In just over 24 hours, Qatar 2022 will burst into life as the host nation takes on Ecuador in the opening game of the World Cup.
It’s a tournament that has caused controversy ever since it was awarded to the Gulf nation in 2010 but, after years of waiting, the players are making the final touches to their preparations.
While off-field issues continue to make headlines, from the deaths of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured in Qatar, to LGBTQ and women’s rights, and the fact no alcohol will be sold at stadiums, the on-field action promises to be unpredictable and thrilling.
Here is all you need to know about the 32 nations competing and the players who could dazzle.
Only eight nations have ever won the men’s World Cup, many of which are among the favorites this time around.
Brazil holds the records for most titles, having lifted the trophy five times, and the new generation has a real chance of adding another for what would be the country’s first in 20 years.
The attacking options speak for themselves. As he has done since stepping onto the world stage, Neymar will carry the expectations of a nation but will have Real Madrid’s Vinicuis Jr. and Barcelona’s Raphinha to support him.
There is quality all over the pitch, not least in defense, where Chelsea’s experienced Thiago Silva and Paris Saint-Germain’s Marquinhos will likely form a shield for Liverpool’s goalkeeper Allison.
Brazil also has an impressive record to boast, winning or drawing 28 of its past 29 matches, the only loss coming against Argentina in the Copa America final in 2021 and will feel confident of reaching the knockout rounds. It faces a relatively easy group stage, against Switzerland, Cameroon and Serbia.
Alongside Brazil, you can’t ignore France.
The reigning world champion breezed through qualifying without losing a game and has Kylian Mbappe maturing into a global superstar.
However, a number of injuries in key positions could harm its chances. Star striker Karim Benzema has been ruled out on the eve of the tournament, while the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante – so pivotal to its success in 2018 – miss out. However, central defender Raphael Varane has been included in the squad after recovering from injury.
Nielsen’s Gracenote predicts Brazil has a 20% chance of winning the competition, with Argentina, boasting the great Lionel Messi in its squad, the next most likely to lift the trophy with an 18% chance.
Simon Gleave, head of analysis for Gracenote Sports, said: “No other teams have been anywhere near as consistent over the last four years as the two South American giants and this consistency means that there is a good chance of one of them prevailing.”
It’s rare that an underdog wins the World Cup but it’s not impossible.
Denmark has its new golden generation. After being knocked out by England in the Euro 2020 semifinals, the team waltzed through World Cup qualification, winning nine of its 10 matches and conceding only three goals.
Manchester United playmaker Christian Eriksen is arguably its most important player and his return to the team is nothing short of a miracle.
Eriksen collapsed during Denmark’s game against Finland at Euro 2020 and received life-saving treatment on the pitch before being fitted with a Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) device.
Such trauma seemed to unite the team and the Danes will be a tough proposition for anyone in Qatar.
Elsewhere, Senegal is arguably the best African team at the tournament – even without Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane, who misses out through injury.
‘The Lions of Teranga’ won the African Cup of Nations for the first time earlier this year and have a host of star names playing in Europe’s top leagues.
Although Mane will be a massive loss, the team is no longer just reliant on its captain.
Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy is a top class goalkeeper and Kalidou Koulibaly is used to dealing with the very best attackers in Europe. It also has the frightening pace of rising star Ismaila Sarr to lean on.
No African team has ever made it to the semifinals of a World Cup but this Senegal side has a chance, albeit very slim, should the draw be kind.
Players to watch
Some of the best players in the world will be on show in Qatar and, for many, it’s possibly the last chance they have to get their hands on the famous trophy.
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the greatest players to have played the game, but neither have had success on the biggest international stage.
Messi has already confirmed this will be his last World Cup and, given he’ll be over 40 when the next tournament comes around, it’s safe to say Ronaldo is unlikely to play another.
Both are already their nation’s top goalscorers and both have a reasonable chance of going far in the tournament.
Away from the established superstars, though, this could also be a tournament that unearths some lesser-known talents.
In addition to making its World Cup debut, Qatar is a relatively unknown quantity with most of its players spending their careers in the nation’s top league. The exception is attacker Akram Afif.
The wideman spent brief spells in Belgium and Spain before returning to Qatar and signing for Al Sadd in 2020. The 25-year-old has since developed into an exciting playmaker and backs up his trickery with efficiency.
Afif made 11 assists during the team’s Asian Cup win in 2019 and currently has eight assists in just seven appearances in Qatar’s top division. He’s one to watch in the opening game.
Another rising star is Japan’s Takefusa Kubo.
The playmaker, 21, has learnt his trade at some of soccer’s most prestigious schools, spending time in Barcelona’s youth academy before joining Real Madrid in 2019.
He’s since left the Spanish capital but has excelled at Real Sociedad this season. He will be an important player in Japan’s World Cup campaign and has already been dubbed the ‘Japanese Lionel Messi’ back home. No pressure, then.
American star Gio Reyna could also become a global star.
The 19-year-old, whose mother and father both played international soccer for the US, joined German club Borussia Dortmund in 2019 from New York City’s youth academy and has made big strides, getting plenty of game time in recent weeks after missing a number of games last season with injury.
Speaking to CNN in 2020, Ghana’s manager and former Dortmund youth coach Otto Addo said Reyna’s ability was clear from an early age.
“It’s his technique under pressure,” he said. “To make no mistakes under pressure, to change direction under pressure and to accelerate in the midfield.
“He also has game intelligence, to position himself always between the lines, to read the game and he knows what’s next. He brings a lot, way more than other players from his age group.”
When is it?
The tournament kicks off on November 20 with Qatar facing Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium. The knockout stages then start on December 3, before the final takes place on December 18.
How to watch?
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC
Here are some of the key dates, including Messi and Ronaldo’s first games of the tournament and all USMNT group fixtures.
Nov 20: Qatar vs. Ecuador – 4pm, Fox Sports 1
Nov 21: USMNT vs. Wales – 7pm, Fox
Nov 22: Argentina vs. Saud Arabia – 10am, Fox Sports 1
Nov 24: Portugal vs. Ghana – 4pm, Fox
Nov 25: England vs. USMNT – 7pm, Fox
Nov 29: Iran vs. USMNT – 7pm, Fox
Dec 18: World Cup Final – 3pm, Fox