- Posted by Amy Bell
- On November 5, 2022
Twelve years after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in controversial fashion, the tournament will kick off in the Gulf state when the host nation face Ecuador on November 20.
Many argue this World Cup should not be taking place. Human rights groups have attacked the decision to hold football’s showpiece event in a country where homosexuality is a crime and where migrant workers reportedly face exploitative conditions. Last year the Guardian found 6,500 migrant workers had died since the award of the tournament, a number Qatar denies.
There are logistical issues too. The tournament has been moved to the northern hemisphere’s winter for the first time owing to high summer temperatures in Qatar. Less than 4,500 square miles in size, it is also the smallest country to host the World Cup.
On the pitch, Spain and England will find themselves on unfamiliar territory. In the case of La Roja, the thread linking them to the 2010 World Cup win is all but broken. England, meanwhile, must deal with the pressure which comes with having reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup in Russia and a first major final since 1966 at last year’s European Championships, where they lost to Italy on penalties.
The Euros represented a major step forward for Spain. After three major tournaments in which they struggled by comparison to the serial champions of 2008-2012, a vibrant team reached the semi-finals at Wembley. While they were beaten by eventual champions Italy in a penalty shoot-out, manager Luis Enrique struck the right tone in his post-match comments. “After nine years of crossing the desert, Spain have returned,” he said.
Whether Spain have truly returned will be measured in the desert-like conditions of Qatar. Barcelona youngsters Pedri and Gavi have impressed in midfield and should be joined by club teammate and dynamic winger Ansu Fati. Villarreal’s Yeremy Pino and Athletic Bilbao’s Nico Williams, both aged 20, are two attacking prospects who could be set for a breakthrough tournament, having made a flying start to their international careers.
Problems remain in familiar areas, however. Striker Álvaro Morata experienced a Jekyll-and-Hyde tournament at the Euros, scoring crucial goals against Croatia and Italy in the knockout stages but missing his penalty in the semi-final shoot- out. The centre-back pairing of Eric García and Pau Torres is nowhere near as reliable as the old duo of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué, as shown by Spain’s 2-1 defeat to Switzerland in September.
Spain will be pitted against a new-look Germany side, Japan and Costa Rica in the group stage. They should have little trouble in qualifying for the knockout rounds, but a second-placed finish could mean they face a strong Belgium team or Croatia, who pushed them all the way in the last-16 of the Euros. Qatar could prove the making of a side who surprised many by reaching the semi-finals of that tournament.
If the jury is still out on Luis Enrique’s Spain, then many England fans have already made up their mind about manager Gareth Southgate. Despite guiding the Three Lions to their two best major tournament results in recent memory, Southgate’s team have shown themselves winless in some pre-tournament matches. More worrying for supporters was the manner of those results – before a 3-3 draw with Germany in September, England had not scored from open play in five games.
Southgate’s tactics have been criticised as overly conservative, with the omission of Liverpool’s marauding right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold from the team especially puzzling. England’s attacking play in the closing stages of their draw against Germany seemed to signal the way forward. Harness that energy and there is every chance they can go far; rely on a shaky defence, and they could be looking at an early exit. Even so, a group with Wales, the United States and Iran should be manageable.
There are no overwhelming favourites. Defending champions France have a squad packed with talent, but they crashed out of the Euros in the last-16. Argentina and Brazil will both hope to become the first South American side in 20 years to win, but will living up to Diego Maradona’s legacy again prove too much for Lionel Messi? His Argentina team have gone 35 games unbeaten and won the Copa América last year, Messi’s first senior international trophy.
Given the strange circumstances around the tournament, there could be room for a fallen giant such as Germany to take advantage after they fell at the group stage last time out. The finals few wanted could end up being the most unpredictable.