Controversial but irresistible: Qatar’s winter World Cup is finally here

Football's biggest competition kicks off today despite controversy over Qatar's human rights record

The beautiful game’s biggest competition starts today, and despite being marred by controversy, football fans are still looking forward to seeing the world’s best compete for the ultimate prize.

This will be the first World Cup to be held in the Arab world, and the second World Cup held entirely in Asia after the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan. That has meant a shift to a winter schedule, which has not gone down well with many fans and has had knock-on effects for other football competitions such as the European leagues.

The build-up has also been dominated by significant controversy over Qatar’s record on human rights, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in the years since the Gulf state was awarded the World Cup, and the treatment of LGBT+ people.

How was the tournament awarded to Qatar?

The bidding process started in 2009, with Qatar, USA, Australia, South Korea, and Japan being the potential host nations.

Two members of the Executive Committee, Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, were suspended in the run-up to the vote amid allegations of corruption.

Despite being graded by FIFA as having “high operational risks”, the Qatar bid received the most votes, beating the USA’s proposal 14-8 in the final round.

As soon as Qatar won the bid, concerns grew about the high temperatures in the country during the summer months, with an average daily temperature of 42°C in July. This led FIFA to recommend the tournament being hosted in winter.

But temperatures in Qatar remain very high with average highs of 29 Celsius in November and 25 in December. That means that seven of eight open air stadiums will be airconditioned.

Ronaldo and Messi’s last dance

The 2022 World Cup will probably be the last for arguably the two greatest players to play the game – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

When Messi and Ronaldo took to the stage of the 2006 World Cup, aged 18 and 21 respectively, the footballing world could never have imagined the duo’s legacy at domestic and international level.

With a total of 12 Ballon d’Ors, nine Champions Leagues, 18 domestic titles and seven club world cups between them, winning the ultimate prize in football would be the cherry on the cake for their stellar careers.

Both Messi and Ronaldo have won their respective continental championship with Argentina and Portugal, and getting their hands on the FIFA World Cup could help settled the greatest of all time debate.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Argentina and Portugal could go all the way to the World Cup final, an early Christmas present for football fans across the world, with many wishes of a Messi vs. Ronaldo showdown coming on the biggest stage of all.

The pair could also meet in the semi-finals should either team win their group and the other finish second, whilst there is also the unlikely event that football’s two most recognised stars meet in the third-place playoff match; the latter scenario would at least likely make it the most watched World Cup consolation match in history.

Young players take the stage

The World Cup always saw young players rise to the stardom, with the competition being the perfect stage to show-off their skills to the world.

England’s Jude Bellingham is tearing it up in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, and is touted for a big-money move to one of Europe’s big club in the summer. A good performance should help drive his fee to new height.

Barcelona’s Gavi and Pedri won the coveted Golden Boy award in consecutive years, and are expected to light up the Spanish midfield should Louis Enrique fit them in his starting 11.

The Netherlands’ Cody Gakpo is also having an excellent season with PSV Eindhoven, and is expected to make a big money move to one of Europe’s top clubs.

Group breakdown

Group A – Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar

This group should be a straight forward one for the Dutch, who will be on a mission under the guidance of the quirky Louis Van Gaal. Senegal are touted to be the best African team at the tournament, but will be starting the competition without their star player Sadio Mane, who was ruled out of the Lions of Teranga’s opener with the Netherlands. Hosts Qatar will be luck to pick up a point.

Group B – England, Wales, USA and Iran

The Three Lions should top the group, leaving Wales and the USA fighting for second place. Opening day should be tight with matchday two bringing some key clashes which could decide who advances given that the Welsh and the English meet in the final round of games.

Group C – Argentina, Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia

Argentina are among the favourites to win the World Cup, and should make light work of Saudi Arabia, Mexico and then Poland. Lionel Messi’s Albiceleste have a strong squad with the likes of Angel Di Maria, Lisandro Martinez and Otamendi bringing the intensity and experience the squad needs especially during the latter stages of the competition. Few are giving the Saudis much of a chance, but Herve Renard is a proven coach at international level with underdog sides.

Group D – France, Denmark, Tunisia and Australia

France, the reigning world champions, are expected to top the group, but Denmark are not an easy team to face, given their run in EURO 2020. France will also miss key players like Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in their squad, with the two running the midfield when the Les Bleus were crowned champions in Russia 2018.

Group E – Spain, Germany, Japan and Costa Rica

Germany and Spain are two teams who always turn up on the international stage, boasting a squad of experienced and talented players. They are expected to win their opening ties, and while Japan could make life tough for the Europeans, it is unlikely to be enough by the end.

Group F – Croatia, Canada, Belgium and Morocco

While having a squad of talented players across the pitch, Belgium’s golden generation have not lived up to the hype and their Euro 2020 showing illustrated further regression from a potential title win. Croatia’s experienced squad should mean they top their group, but Canada will be tough opponents.

Group G – Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon

The South Americans are also favourites to win the World Cup, boasting a sensational front-line which includes the likes of Neymar, Antony, Raphina, Vinicius Junior and Richarlison. They also possess one of the most balanced squads of all the contenders. Serbia and Switzerland both boast talented groups, but the Swiss have shown themselves to be an underrated force internationally of late so should be good enough to finish second behind the Brazilians.

Group H – Uruguay, Portugal, South Korea and Ghana

Portugal, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Cancelo and Reuben Neves have a strong squad, but Uruguay look to be the dark horses of the competition. South Korea and Ghana would be lucky to finish second.

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