In just over 24 hours, Qatar 2022 will come to life as the host nation take on Ecuador in the opening game of the World Cup.
It’s a tournament that has caused controversy since it was awarded to the Gulf nation in 2010 but, after years of waiting, players are putting the finishing touches on their preparations.
As off-the-pitch issues continue to dominate the headlines, from the deaths of migrant workers, to the conditions many have endured in Qatar, to LGBTQ and women’s rights, and the fact that no alcohol will be sold in the stadiums, the action on the pitch promises to be unpredictable and thrilling.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 32 nations competing and the players who could dazzle.
Only eight nations have won the men’s World Cup, many of which are among the favorites this time around.
Brazil hold the records for most titles, having lifted the trophy five times, and the new generation have a real shot at adding another in what would be the country’s first in 20 years.
The offensive options speak for themselves. As he has done since bursting 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 back him up.
There’s quality all over the pitch, especially in defence, where Chelsea’s experienced Thiago Silva and Paris Saint-Germain’s Marquinhos will likely form a shield for Liverpool keeper Allison.
Brazil also have an impressive record to boast of, winning or drawing 28 of their last 29 games, the only loss to Argentina in the 2021 Copa America final and will feel confident of reaching the knockout stages of final. They face a relatively easy group stage, against Switzerland, Cameroon and Serbia.
Alongside Brazil, you cannot ignore France.
The reigning world champion sailed through qualifying without losing a match and matured Kylian Mbappe into a global superstar.
However, a number of injuries in key positions could hurt his chances. Star striker Karim Benzema was ruled out on the eve of the tournament, while the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante – so essential to his success in 2018 – are absent. However, centre-back Raphael Varane has been included in the squad after recovering from injury.
Nielsen’s Gracenote predicts Brazil have a 20 per cent chance of winning the competition, with Argentina, with the great Lionel Messi in their squad, next most likely to lift the trophy with an 18 per cent chance.
Simon Gleave, Head of Analytics for Gracenote Sports, said: “No other team has been as consistent over the past four years as the two South American giants and that consistency means there’s a good chance let one of them win.”
It’s rare for an underdog to win the World Cup, but it’s not impossible.
Denmark has its new golden generation. After being eliminated by England in the semi-finals of Euro 2020, the team waltzed through World Cup qualifying, winning nine of their 10 matches and conceding just three goals.
Manchester United playmaker Christian Eriksen is arguably his 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).
Such trauma seemed to unite the team and the Danes will be a tough proposition for anyone in Qatar.
Elsewhere, Senegal are arguably Africa’s best team at the tournament – even without Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane out through injury.
‘The Teranga Lions’ won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time earlier this year and have a host of stars playing in Europe’s top leagues.
Although Mane is a massive loss, the team no longer depends solely on its captain.
Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy is a top goalkeeper and Kalidou Koulibaly is used to facing the best strikers in Europe. It also has rising star Ismaila Sarr’s chilling pace to lean on.
No African team has ever reached the semi-finals of a World Cup, but this Senegalese team has a chance, albeit a very slim one, if the draw is favorable.
Some of the best players in the world will be showcased in Qatar and for many this may be the last chance they have to get their hands on the famous trophy.
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the greatest players to ever play the game, but neither has had success on the biggest international stage.
Messi has already confirmed that this will be his last World Cup and, given he will be over 40 at the next tournament, it’s safe to say that Ronaldo is unlikely to play in another.
Both are already their country’s top scorers and have a reasonable chance of going far in the tournament.
Away from established superstars, this could also be a tournament that unearths lesser-known talent.
Apart from making their World Cup debut, Qatar are a relatively unknown quantity, with most of their players spending their careers in the top domestic league. The exception is striker Akram Afif.
The wide player had brief stints 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 supports his trickery with efficiency.
Afif had 11 assists in the team’s Asian Cup win in 2019 and currently has eight assists in just seven appearances in the Qatar Premier League. He is one to watch in the opener.
Another rising star is Japanese Takefusa Kubo.
The 21-year-old playmaker learned his trade at some of the most prestigious football schools, spending time at Barcelona’s youth academy before joining Real Madrid in 2019.
He has 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. So no pressure.
American star Gio Reyna could also become a world star.
The 19-year-old, whose mother and father both played international football for the United States, joined German club Borussia Dortmund in 2019 from the youth academy in New York and has made great strides, getting a lot of playing time in recent weeks after missing a number. games last season with injury.
Speaking to CNN in 2020, Ghana 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. “Not making mistakes under pressure, changing direction under pressure and accelerating in midfield.
“He also has the intelligence of the game, to always position himself between the lines, to read the game and he knows what’s next. He brings much, much more than other players in his age group.
The tournament kicks off on November 20 with Qatar taking on Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium. The round of 16 then kicks off on December 3, before the final takes place on December 18.
United States: 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 tournament matches and all USMNT group matches.
November 20: Qatar vs Ecuador – 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1
November 21: USMNT vs Wales – 7 p.m., Fox
November 22: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia – 10 a.m., Fox Sports 1
November 24: Portugal vs Ghana – 4 p.m., Fox
November 25: England vs USMNT – 7 p.m., Fox
November 29: Iran vs. USMNT – 7 p.m., Fox
December 18: World Cup Final – 3 p.m., Fox