of luck against the higher seeds.

Zlatko Dalic remains in charge, and has the benefit of a nearly clean bill of health for his preferred selection. His team will be driven by the midfield engine of Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and the incomparable Modric, now surely appearing at his last World Cup, and maybe last international tournament. They are ably assisted by the bombing runs forward of Ivan Perisic and Borna Sosa down the left, and any one of them can pop up with goals to supplement the forward line. At the back things are more fluid, and Dalic has yet to settle on a preferred goalkeeper or back four. The recent success in the Nations League means he is unlikely to make any changes to preferred tactics or formations.

It is difficult to know what to really expect of Croatia. Writing off their chances seems like a staggeringly unwise course to take given past events, and certainly there should be more than enough in the tank for them to get out of this group, if they can break down Morocco and let their experience show against Canada. But from there it really could be anything: a last 16 exit, a run much deeper, hell, if Croatia ended up winning the tournament it might come as a surprise and yet there would be a small part of ourselves that would probably go “It figures”. That seems to be the thing with Croatia: when it all comes together the side can operate as far, far more than the sum of their parts, but they seem just as likely to be only slightly more than an also-ran. Who knows, I suppose, but I suspect Croatia are still capable of turning heads.

Morocco were the first team from Africa to make it out of a World Cup group stage, all the way back in 1986, where it took an 88th minute goal from West Germany’s Lothar Mattheus to put them out. The years since them have been fairly barren though, with a runners-up position in the 2004 AFCON as much as the Atlas Lions have been able to claim. Despite a routinely impressive set of players relative to their confederation, Morocco have never seemed like the kind of side that could progress deep into tournaments, when they have been able to get there at all. 2018 was an extremely frustrating experience: having made it to their first Finals in five attempts, they lost to a 95th minute goal against Iran, a single Ronaldo goal against Portugal and then conceded a 91st minute equaliser against Spain. The opportunity to make what would have been the most famous and unlikely progressions out of a group stage thus slipped through their fingers, not because of a lack of talent, but more a lack of concentration and ability to see games out late. The pattern has been repeated since, with Morocco sent out of the 2019 AFCON on penalties, and via an extra time goal in 2021. Call it mental, call it fatigue, but the side don’t seem to perform as well late in games.

This was less evident in qualification for Qatar. Morocco made light work of their first set of games, going six for six against Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sudan. The military coup in Guinea that postponed their game in Conakry was about as big an impediment to their progress as they suffered. The Third Round play-off was tougher, at least in the first leg, with Morocco a goal down early and then missing a penalty in the rocking surrounds of DR Congo’s Stade de Martyrs, before substitute Tarik Tissoudali rescued things with a fine counter-attacking goal 14 minutes from time. With the advantage of the away goal Morocco were able to take hold of the tie in the second leg, and put their opposition to the sword in a 4-1 rout. Morocco will wish that the drama had ended there, but an unpalatable post-script was produced when head coach Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked in August – the third time he has been relieved of his job after a successful World Cup qualification campaign but before the actual World Cup – allegedly owing to an ongoing dispute with Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech. Walid Regragui, once of that 2004 team, is now in charge, and he has Ziyech in the team.

Despite that, no other manager will have less time ahead of the Finals to fashion a side capable of getting out of the group stage, with Regragui getting the benefit of just three friendlies. He’ll be dependent a lot on the bombing runs forward from high-level wing-backs Achraf Hakimi of PSG and Noussair Mazraoui of Bayern Munich. When connecting with Ziyech, or under-rated right-midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, they can provide a very serious threat. It’s the defence that will probably cause the most sleepless nights, having bottled things in the most recent AFCON, conceding five in six. Better form in qualifying, where they conceded three in eight, must be measured against the poor opposition they faced. There may also be an issue upfront, with Tissoudali missing owing to an ACL tear, and it not immediately obvious where goals will come from.

On paper, Morocco will certainly be targeting a progression from Group F. That will require, at the very least, a win against Canada and a point elsewhere, which isn’t the most outrageous suggestion. But the real world butts in, and one has to consider the difficulties that any new coach will have in such circumstances, married to a side that has consistently shown they have problems getting the job done when it really, really matters. The experience and talent of teams like Belgium and Croatia is tailor made for such encounters: a repeat of 1986 seems unlikely in those circumstances, and the Moroccan faithful may simply have to make do with a battling effort for third.

When the Great White North finally made it back to a World Cup Finals in March, commentary welcomed the moment with the words “from obscurity to unforgettable”. It was a suitable notation to a truly remarkable journey, probably the standout story of World Cup qualification, the manner in which Canada went from having to enter the First Round of CONCACAF qualification owing to their 73rd place ranking, to topping the final round. Everything has come together for Canada in this cycle, and the joy of their qualification was greeted by delirious scenes from a soccer-mad faithful that have been waiting for this moment since 1985. The common problem for teams in that kind of position is that a feeling of accomplishment creeps in before a ball is kicked at the Finals, leading to an underwhelming showing at the very biggest stage. It is Canada’s task now to buck that trend and make a name for themselves where it really matters, a task that will be far from easy in this group. But this is a side that has worked very hard to make themselves “unforgettable”, and they won’t be easily brushed aside now.

The beginning of the journey was a very long time ago, and saw Canada putting up cricket scores against a host of small Caribbean islands in the spectator-less surrounds of Florida stadiums. Having made a doddle of the First Round, scoring 27 goals in four games, Canada then made a similar effort of the Second, putting Haiti to the sword 4-0 over two legs. The ease of the passage showed the problems with CONCACAF’s process, and the real qualification began with the Third Round and the Octagon, when Canadian form soared and the impossible became inevitable. Famous wins against Mexico and the United States, married to a consistency against other opposition, meant that Canada secured their spot in Qatar with a game to spare, the kind of ease that would have been unfathomable just one cycle before, where Canada failed to even make it to the final “Hex” round.

For Canada, a lot is riding on the perceived strength of their attacking line-up, with Cyle Larin reaching the height of his international career after years spent becoming his nation’s top scorer, and the much younger Jonathan David not too far behind him and only likely to get better. A fitness scare over key winger Alphonso Davies would have caused some sleepless nights, but he ended up on the plane to Qatar. All told this is a team that have showcased excellent defensive discipline married to speedy counter-attacking forays forward, and while they have never faced off with sides of the quality of Belgium or Croatia, there will be no fear here. Bravery in possession will be the order of the day, even if it might be suicide against certain opposition teams.

For a lot of people, Canada’s World Cup campaign constitutes a free hit: if they went home after losing three games few would bat an eyelid. But one suspects that would not be deemed acceptable by the fans at home, by the CSA, or by John Herdman and his players. They aren’t coming to Qatar to show off jerseys ahead of 2026, they want to go and make an impact. To do that, they will have to progress, and if we naturally expect such things of Mexico and the United States, then it follows that we must naturally expect such things of Canada. But that means a result against Belgium or Croatia. This squad of players has accomplished much, but they have never faced such a test. A defining moment in the history of Canadian association football will be when we discover if Canada are capable of passing that test, or not.

Each of the four teams in Group F is thus facing a stern test, all in their own relative ways. Belgium have a side that should be World Champions, but they need to excel in ways they haven’t before. Croatia are still a team known for punching above their weight, but need to show they can still do that. Morocco have one of the most consistent squads in Africa, but have never been able to adequately showcase that at a World Cup over the last 30 years. And Canada are one of the most exciting breakthrough sides in a long time, but now face the greatest test of their abilities. For all four, it is now time to make good, on their talent, their legacy and on their potential. Someone in this group, maybe more than one, are going to grab a hold of this World Cup, you can just feel it. I can’t wait to find out which.

121. Ghosts Of World Cups Past: Group G

(19/11/22)

The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask many big things…

The spirits of previous successes always stay with teams. Sometimes they can be a positive thing, an example to aspire to, and a method of driving yourself on to achieve a similar level of glory. At other times they can undoubtedly be a burden, an unnerving avenue of unfair comparison, and a pressure to accomplish the same thing that others did, out of kilter with a modern state of affairs. The World Cup, the premier sporting occasion on our planet, is tailor-made for sides to be compared to, draw inspiration from and be derided as a pale imitator of those that came before. Group G is one pool where all four teams have different examples to look at from their footballing history at this level: the question is whether they will banish the negativity that such things can bring, and leave only the shining examples of what they themselves can be.

In 2002, when a Ronaldo de Lima-helmed Brazil claimed an astonishing fifth World Cup title, it seemed very much like a return to normality. The side that had easily been the best team in 1994 had gotten over the blip of the 1998 finale, and redeemed themselves. The future seemed brighter than it had after France. But now 20 years have passed, 20 years of repeated World Cup failures: Quarter-Final exits in 2006, 2010 and 2018 sandwich the utter calamity that was 2014 and that Semi-Final. The Brazil of this period have continued to be a dominant force locally, winning three Copas since 2002, but on the world stage they have frequently appeared labouring, over-reliant on stars like Neymar and more than a little over-rated. Now, back on top of the world rankings for the first time in a while and on the back of an impressive run of form recently, the Seleção seem better placed than at any point in the last 20 years to add title #6. They’d want to: the spectres of 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002 demand little else.

Even by the historically grand pedigree that Brazil enjoys, their qualification for Qatar was hugely impressive. It took 11 games for them to drop points, and while some of the wins were narrow, the general picture was enormously positive. Brazil romped home, six points clear at the top of CONMEBOL, and this with playing a game less than everyone else owing to the cancelled Argentina tie. It was a record points hall under this format and, despite Brazil’s failure to land a Copa in the same cycle, pointed to the dominance they have been able to exert over South America recently. Moreover, after many years of unimpressive, conservative football and a feeling that Brazil were treading water at times, they have proven they can attack, get the needed wins and excel.

Head coach Tite has been blessed with perhaps the best array of attacking talent that Brazil has been able to field since 2002: Neymar is by now a long-serving veteran, Gabriel Jesus is playing well for Arsenal, Gabriel Martinelli isn’t far behind, Vini and Richarlison aren’t exactly bad either. But it’s not like Brazil are weak elsewhere: Tite can choose between Alisson and Ederson in goal, and has the likes of Militão, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Casemiro to operate in and just ahead of his defence. Even Fred, so frequently maligned for his club form, has become one of the key cogs in this Brazilian machine when selected. This is one of the few sides among the 32 in which there appear to be no obvious weakpoints, making Brazil in 2022 a very scary proposition, a strong side with an axe named “7-1” they want to grind into the dust.

There is only one expectation for Brazil, just as there always has been only one and always will be only one. A sixth World Cup win, a redemption for the last two decades of failure – especially 2014 – is the only thing that will sate the football-mad hordes back home, and an international audience who are close to dismissing Brazil as a spent force at this stage. Brazil have more than enough means to actually do it too, especially coming out of a group they really shouldn’t have too many difficulties in topping. Destiny is calling for this group of players, and failure to make good, and to temporarily banish those looming ghosts, will be seen as nothing less than another disaster for Brazilian international football.

Did you know that in August of 1993, the Switzerland football team was the third ranked side in the world, behind only Germany and Italy? Despite failing to qualify for EURO 1992, the Roy Hodgson helmed team was able to reach that zenith, even if based on a fundamentally flawed mathematical model, on the back of an impressive USA 94 qualification campaign that saw them take four points off of that Italian team, who would eventually finish as runners-up for that World Cup. But then in the Finals themselves Switzerland proved unable to take that form and that impressive rankings position and turn it into something substantial: after an opening draw with the semi-amateur hosts and a later loss against an already eliminated Colombia, Switzerland found themselves relying on results elsewhere to get out of Group A. When they did, their reward was a punishing return to Earth at the hands of the Spanish, beaten 3-0. Since then, it has often been a case of rinse and repeat for the Swiss, who routinely are able to pull together great squads of players that impress at a qualification stage, only to be also-rans at the actual Finals. They’ve made it to the last four World Cups, and exited at the last 16 stage three of those times, and the group stage in the other. 2006 was especially galling, losing a shoot-out to Ukraine to the farcical scoreline of 3-0. Now, in 2022, they are ranked 15th in the world, and again have been able to assemble a team, under Murat Yakin, that seems very substantial, and more than worth a deep run into the tournament. But by now the legacy of Finals disappointments lie heavy, and the Swiss will have to overcome that psychological burden before achieving anything on the field of play.

Qualification was something of a throwback to that 1994 campaign actually, with the Swiss paired with the Italians alongside potentially tricky opposition in Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania. In the end, Switzerland were able to navigate them all, going unbeaten and taking two draws from the European Champions on their way to topping the group. A tight final day situation saw the Swiss, facing Bulgaria, needing to better Italy’s result to Northern Ireland and improve their GD: while the Italians drew a blank in a 0-0 draw in Belfast, the Swiss put on the performance of their campaign in putting Bulgaria to the sword, scoring four in the second half. In so doing, the Swiss avoided the tricky Second Round path that ultimately did for Italy, and booked their place in Qatar.

Yakin will need Xherdan Shaqiri, whose Chicago Fire club recently finished their MLS season, in top form if Switzerland are to excel, and for Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka to maintain the best form of his career. Still, these are aging talismans, and if the Swiss are to really upend expectations, it might be down more to the likes of Breel Embolo, currently scoring for fun on France with Monaco. Their late Nations League form was extremely impressive, with wins over Portugal and Spain showcasing how good the Swiss can be on their day. They will be hoping for maximum points out of an iffy Cameroon and a defensively suspect Serbia, so that the Brazil game can be more of a free hit. It’s a collective that needs to win together, over any individual stars.

The Swiss broke recent ducks in getting to the last eight of EURO 2020, and such an achievement on the higher stage is the only thing likely to satisfy them in Qatar. It’s simply not possible to think anything else will be OK, given Switzerland’s consistent strengths over the last two decades, in terms of their ease of qualification and ability to hang with the very best teams of their continent. Overcoming France last year was the kind of event tailor-made to propel the side on: progression out of Group G is the minimum expected, and from there lies the possibility of a winnable last 16 tie. The cavalcade of underwhelming Finals appearances has been the hallmark of Swiss football history thus far, and the current team will only prove worthy of their supposed greatness by overturning that legacy.

The history of Serbia regards the World Cup is far more complicated, more complicated than any of the other finalists in a way, just because the modern Serbian team is the designated inheritor of four other nations that came before, every last one of which has at least one World Cup appearance. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia finished fourth in the very first tournament, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia did the same in 1962, the post-communist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia went down swinging in 1998’s Second Round, and the awkward union of Serbia and Montenegro went 0 for 3 in 2006. The modern side, a nice, simple “Serbia”, have been to two World Cups under that name, drawing two games and losing four. Much as the territorial extents of the one time major Balkan power have decreased over the years, so has the ability of its representative football team to accomplish impressive feats at the worlds biggest football showcase. This tortured legacy is what the modern-day group of players must grasp: the football team in many respects is a microchasm for what many in Serbia see as a diminishing of their rightful status, dignity and power on a geopolitical scale. The success of sides like Croatia has not gone unnoticed in the same period. A team called “Serbia” is yet to make a big splash at the World Cup, and doing so would be a very big deal.

They had an unexpectedly straightforward road to Qatar, gong unbeaten through Group A and then leapfrogging top seeds Portugal at the death, with Aleksander Mitrovic’ 90th minute winner in Lisbon in the very last game among the highlights of recent Serbian footballing history. That was only the cap though: the campaign to that point was an accomplished affair, the Serbs only dropping points in an earlier draws with Portugal and Ireland. It’s only been a few World Cups since Serbia missed out on qualification altogether so this, their second consecutive automatic progression, is a sign of a certain stability in performance, and a certain lack of fear for those nominally above them

Dragon Stojkovic will succeed if he is able to properly utilise his usually three-pronged attack, consisting as it does with the not inconsiderable talents of Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic and Dusan Tadic. Recent form has been strong, and Serbia will enter the tournament full of confidence, propelled by Stojkovic himself, a man whose knock for remaining forever unflustered and assured has become legendary. It’s at the back that the Serbs will be getting their sleepless nights from: there have been some recent improvements, but the Serbian backline remains leaky, having conceded more goals in qualifying than the two teams they finished ahead of. Considering they will be facing Brazil, the aim will probably be to somehow finish on top of a shootout.

The Serbs have not been gifted the easiest of groups, if they are to upset the recent trend and make it to the knockout stages, even with their impressive qualification form. To do so will require them to pass a very serious test from an accomplished Swiss side that are looking for a similar kind of tournament redemption, potentially grab something from one of the best Brazil teams in decades and also dispatch the slip-in-the-making that is Cameroon. Such things are not beyond Serbia, far from it, and one suspects that failing to get out of the group will be perceived as a failure in general by those in Belgrade. Serbia claims too much history going all the way back to 1930 in this competition for anything else to be the case.

Think Cameroon and football, and you think of 1990 and the Summer of Roger Milla. In truth the Cameroonian team that lit up Italia 90 in a way that no other team seemed capable of doing really peaked very early that year: stunning Argentina in the opening game and getting the required win against Romania, they then lost to the Soviet Union in their last group game and just about scrapped past Colombia in the last 16 thanks to Milla’s two goals, before getting sent home by England. It was less about the results and more about the way that they played really: 1990 was a year of football so poor to watch that it almost single-handedly justified the introduction of the back pass rule, and Cameroon, inventive, brave, team-focussed and happy to attack with abandon, were the chink of light for neutrals sick of turgid 1-0 victories on bad pitches. But as bright as 1990 was, subsequent years have been a misery for Cameroon. Successive sides have faced the daunting prospect of World Cup Finals games while being compared to Milla and co, and have routinely failed. In 15 Finals games played since 1990, the Les Lions Indomptables have won just one, and have been involved in sordid disputes with their FA about pay that rarely seem to effect nations from other confederations. Continental success has come – Cameroon won an AFCON as recently as five years ago – but when it comes to the World Cup Cameroonian teams seem to go in with a looming shadow hanging over them, to live up to and make proud the first African side to make it to a Quarter-Final.

Cameroon’s road to this point was not easy. They probably had the hardest CAF Second Round group, paired with a still exceptional Cote d’Ivoire side. The two traded victories against the other, and ultimately it was the Ivorians failure to get more than a point in a game away to Mozambique that allowed Cameroon to squeak through. Few gave them much of a chance against an Algerian team in the final play-off, the opposition on a strong winning streak. When Algeria took the first leg, away, it seemed like the writing was on the wall. But Cameroon, driven by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s goal, bounced back in Blida, taking the game to extra time with a 1-0 win in the 90. Algeria again thought they had it won with Ahmed Touba’s 118th minute strike, only for Karl Toko Ekambi to pop up, six minutes later, with the killer blow. Cameroon are thus one of the more unlikely of the final 32, and expectations for what they can achieve are, as a result, not especially high.

Rigobert Song has a lot to do ahead of the Finals not least figure out a way to balance aging veterans like Napoli’s Andre Zambo Anguissa with a new breed like Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo. He sets his side up to frustrate and nip at the heels of the opposition, pressing hard, winning turnovers and then racing down the other end before they can be stopped: such things are what got them to the dance, though it remains to be seen how they will get on against a higher class of opposition. Dressing room drama may also scupper things, with Song leaving a number of high profile players – like 68 cap centre back Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui and fan favoured midfielder Jean Onana – out of his squad for unclear reasons, that might be connected to the perception of constant interreference from Cameroonian FA Head Samuel Eto’o (whose statements ahead of the tournament predicting a Cameroonian win in an All-African Final have gained as much attention as anything else coming out of the camp).

Having gotten here so unexpectedly, it would easy to dismiss Cameroon. This is a hard group to begin with, and they do not look especially capable of getting many points out of the any of the higher seeds. But of course that has been said before, and Cameroonians players will always be able to look back to 1990 for inspiration. At least you hope so: others may well be able to claim that 1990 is a millstone to subsequent footballing generations in Cameroon, a spectacular success they have never been able to match since. 2022 seems an unlikely chance to do so.

Any one of the teams in Group G could go far: Brazil are self-evidently excellent, the Swiss have a strong side, Serbia have shown what they can do in qualifying and even Cameroon have demonstrated gumption in recent times that could translate into another World Cup shock. Each have their reasons to look back into their footballing history and shudder, in different ways: whether it is the weight of success, or the weight of successive failures. The joy of football is that the wheel never stops turning, and Qatar 2022 will only be the latest entry in the historical record of these teams. In time to come, a future generation of Brazilian footballers, or Swiss, or Serbian or Cameroonian may find reason to look back at 2022, and see inspiration, or see dread. Finding out which is going to be interesting.

122. Just Glad To Be Here?: Group H

(19/11/22)

Are they making up the numbers?

In any World Cup, there are those teams. Maybe they are the most obvious of the underdogs. Maybe they are mid tier teams good for consistent qualification but never likely to threaten to win the whole thing outright. Maybe they are fallen giants, or giants in the process of falling. Either way, there are the teams where you look at them before the tournament starts and, for one reason or another, dismiss them quickly as potential champions. Different nations will react differently to the idea of being dubbed as sides that should be simply glad to be involved in a World Cup Finals, as they are never likely to progress very far, and certainly not likely to get all the way to the top spot. Some will be accepting, some will rage, but all will be forced to pull something very extraordinary out of the bag if they are to upend expectations that they are, to a certain extent, making up the numbers. For me, Group H is a pool that contains four of those teams.

For Portugal, it is back to the same old question, one that has been asked ahead of so many tournaments as to almost become trite: is this team about 11 men, or just one man? It seems very likely that 2022 will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last bow at the World Cup stage, and his last chance to achieve the very highest honour one can achieve as an international footballer. Portugal’s victory at EURO 2016 was seen as something of a shock, but a suitable reward for the talents of the key man of the Portuguese, but subsequent tournament performances – out in the last 16 in 2018, and again in 2021 – indicate that the 2016 showing, while a worthy one, was a solitary affair. Portugal have an impressive array of players, and Ronaldo remains a very potent, if degrading, threat, but of all the top seeds they seem the least likely to convert their positive attributes into a World Cup triumph. So much still goes through a slowing Ronaldo, and while the rest of the squad are no sub-par collection of individuals, they are not a team, especially on the basis of recent Nations League form, that look like they can go all the way.

Their qualifying form, while not awful, adds to the evidence for such a conclusion. Long before the disastrous last-day loss to Serbia, Portugal looked iffy: in narrow wins over Azerbaijan, in needing a 96th minute winner to beat Ireland at home, and in a toothless 0-0 draw away to the same opposition. It was results like those that left Portugal needing at least a draw to secure top spot on that last day, and thus they fell prey to Aleksander Metrovic and Serbia. It was the play-offs then, and Portugal, seeded, did shine in their two ties, first in dispatching an underwhelming Turkey, and then putting in a professional, dominant showing against North Macedonia. Perhaps they can claim to be peaking at the right time, but Portugal are a nation unused to needing play-offs to qualify for major tournaments.

Fernando Santos has some tough decisions to make, especially in terms of balancing an attack-minded selection of midfielders with the actual attack. Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao and Joao Felix are all the kinds of players who, if playing to their highest level, will be a match for anyone. Silva especially has become the new talisman for Portugal, and much of the Portuguese’s usual attacking style will flow through him. For all that though, the eyes of the world will continue to be on Cristiano Ronaldo, who has now added a spectacular burning of bridges at Manchester United, an enormous distraction Portugal absolutely did not need, to his already lengthy history. This is almost certainly his last tournament in a Portuguese jersey, and the temptation to make Portugal all about him still is irresistible.

Portugal remain a good enough footballing nation that they have every right to expect a run into the knock-out stages. At the very least, they will be expecting a Quarter-Final berth, though that is likely to require a victory over either Brazil or Switzerland to accomplish, no easy task in either instance. Getting out of this group might actually be more than enough trouble for Portugal to handle. On a larger level, this is a team that needs to demonstrate they can still utilise Ronaldo effectively, and get on without him. They did that to a spectacular degree in the 2016 Final, but can they still do it now?

Uruguay are something of a curiosity in the context of World Cup Finals. It’s hard to imagine that a country of this size, population and with such a limited internal football structure could claim to be a multi-time World Cup and Copa winner, and still consistently in the top half of South America’s sides. But Uruguay continue to do that even if, as has become painfully apparent, the side are currently in a regressing state. The “Proceso” years of Oscar Tabarez are over, and the current iteration is undoubtedly a team in transition, trying to figure out if they can remain relevant once the likes of Suarez and Cavani are no longer playing. Qatar constitutes the likely last gasp for those players. In truth Uruguay probably peaked in the period between 2010 and 2014, and the days where they were considered a genuine dark horse contender for deep runs or even a tilt at making themselves three-time champions have come to an an end. They’re the South American Portugal in other ways, and fit well into a group of what seems like also-rans before they start.

The qualification campaign was one of dire beginnings and miraculous comebacks, with the dismissal of long-serving head coach Tabarez coming amid it. A number of awful results in the first three quarters of the campaign – including three sterile 0-0 draws and humiliations away to Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia – put paid to Tabarez’s lengthy tenure, with Uruguay staring down the barrel of their first failure to qualify since 2006. The appointment of Diego Alonso rescued things, and four wins in their last four games catapulted Uruguay up to a third place finish in the standings that had scarcely seemed possible just a few months before. It’s that late qualification form that Uruguay will be hoping to replicate in Qatar, as they seek to stave off the earlier results that pointed to disintegration.

Alonso has some decisions to make upfront that will be critical: is it going to stick with the veterans like Suarez and Cavani, or go younger with the likes of Darwin Nunez and Martin Santriano, or try to mix the two? Can the likes of Valverde in midfield step up and provide the spark that the veterans can’t be fully relied on to provide going forward? And will the high press and quick passing style create the same opportunities against teams like Portugal that it did in the last phase of South American qualifying? Answer these questions satisfactorily, and Alonso might well be able to turn back the clock and make Uruguay a dark horse yet again, which would be such a turn from where Uruguay were this time last year it would rank among the very greatest shocks in the history of the competition.

In 2010 Uruguay came almost from nowhere to be considered a legitimate World Cup contender. In 2014 they held onto that status as we started, but fell short. In 2018 they seemed as if they were grasping at that title in a struggling campaign. In 2022, it’s hard to view them as anything other than a less important player in affairs, one that will be doing well to get out of their group, and that you have difficult foreseeing getting beyond that point, especially if it coincides with a Second Round meeting with Brazil, who recorded a 6-1 scoreline over Uruguay between their two qualification games. It was, perhaps, necessary to move on from Tabarez and the Proceso, and there are indications that Uruguay are capable of maintaining their role as a continental power, but on this stage? It seems much less likely.

South Korea are the consistent team in world football. There are giants of the sport who cannot claim to have qualified for the last ten World Cups, but South Korea have managed this enviable feat, and don’t look likely to break the streak anytime soon. But with the incredible exception of the Finals that they co-hosted, they haven’t really done all that much with that consistency. Seven of those ten Finals appearances have ended at the first hurdle, two more at the second, with only 2002 left to stand out. Since that year, the Koreans have won only three of 13 World Cup games they have played. The question must then be asked: if a team has managed to make appearances at this competition so routine as to be bested in the fact only by a handful of the very best, should there not be an expectation that they should be more heavily involved? No-one expects a deep run from South Korea, and many don’t even expect them to get out of the group.

About the most notable thing of South Korea’s early qualification journey was the 0-0 draw with neighbours North Korea in a spectator-less Pyongyang, six months or so before COVID would have made such a scenario less of a surprise. Five wins and that draw aided South Korea on their way to an easy progression, as did North Korea’s withdrawal before the return game in Seoul could be played. The final round presented a similar level of difficulty with the South Koreans losing just once in ten, in a dead rubber final game against the UAE. While they didn’t register much in the way of blowouts, they went about their business with the calm professionalism you would expect from a side who have made qualification a routine thing. Despite finishing behind them, South Korea even bested the other qualifier, Iran, winning four points over two games. In a confederation where the dominance of a select few has become ingrained, South Korea remain the poster boys for such consistency.

It’s upfront that will worry Paulo Bento, who has never had an overflow of attacking options over the last few years. Son Heung-min will want to be on top form, and fully over his unfortunate facial injury he suffered a few weeks ago: so much goes through the Spurs man that his absence or less-than-stellar form would be a disaster. Napoli’s Kim Min-jae might now have the chance to really stake a claim as his nations most important players, operating from midfield. But it’s the defence, that let slip a 5-1 reverse to Brazil in June, that will really decide how far South Korea go this time. South Korea are facing a group too difficult for the more recent tactic of “Give it to Son” to be as useful as it usually is.

The Korean set-up is so used to this level of international competition that they will credibly have their sights set on ambushing one of the top two seeds and taking their presumed place in the last 16, but it is difficult to see anything happening from there. 2002 was a long time ago, and South Korean ability to shock the major players, like Brazil, is not what it used to be. The beating of Germany in 2018 will give hope, but that was a different time and place against opposition that seemed headless. Getting to the knock-outs may be considered achievement enough if it happens, and failure to do so may be considered an unacceptable outcome. But beyond that South Korean international football seems stuck in place when it comes to World Cup Finals, consistent, but that is all.

The last team of the 2022 World Cup are the Black Stars of Ghana. They seem a curious inclusion from CAF, having been widely acknowledged to have been in decline for most of the last decade. The 2010 heroics are long gone, and the teams more recent past has been marked by disastrous failures in multiple AFCONs and inability to qualify for Russia 2018. The efforts to rectify the situation has seen a host of managers come and go in that period, not least Avram Grant for a three year spell, and most recently Milovan Rajevac, the man behind the 2010 heroics, who was ousted from his second tenure in the middle of the qualification campaign. Of all the five African nations that have made it to Qatar, it is simply put that Ghana seem the least likely to make any kind of splash, their arrival at this point under one time Dortmund coach Otto Addo a remarkable success all of its own.

Ghana got into the play-off round of CAF’s process by the figurative skin of their teeth, beating out South Africa on the basis of a single goal scored more. That goal was Andre Ayew’s controversial penalty in the final decisive game between the two sides, that had South Africa bringing legal cases on the grounds of officiating malfeasance, eventually rejected. That all came on the back of a less than stellar campaign, which saw Ghana scrapping wins against the likes of Zimbabwe and dropping points to the likes of Ethiopia. Few gave them much of a chance over two legs against Nigeria, and perhaps even less when the opening home game finished scoreless. But this last bastion of the away goals rule proved to be in Ghana’s favour, as Arsenal’s Thomas Partey put them in front early in Lagos. Despite Nigeria getting back to 1-1, that was all Ghana needed, as they held out for a very unlikely World Cup qualification.

Addo has been busy since qualification, giving first caps to a large amount of new players, such as Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu, Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey and Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams. Forming a workable whole out of those new inclusions and the established squad members will be key, especially upfront where Ghana have struggled at times recently. Also key will be the fitness of Partey, a big part of Arsenal’s impressive form this season, whose work in midfield will remain the engine that drives forward most of Ghana’s productive football. In the end much will come down to what version of Ghana actually turns up in Qatar: the never-say-die squad that squeaked past Nigeria, or the side that barely showed up for the most recent AFCON, crashing out with one point from nine. A lot of chopping and changing has been done recently, and what emerges in Qatar will either soar or crash.

A repeat of 2010 really would be the shock of shocks at this World Cup. In truth a similar level of shock might appear if Ghana were even able to get out of this group, requiring as it would at least four points against opposition where even getting one would be credible. It seems unlikely that the Black Stars will be making much hay in Qatar, and it may yet just be a mere blip in the right direction in an otherwise regressive period in their footballing history.

No one wants to be an also-ran. No one wants to be dismissed before a ball has been kicked. No one wants to be considered a side that should just be happy to be involved among the last 32, with anything else to be grasped beyond participation an extraordinary bonus. But that is where we are with these four teams. Ghana are lucky to have gotten to this point, South Korea seem satisfied with their status as a big fish in the figurative small pond of the AFC, Uruguay are embarking on a serious transitionary era and Portugal are not the same team that won EURO 2016. Some remain footballing powers, especially on a continental level, but that is about as far as one can see them progressing here in late 2022. This is probably not going to be the World Cup of Group H. Still, I suppose stranger things have happened than one of these four surprising everyone, me included. That’s the beauty of the World Cup, of football generally: a sport where the unexpected is to be expected.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Japan, Korea (Republic), Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, United States, Uruguay, Wales

Teams Eliminated

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Aruba, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Bulgaria, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Scotland, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States Virgin Islands, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Withdrawn

American Samoa, Cook Islands, Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu

To view more entries in this series, please click here to go to the index.

Photo Credits (all clockwise from top left)

Four Dark Horses: Qatari players celebrate winning the 2019 Asian Cup. Photo, cropped, from Mehrnews.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; Dutch supporters at EURO 2012. Photo by Dimitrij Nejmyrok, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; the Ecuador team ahead of a 2015 game. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; Senegal celebrate winning the 2021 AFCON. Photo by Jeanpierrekepseu, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Game For A Re-Match: The England team training during Russia 2018, photo, with cropping, by Кирилл Венедиктов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Weston McKennie of the United States in a 2019 Gold Cup game against Trinidad and Tobago, photo by Erik Drost, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; the Iranian team ahead of a World Cup qualifier against South Korea in 2012, photo by Javad Nikpour, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; the Welsh team after a friendly win over Scotland in 2009, photo by Colin Smith, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Almost: Argentina fans at the 2018 World Cup, photo by Кирилл Венедиктов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; the Mexico team at the 2018 World Cup, photo by Дмитрий Садовников reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Poland’s Robert Lewandowski in a World Cup Qualifier against Ireland in 2013, photo by Damian Kosciesza, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; Saudi fans at the 2018 World Cup, photo, with cropping, by Анна Нэсси, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

High Water Mark: French fans in the Stade de France ahead of a recent Nations League game with Austria, photo, with cropping, by Chabe01, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; Danish fans watching a game in Copenhagen in 2004, photo by Felix Andrews, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Tunisia’s Saber Khalifa competing for the ball in an AFCON match with Cote d’Ivoire in 2013, photo, with cropping, by Magharebia, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; the Australian team ahead of a 2019 Asian Cup game with UAE, photo, with cropping, by Amir Ostovari, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Fallen Giants: Spain celebrate winning EURO 2012, photo by Илья Хохлов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Hansi Flick, heead coach of Germany, photo by Steffen Prößdorf, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; the Japanese team ahead of an AFC Cup game in 2019, photo, with cropping, by Amir Ostovari, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; a Costa Riucan fan in the stands of the 2014 World Cup game against Uruguay, photo by Danilo Borges/Portal de Copa, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.

Time To Make Good: The Belgium team at the 2018 World Cup, photo by Кирилл Венедиктов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; the Croatian team on their return to Zagreb after the 2018 World Cup, photo by Josip Brombauer, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; Morocco’s Mounir El Hamdaoui ina 2013 AFCON game with Angola, photo by Magharebia, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; Canadian captain Samuel Piette during a 2017 friendly against Jamaica, photo by Canada Soccer, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Ghosts Of World Cups Past: Brazilian fans at the 2014 World Cup, photo by Danilo Borges, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Steven Zuber of Switzerland in a 2018 World Cup game against Sweden, photo, with cropping, by Кирилл Венедиктов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; the Serbian sideline during the 2018 World Cup, photo by Эдгар Брещанов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Landry N’Guemo of Cameroon in a 2014 World Cup game against Brazil, photo by copa2014.gov.br, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Just Glad To Be Here?: The Portuguese team at the 2018 World Cup, photo by Анна Нэсси, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License; Luis Suarez celebrates scoring a goal for Uruguay against the Netherlands in a 2011 friendly, photo by Jimmy Baikovicius, , reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; a South Korean flag unfurled in the stands ahead of a 2013 friendly with Haiti, photo by Manri Cheon, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License; Ghanaian fans at a 2011 friendly with England, photo by philosophyfootball, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

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1 Response to 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 (XIV) – Groups Of Life, Groups Of Death

  1. Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 Index | Never Felt Better

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