TALLAHASSEE, FL -After years of controversy, criminal investigations, questions, construction and criticism, the Big Dance in the Desert finally is about to kick off.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup begins its quadrennial occupation of the minds of soccer fans worldwide as hosts Qatar opens play against Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium in Doha on Sunday (11am EST, Fox). Games will broadcast on Fox, FS1 and Telemundo in the US. The lead up to the first World Cup to be played in the Middle East and the last to feature 32 teams has exemplified the soap opera type atmosphere that has surrounded FIFA over the past decade and has threatened overshadow the action to come.
From the corruption scandal in which some delegates have been accused of bribery to secure hosting rights for Qatar (a mistake, according to Grand Puba Prime AKA former FIFA President Sepp Blatter), to the hosts treatment of the migrant workers constructing the stadiums, to the question of LGBTQ+ rights within the country, to the banning of alcohol sales at the stadiums just two days before the start of the tournament, to the very idea of a month-long soccer tournament being played in the desert necessitating a winter tournament for the first time, no World Cup has been shrouded in controversy before a ball has been kicked quite like this one.
Yet for all the legitimate off-field distractions, the matches offer some real intrigue. For the first time in recent memory, there is no definite favorite coming into the tournament. While many of the major powerhouses and players are here, this is a wide-open tournament with any number of teams capable of a deep run.
Having failed to qualify for Russia 2018, the United States is back in The Big Dance after finishing third in its final qualifying group behind Canada and Mexico. The Squad, featuring 12 player of African descent (the most ever) opens play Monday afternoon (2pm EST, Fox) against Wales (in the tournament for the first time since Eisenhower was President). The marquee match will be against tournament contenders England the day after Thanksgiving (2pm EST, Fox) before closing against Iran on the 29th in the group stage finale.
The US is bringing is not only its youngest ever team in terms of age (25) and international experience, it will have the second youngest team in the entire tournament (Ghana). However, as forward Tim Weah (Lille, France) recently stated “…even though we are young, we’re not young minded.” The Squad features players who feature with some big-name clubs in well-respected leagues. Weston McKennie has been a consistent performer with Juventus in Italy; Christian Pulisic, perhaps the most well-known player, won the Champions League with Chelsea; Tyler Adams (set to be named Captain) and Brendon Aaronson are regular starters with Leeds in the English Premier League, Yunus Musah’s play in with Valencia in Spain has garnered attention from clubs in Italy, and Sergino Dest has shown some positive signs lately with AC Milan.
Questions do remain, besides its youth. A lack of consistent goal scoring threat amongst the forwards has raised questions about the potency of attack, especially considering coach Greg Berhalter’s decision to leave home both Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok. The pressure will be on FC Dallas’ Jesus Ferreira and Norwich’s Josh Sargent to be more than just target men. Weah, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and of course Pulisic will have to be clinical with the changes presented to them. The other question was at centerback but Tim Ream seems to have emerged as a favorite to partner Walter Zimmerman in the center of defense (though I’ll never understand why John Brooks stopped being called into camp).
Given the relative youth of this team, they could conceivably win the group or lose all three matches. A second-place finish could see a potential match-up with the Netherlands in the second round. Let’s GOOOO.
As I mentioned earlier, there is no clear cut favorite coming into this tournament. Defending champions France have been drawn into a manageable group with Denmark, Tunisia and Australia (the latter two of whom have never advanced out of the group stage) but are missing N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba (both of whom played important roles four years ago) through injury and now Balon D’Or winner Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) has been ruled out on the eve of the tournament. Many of the team’s key components from 4 years ago do remain. All eyes will, of course, be on Kylian Mbappe (PSG) and but it will be interesting to see what Antoine Griezman and Oliver Giroud still have in the tank. This may be a great opportunity for Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman. The back line remains solid in the form of Rafael Varane who seems to have overcome an injury scare, Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard.
England comes into the tournament as a favorite but in inconsistent form having gone winless in their last three competitive matches. Semifinalists four years ago and finalists at last year’s Euro20(21), this generation of the 3 Lions seems much more comfortable playing with the favorites tag. Harry (Big Daddy) Kane will lead the attack with likes of Raheem Sterling. Phil Fodden and Jack Grealish alongside Mason Mount and Jordan Henderson in the midfield are quite talented. The defense may be an issue considering the inconsistent form of Harry Maguire and the uncertainty at right back due injuries but overall, this is a good and talented side. Is it Coming Home? My man Seany in Seattle seems to think so…
Argentina, beaten by France in the match of the tournament in the Round of 16 four years ago, comes into this edition as possibly a sentimental pick. I know I said this four years ago but this HAS to be Lionel Messi’s last chance to escape the shadow of the great Diego Maradona and lead his team to the World Cup. The Albiceleste cruised through South American qualifying and has been drawn into an intriguing group with Poland, Saudi Arabia and That Team Down South. Argentina will have more than just Messi to rely on. Angel Di Maria has shaken off a minor injury and appears to be ready to go along side the likes of Lauturo Martinez. But just as four years ago, the question of the whether backline, exposed by quickness and the pure speed of Mbappe will be up to the task, remains. The lumbering Nicolas Otamendi remains the team’s most experienced defender and Nicolas Tagliafico is back but Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez is an emerging star and may be the key in holding the line as the tournament deepens.
Four-times winners Germany are back to right the wrongs of its shocking first round exit four years ago. A superbly talented side, boasting big time players like Thomas Muller (10 World Cup goals in his career) Leroy Sane, Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Antonio Rudiger and Manuel Neuer, this is a deep team that, should they navigate their tricky group featuring Spain, Japan and Costa Rica could go far as well.
Is it possible for Brazil to fly under the radar at any World Cup? They may be doing do this year. While the 2014…embarrassment against Germany well live long in soccer history, the five-time champions are deep and skilled in every position. A Seleção are boasting an impressive attack through the likes of Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Gabriel Jesus and a stacked midfield featuring Casemiro, Fabinho that Roberto Firminho was left off the team. A very experienced defense of Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Alex Sandro and even possibly the ageless Dani Alves means they won’t be consistently exposing Allison in the goal. Aside from the tournament they hosted, Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since winning 20 years ago. A possible showdown with Germany awaits this year.
Africa, Rise For the first time in history, all the African sides will be led by African managers. African Champions Senegal, led by former player Aliou Cisse, boasts an experienced side with players like Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Ismaila Starr but the hopes of the Lions of Teranga have been seriously dented with the loss of Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane to injury just weeks before the start of the tournament.
Ghana, back in the Big Dance after missing out four years ago, have the youngest team in the tournament but still can boast of experienced players such as the Ayew brothers (Jordan and Andre) and Arsenal’s Thomas Partey. As in 2014, the Black Stars are drawn with Portgual and must also navigate an always tough S. Korean side but will have revenge on their minds as they line up opposite Luis “Sometimes I Bite” Suarez and Uruguay on the final day of group play.
Cameroon is also back after an eight-year absence, qualifying in dramatic fashion via a last minute 1-2 away win against Algeria. The Indomitable Lions will have their work cut out for them if they are to advance to the Round of 16 for the first time since their magical run 32 years ago. Drawn into a group that includes Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland, Rigobert Song’s side will rely on Vincent Aboubakar & Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to lead the attack & André-Frank Zambo Anguissa to anchor the midfield.
North Africa is represented by Morocco (Group F with Belgium Canada and Croatia) and Tunisia (Group D with France, Australian and Denmark). The talented Hakim Ziyech is the top goal-scorer for the Atlas Lions who are captained by long time defender Romain Saiss and ably supported in the midfield by Sofyan Amrabat. The Cartage Eagles of Tunisa have an experienced side that averages 29.5 caps (7th highest in the tournament). Captained by Youssef Mskani who plays his club football in Qatar, Ferjani Sassi, another Qatari based player is a talented and experienced midfielder.
Stay Woke– Don’t sleep on: Canada. The Maple Leafs reward for its World Cup appearance is a group with Belgium and Croatia but this is a good side that can counter-attack with the best of them. They’ll sweat fitness of Alphonso Davies but Clyde Larin, Jonathan David and company are ready to seize their chance…Japan dominated the US in a friendly earlier this year. If Spain or Germany slip up, they are quite capable of taking advantage…Qatar boasts an experienced side that with an average of 53 caps (highest in the tournament) and won the AFC Asian Cup in 2019. Group A is wide open behind the Netherlands and as hosts, they should like their chances to do some damage…Uruguay’s big names (Suarez, Cavani, Godin, Caceres) are nearing the end of their international careers but they boast some younger talent such as Darwin Nunez and Ronald Araujo who can help the Celeste make another run to the knockout phase…In that same group stands Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo casts a huge shadow on this team that features Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix & Danilo Pereia. They have a favorable draw with a potential quarterfinal match up against Belgium.
The Last Dance (Tournament edition)- Things we won’t see in a World Cup again (probably): A 32-Team World Cup as Grand Puba 2.0 (President Gianni Infantino) has said he wants to expand the tournament to 48 teams…A World Cup played in November or December-European club sides have been vociferous in the interruption to their seasons and the potential injuries to their players. Unlike MLS in past years, they aren’t playing through tournament and presumably are losing money.
The Last Dance (Player Edition)-Having made his World Cup debut in 2006, Lionel Messi has already said he doesn’t foresee himself playing much longer…At 37 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo (who also debuted in 2006) said if Portugal wins the tournament he’ll immediately retire. Considering that he recently sat down for an interview and said essentially said of his club side “F#*& Manchester United as a staff, label and as a MF crew”, I hope for his sake that he’s right…Belgium’s “Golden Generation” the team that announced itself at the 2014 World Cup through players like Romalu Lukaku, Kevin DeBruyne, Eden Hazard and Thibault Cortois have a shrinking window to claim a trophy… Guillermo Ochoa & Andres Guardado, Enemigo’s brilliant goal keeper is 37 but I have to imagine someone else will be between the post for Eso Equipo al Sud four years from now. El Principito, as Guardado is known, has been one of El Enemigo’s longest and greatest servants. He suits up for his fifth World Cup…Also Luka Modric led Croatia to the final four years ago and was named player of the tournament. His coach thinks he’ll still be around for another major tournament but I doubt it’ll be the World Cup Stateside…Though younger than the rest, Neymar has hinted that this is also his last Cup. In my view he has just as much to prove as Messi and Ronaldo given his injury in 2014 and the diving reputation he was tagged with four years later.
It’s All About Packaging–The teams’ uniforms are always a big talking point and there are some good jerseys out there. Argentina, Brazil and England have all essentially gone with their classic looks. Saudi Arabia’s away jersey has a pretty cool design as does El Equipo Al Sud. While I’m not a big fan of the US’ home jersey (no one is, to be fair) I copped the away jersey and I’m ready to break it out on Monday. You can check them all out here
Wish You Were Here-Reining European Champions Italy failed to qualify for the second consecutive tournament…Nigeria failed to qualify for the first time in since 2006 after losing a playoff to Ghana in the Jollof Derby…Colombia and Chile have had some fantastic international results over the last 10 years Chile, in fact, won two Copa Americas. Neither qualified for this year’s World Cup…Roberto Fiminho being left off of Brazil’s side has baffled many…Sergio Ramos and David de Gea both being left off Spain’s squad raised quite a few eyebrows…
Glad You Are Here-For the first time in World Cup history, three women are included amongst the 36 referees that will be assigned World Cup matches: Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga, France’s Stephanie Frappart, France’s Stephanie Frappart.
That’s It!-Qatar will host, France will defend. 32 teams will compete, and billions will watch. Roll the ball out there and let’s play some football!
Based in Tallahassee, Andrew L. Dixon, III has contributed soccer articles to BASN since 2004. He previously authored a column for the US Soccer Players.com website and attended the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He can be reached at Golnoir@aol.com