The first World Cup ever to be held in the Middle East will be unlike any that has come before, but there may still be a familiar name on the trophy with Brazil heading to Qatar as the favourites to succeed France and end two decades of European dominance.
For the last decade, most mentions of Qatar and the World Cup have focused on the controversial decision to give the tiny Gulf state the tournament as well as criticism of its human rights record.
There has therefore been little attention paid to what might happen on the pitch between the opening game on November 20 and the final, at the 80,000-capacity Lusail Iconic Stadium on December 18.
Indeed, there has been little time to even think about the football.
The club season in Europe — where the richest teams hoard the world’s best players and from where the majority of those taking part in Qatar will come — will only halt a week before the opening game of this World Cup between the hosts and Ecuador.
The 22nd edition of the men’s World Cup is not just the first in the Arab world.
It is also first to be held at the end of the calendar year — every previous edition, right back to 1930, has been staged between May and July, in the northern hemisphere summer.
The searing desert heat in Qatar at that time of the year made that an impossibility in 2022.
Nevertheless, adjusting football‘s traditional calendar has been a challenge, and national teams have next to no time to prepare.
Injuries take their toll
There will be hardly any pre-tournament friendly matches. Many players will participate in matches with their clubs, jet off to join their country and then be thrown into the deep end of a World Cup game just a few days later — provided they do not pick up an injury beforehand.
In these circumstances, perhaps there is not much to learn from past World Cups.
However, it remains notable that only once (Brazil in 1958) has a non-European team won a World Cup played in Europe, in 11 editions.
In contrast, of the 10 played outside Europe, only twice has a European team won the trophy, albeit those were the last two: Spain in South Africa in 2010, and Germany in Brazil in 2014.
Europe is the global powerhouse of the world’s most popular sport, and has produced every World Cup winner since Brazil in 2002.
France go to Qatar as the holders after triumphing in Russia in 2018, yet Les Bleus have problems and hanging over them is the spectre of 2002, when they went to South Korea as holders and reigning European champions, only to crash out in the group stage without scoring a goal.
In Kylian Mbappe they have one of the most electrifying attacking players on the planet, and Karim Benzema is fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or.
But no team has retained the World Cup since Brazil in 1962, and injuries are a problem for French coach Didier Deschamps, who will have to do without key midfield duo N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba.
There are question marks about Europe’s other traditional powerhouses, with Italy failing to qualify despite winning Euro 2020.
Messi’s last chance?
There are issues over form and fitness for England and Germany, while it remains to be seen if Spain have the defence or the attack to be serious contenders.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be there with Portugal, but at the age of 37 some wonder if he might be more of a hindrance to his team than anything else.
With a formidable squad beyond the flair of Neymar, five-time world champions Brazil therefore stand out, while their old rivals Argentina also go to Qatar in excellent shape.
“Argentina and Brazil look far superior to everyone else,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique recently.
Argentina have been on a 35-game unbeaten run and will be on a collision course to meet Brazil in the semi-finals should both sides top their group.
At 35, it is now or never for Lionel Messi if he is to win the greatest trophy of them all.
“I am just lucky to be able to go to this World Cup given I am 35 now,” said the Paris Saint-Germain superstar, who has been in outstanding form for his club.
“I am in good shape physically, better than last year,” he added in a recent interview with Argentina channel DirecTV Sports.
“But Brazil and France are the big favourites.”
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