World Wednesday: Countdown to Qatar
Soccer Sheet's World Cup coverage starts today
The FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar begins in 88 days, with Qatar’s national team hosting Ecuador at 7:00 PM local time (11:00 AM EST) at Al Bayt Stadium, 35 km north of Doha. With the 12+ weeks we have until kickoff, we’re going to cover everything related to this year’s tournament: the 32 teams, the 8 groups, the political intrigue, the human rights questions, the culture … everything. Our hope is by the time the teams take the field, you’ll be an expert in all things FIFA … or at the very least able to hold a conversation at a local pub.
Who’s in, who’s out
After months of qualifying (despite a global pandemic), the field of 32 teams is finally set. The competition starts with three round robin days of match play within eight groups of four; after each national team plays three matches, the top two teams in each group advance to the round of 16, at which point the tournament moves to a knockout format.
The qualifying process for the Men’s World Cup is complex, but in essence it involves winning or placing high in qualifying tournaments hosted by FIFA’s six regional confederations: AFC (Asia, Australia, and the Middle East but not Russia or Israel); CAF (Africa); CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean, plus Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname from South America); CONMEBOL (the rest of South America); OFC (Oceania, but not Australia); and UEFA (Europe, the Caucasus region, Turkey, Israel,
Russia, and Kazakhstan).
Because the confederations differ in size and strength, they receive different numbers of bids to the World Cup. This year, UEFA qualified the most teams with 13; the OFC qualified no teams as New Zealand lost an inter-confederation playoff to eventual qualifier Costa Rica. Below are some highlighted teams that made the Cup, and some that didn’t (by no means a comprehensive list in either case).
Argentina: They’ve won the tournament twice and appeared in the final five times. They may have the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. Because their group includes Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the weaker ones. At 35 years old, this may be Messi’s last chance - a storyline that will get a lot of mileage.
Australia: After leaving the OFC and joining the Asian countries in 2006, Australia has qualified for every World Cup. This year, after a 0-0 draw in extra time, the Aussies beat Peru in penalty kicks to win the inter-confederation playoff between AFC and CONMEBOL.
Brazil: According to FIFA, they’re the top-ranked team in the world. They’re the only national team to play in every World Cup competition. They’ve won it five times. “Expect them to make it out of group play” is an understatement.
France: In the old days, the defending champions qualified for the World Cup automatically. Since that rule hasn’t been in effect for 20 years, France had to qualify on their own merits. In their UEFA qualification group, France won five matches and drew three, joining Belgium, Serbia, Switzerland, and England as the European teams who qualified for the World Cup without losing a single match.
Germany: They’ve won the tournament four times, making their current 11th place ranking deceptive. Germany is always a contender in both the Men’s and Women’s World Cups; in fact, they’re the only nation to have won both.
Ghana: At 60th, Ghana is the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup. They are also in one of the easiest groups to predict; along with South Korea, they can look forward to losing to Portugal and Uruguay.
Poland: If you follow Soccer Sheet’s Charlotte FC coverage, you may already know some of the players who have “caps” (appearances) for the Polish national team, including Karol Świderski. If you know anything about European football, you know the name of Robert Lewandowski, the Polish captain who is widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the world. However, you may not know how Poland got to the World Cup this year. After finishing in second place to England in their qualifying group, Poland joined 11 other European teams in the second round of qualification play. They got a bye against Russia for reasons we’ll get to, then beat Sweden in the Path B final to qualify for the tournament.
Qatar: While FIFA currently ranks Qatar as the 49th-best men’s team, as the hosts they receive an automatic bid. With Senegal, the Netherlands, and Ecuador, they’ve also lucked into one of the weakest groups. Furthermore, the only host country to ever get knocked out in group play was South Africa in 2010, so they have reasons for hope in their first-ever World Cup appearance.
Spain: Speaking of 2010, when all anyone could hear during the World Cup were the Vuvuzelas? Spain won their only World Cup that year. They’re currently ranked 6th.
USA: Four years ago, the US Men’s National Team didn’t make the World Cup. It was the first time the US missed the World Cup since 1986. This year, they join Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica as the four teams representing CONCACAF. In group play, the United States faces England - ranked 5th in the world as of this writing - Wales, and Iran. In fact, if you average the FIFA rankings of all of the teams in the World Cup, Group B is the strongest, meaning the USMNT has one of the toughest possible roads to the round of 16.
Colombia: The second best team in the world that missed the tournament. They finished one point below Peru in the CONMEBOL qualifier that sent Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Ecuador to the World Cup. Perhaps they would have beat Australia; we’ll never know.
Italy: The best team in the world that’s staying home this year. Italy finished second to the Swiss in UEFA group play, then lost 0-1 at home to North Macedonia (admit it, you didn’t know they had a soccer team). After qualifying for almost every World Cup since the tournament’s inception, this is the second in a row the four-time champions have missed.
Nigeria: The best African squad that missed the tournament, and the national team of one of my favorite players, Taiwo Awoniyi. They lost their third-round final to Ghana after two draws in two matches since the CAF uses “away goals scored” as a major tiebreaker; since Nigeria tied 0-0 in Ghana and 1-1 at home, that was enough to end Nigeria’s World Cup dream.
North Korea: The team withdrew from qualifying due to COVID-19.
North Macedonia: Their Cinderella run ended in the finals of UEFA Path C with a 2-0 loss to Portugal.
Russia: First they were suspended from international competition due to doping. Then FIFA let them compete in World Cup qualifiers. Then Vladimir Putin ordered the illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, and Russia was banned from World Cup play after making the second round of the UEFA qualifiers due to protests from other nations. Russia appealed the decision but was still prohibited from playing, giving Poland a bye. Personally, I hope the team isn’t allowed to play another international match while Putin is still in power.
Ukraine: Unfortunately, the Russian soccer ban didn’t create a place for Ukraine in the World Cup. Because of the war, Ukraine wasn’t able to play its second-round qualifier matches until June, and both matches were away in the United Kingdom. Ukraine beat Scotland before losing 1-0 to Wales in the final.
In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the history of the World Cup competition, the politics of FIFA and the World Cup, the human rights abuses and other problematic aspects of this year’s World Cup, US and MLS players to watch, analysis of all 32 teams and 8 groups, and any breaking news between now and kickoff.
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