The World Cup is upon us and the draw is now set. Qatar remains a contentious choice as host, while the qualifying rounds are not all complete. For some, the journey is already over with Sweden, Nigeria, Colombia, Algeria, Chile and most shockingly Italy amongst those eliminated. Some of the world’s biggest players will also be absent from Qatar with Mo Salah, Erling Haaland, Jan Oblak, Victor Oshimen and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among the notable absentees. However, the World Cup remains the greatest show on Earth. Here, we countdown the hopes of those going or at least hoping to go to Qatar:
There are times football has to be put into perspective: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one such instance. Football has shown unity and solidarity with the Ukrainian people and thrown Russia out of this tournament. On the pitch, Ukraine’s players have shown dignity and courage by continuing to play.
Assuming their playoff with Scotland goes ahead in June, it’s difficult to predict what kind of team Ukraine will field. However, there are enough current Ukraine internationals still playing to pull a squad together. Andriy Yarmolenko has demonstrated he still has the ability to pull out spectacular goals at key moments and Ukraine have fond memories of Hampden Park from last summer’s Euros. Clearly, going to a World Cup won’t stop the suffering in Ukraine, but no qualifier would be more popular at the finals.
36. United Arab Emirates
The UAE secured a playoff against Australia by beating South Korea 1-0 in Dubai. It has been a disappointing campaign from the UAE, who lost four of their ten group games and finished nine points adrift of automatic qualification. A major plus from the campaign has been the goal-scoring exploits of Ali Mabkhout, who banged in 14 goals, taking his international tally to 79. He remains paramount to his country’s hopes of overcoming Australia and Peru to secure UAE’s place at the first Arabic World Cup.
35. New Zealand
New Zealand returned to competitive action by breezing through the shortened Oceania qualifying. A 5-0 hammering of the Soloman Islands in the final booked New Zealand a playoff date against Costa Rica in Doha. New Zealand fell at the playoff hurdle to Peru back in 2018 and again record goalscorer Chris Wood will be the key player when they step out for the playoff final. Despite their lack of star names, New Zealand do have some promising youngsters; notably Brondby midfielder Joe Bell, who opened his international account in that 5-0 win. Costa Rica will be a tougher challenge, but Wood finding his shooting boots for Newcastle would be a huge boost for the All Whites.
Australia left Oceania to join the Asia Football Confederation to avoid having to playoff against the fifth-placed team from South American qualifying. Having finished a disappointing third in Asia Group B, they’re now facing a playoff against the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying.
Before that, the Socceroos must overcome the UAE in Doha for the right to take on Peru and book a place in the finals. Australia managed just one win on their travels and ended the group campaign with defeats to Japan and Saudi Arabia, failing to score on both on occasions. Injuries have been a factor in Australia’s woes and the return of midfield duo Tom Rogic and Jackson Irvine will be key in their playoff hopes.
With their playoff against Ukraine postponed, Scotland spent the international window securing friendly draws against Poland and Austria. Worryingly, the Scots gave away the lead in both games, giving Steve Clark food for thought ahead of the playoffs. Scotland are an ascending team with a talented generation blossoming in midfield and on the flanks. The lack of an outright goal-scorer and those defensive lapses remain a concern, but Hampden Park will be rocking in June with a final against Wales at stake. The reward for that will a place at the World Cup and a dust up with the ‘Auld Enemy’ in Qatar.
32. Costa Rica
Costa Rica are in the unfamiliar position of requiring a playoff win to punch their ticket to the finals. They do, however, go into the playoffs in positive form, as their 2-0 win over the USA extended their unbeaten run to seven games. Defeats to Mexico, Canada and the USA earlier in the campaign left Costa Rica with too much to do. They don’t have the quality they possessed during their run to the 2014 Quarterfinals, but Keylor Navas remains a top class goalkeeper and veteran striker Joel Campbell has rediscovered his goal-scoring touch for his country.
Peru did enough to see off the late challenge of Colombia and finish fifth in a tough South American qualifying campaign. An early strike from Gianluca Lapadula settled Peruvian nerves in their final qualifier against Paraguay, with Yoshimar Yotun’s goal before halftime ensuring the required win. Peru edged New Zealand in a two-legged playoff to secure their place at the 2018 World Cup and must wait until June to discover if they’ll face UAE or Australia for a place at the finals.
Having barely played for Real Madrid all season, Gareth Bale turned in a masterclass for Wales against Austria. First, he bent in a sublime free kick for the opener before a stunning second half goal gave Wales a 2-1 win and booked a playoff final in Cardiff. If it’s the Scot’s who progress, it will bring back painful Welsh memories of previous qualifying exits at Scotland’s hand. However, with Aaron Ramsey also returning to match fitness, things are going Wales’ way and Bale will always give them a chance.
Having waited 12 years for their curtain call, Qatar finally got to host the draw for their tournament. However, they quickly learned the draw can be cruel. Qatar will have hoped for a plum tie from pot two and got one in the Netherlands, but drawing arguably the best sides from pots three and four in Senegal and Ecuador mean the hosts will face an uphill battle to reach the last 16. Earlier in the week, Qatar again showed they can compete with Europe’s welterweight sides by beating Bulgaria and holding Slovenia to a 0-0 draw. With a home-based squad of players playing at home and a squad experienced in playing together are Qatar’s biggest assets ahead of the finals.
After a dismal AFCON campaign, few fancied Ghana’s chances of winning through a playoff with Nigeria. The home leg ended 0-0 keeping Ghana in the tie, while ten minutes into the away leg Nigeria, goalkeeper Francis Uzoho made a mess of saving Thomas Partey’s tame effort and Ghana went ahead. Nigeria leveled midway through the first half, but in the second half, Ghana held firm to go through on away goals. Their reward is a place in a tough-looking group H and will finish the group stage with a possible revenge clash against Uruguay and reunion with a certain Luis Suarez.
27. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia completed a successful qualifying campaign with Salem al-Dawsari’s penalty, securing a 1-0 win over Australia. The Saudi’s will hope playing in neighboring Qatar will prove a happier experience than they received four years ago when they were embarrassed 5-0 by Russia in the tournament opener. Back then, it was al-Dawsari who provided Saudi Arabia’s best moment with an injury time goal against Egypt to secure a consolation win. He will be paramount to Saudi hopes in November.
Cameroon pulled off the shock of African qualifying by coming from behind to take down Algeria. Having lost the first leg 1-0 at home, it looked a mission improbable for Ghana to go through, but Bayern Munich’s Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting leveled the tie midway through the first half. Algeria thought they’d won the tie when Islam Slimani struck twice, but saw both efforts ruled out. Algeria seemed to have it in the bag when they scored in the 118th minute, but four minutes into injury time at the end of extra time, Toko Ekambi struck to send Cameroon to Qatar. Cameroon no longer have a star names in the mold of Eto’o or Song, but as they showed in making the AFCON Semifinals, this team is far more than the sum of its parts.
Tunisia have made it to a second straight World Cup largely due to a tight defence that conceded just twice in eight qualifiers. That run was completed by shutting out Mali home and away in the playoffs with an own goal enough to send Tunisia through 1-0 on aggregate. That defensive discipline will be key for Tunisia, who have been drawn in a tough group with France and Denmark. Going forward Saint-Etienne striker Wahbi Khazri will again be Tunisia’s dangerman.
After a shaky start to qualifying, Japan have made it to a seventh consecutive World Cup. Substitute Kaoru Mitoma’s last gasp brace in Sydney made sure of Japan’s place in a 2-0 win over Australia. The draw didn’t do Japan any favors with an opening fixture against Germany in a group headed by Spain. Since the last World Cup, Japan have had to move on without old favorites Honda, Hasebe and Kagawa, but captain Maya Yoshida is a stalwart in defence and Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino is their brightest attacking talent.
Ecuador stumbled over the line in South America, despite failing to win any of their last four qualifiers. Ecuador got the points in the bag early in the campaign, notably beating Uruguay 4-2 and trouncing Colombia 6-1 last year. Picking up vital draws in Peru and at home to Brazil gave Ecuador enough of a cushion to make sure they remained in the automatic qualification spots. Fittingly, it was veteran forward Enner Valencia who finished off the campaign with a late equalizer against Argentina, but it was DC United’s Michael Estrada who proved key, bagging six goals in qualifying. They will now have the honor of opening the World Cup when they face Qatar on November 21st.
Canada held their nerve to top Concacaf qualifying and reach their first World Cup since 1986. A first defeat of the campaign in Costa Rica cast doubts on Canada’s place in Qatar, but as he has throughout qualifying, Cyle Larin pushed Canada over the line with the opening goal in a 4-0 win over Jamaica. Having beaten both the US and Mexico in qualifying, Canada have truly arrived on the international scene and will open their campaign against Belgium. They will have star man Alphonso Davies back to fitness to lead a young team that appears to play with no fear.
Iran breezed into a fifth World Cup finals, although a 2-0 defeat to South Korea saw them lose their unbeaten run with qualification already secured. The draw proved emotive for Iran with an opening game against England, who they’ve never played, and a closing group encounter with the USA. Iran have never made it beyond the group phase and despite their secure form, their defence doesn’t look quite as strong as we saw in 2014 and 2018. However, forward Sardar Asmoun remains as potent as ever for his country. How he copes playing at the sharp-end of the Bundelsiga with Bayer Leverkusen will give us a fair idea how he will do at the finals.
Serbia provided the shock of the European group phase when Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late header saw them defeat Portugal to win Group A. Friendlies in March saw a 1-0 win over Hungary, but a hefty 3-0 reverse to Denmark end Serbia’s eight-game unbeaten run. The draw brought a remarkably similar group to 2018 with repeat fixtures against Brazil and Switzerland, both of whom beat Serbia in Russia. There are fewer veterans in the squad this time with the likes of Ivanovic and Matic retired, however, Ajax’s Dusan Tadic is now the skipper and will be the creative fulcrum of the team.
Morocco comfortably overcame DR Congo to book their place at the finals. After a 1-1 draw in the away leg, an early double from young midfielder Azzedine Ounahi sent Morocco on their way to a comfortable 4-1 win. The draw has thrown up a tough, but not unassailable group in Belgium, Croatia and Canada: All teams who hold attacking threats, but have defensive vulnerabilities. A defence lead by star right back Achraf Hakimi and skipper Romain Saiss is solid, but the question is whether manager Vahid Halilhodzic can kiss make up with star winger Hakim Ziyech. The Chelsea winger fell out with Halilhodzic after the manager accused him of feigning injury. Ziyech rejected an olive branch before the playoffs and for now remains retired.
New coach Czeslaw Michniewicz got off to a dream start as Poland qualified by overcoming Sweden in a tight playoff in Chorzow. Inevitably, it was the boot of Robert Lewandowski that made the difference as he rolled in a second half penalty to give Poland the lead before Piotr Zielinski took advantage of a loose back-pass to seal a 2-0 win. It gives Lewandowski one more chance to make a major impact at a World Cup after Poland’s dismal campaign in 2018. At the Euros, the Bayern forward almost dragged Poland into the last 16. He will need support, most obviously from Zielinski and young midfielder Jakub Moder, if Poland are to make a deep run.
17. South Korea
South Korea are heading to their 10th straight World Cup. Their place at the finals never looked in much doubt, although a final day loss to UAE did saw the Koreans slip to second in Group A. They have been drawn in a tough group, but after beating Germany in 2018, there will be confidence they can make the knockout phase. Son Heung-min remains the star turn, but this a battle-tested team while striker Hwang Ui-jo is enjoying a prolific season with Bordeaux in Ligue 1.
Mexico wobbled at times, but booked their customary place at the finals with a 2-0 win over El Salvador. The question is whether they can avoid the customary last 16 exit they have suffered at seven straight World Cups. First up, they’ll need to get through a group of Poland, Saudi Arabia and an old nemesis in Argentina. This won’t be the most star-studded team Mexico have sent at a World Cup, as there is a high dependence on home-based players. That said, Napoli winger Hirving Lozano is a major talent approaching his peak and powerful striker Raul Jimenez will lead the forward line. 36-year old goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa will play, but it remains to be seen how much of a role fellow veterans Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado will have.
Croatia recovered from a poor start to win Group H although they did require a late Russian own goal in Split to confirm their place in Qatar. Zlatko Dalic remains at the helm, while Luka Modric, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Perisic and Sime Vrsaljko are vital to Croatian hopes of another deep run at the finals. Who starts up front remains a dilemma for Dalic with Andrej Kramaric currently preferred and Bruno Petkovic out of favour. Dalic has endured his critics but Croatia have repeatedly proved they do show up for tournaments, yet the question remains… do Croatia’s greatest generation of players have one last hurrah left in the tank?
14. United States
It wasn’t always pretty but the USA did avoid a repeat of 2018 and qualified from Concacaf. Christian Pulisic’s hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Panama put the US far enough ahead for a closing day defeat to Costa Rica not to matter. This is the most gifted generation of players the US have ever produced, with a good number now playing at Europe’s elite clubs. The problem remains though in that very few of those players are pivotal to their clubs, meanwhile expectations at home are rocketing. The draw has thrown up a repeat of the infamous 1998 Iran game and another encounter with England. Coach Gregg Berhalter will be under intense pressure to succeed with a last 16 place now the minimum requirement.
Having knocked France out of Euro 2020 and qualified ahead of Italy, Switzerland are shedding their middleweight reputation. Murat Yakin has taken over a team in good working order from Vladimir Petkovic and has lost just once (2-1 to England at Wembley). There’s experience and depth to the Swiss with their usual solid backline complemented by dangerous forwards. Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri continue to be far better for their country than their clubs and having smashed the first knockout phase glass ceiling last summer the Swiss will be hopeful of doing the same in Qatar.
The African Champions booked their place at the World Cup with yet another penalty shootout win over Egypt. After Sadio Mane’s penalty beat the Egyptians in the AFCON final, the playoffs threw the two together again. After a first leg defeat, Boulaye Dia’s early strike levelled the tie at 1-1, as extra time and penalties ensued with Mane breaking Egyptian hearts in Dakar. Senegal may be the most complete African team ever to feature at the World Cup with the spine of the team reading Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Mane. Being drawn in Qatar’s group will increase belief that Senegal can improve on a poor showing in Russia and make the knockout phase.
After a bruising qualification campaign and a change of manager, Uruguay pulled themselves back from the brink to qualify for Qatar. Four straight defeats in the autumn brought an end to the 15 year reign of coach Oscar Tabarez. In came Diego Alonso and four straight wins steered Uruguay into third place in South America. 36-year-old Diego Godin remains the defensive rock but Alonso has rotated aging strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez with both contributing big goals in the turnaround. One casualty of the new coach has been long standing goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, benched in favour of Sergio Rochet. Alonso has brought a much needed new broom to Uruguay, but do his talisman have one more tournament in them?
The heart warming story of the recent international break was the return to the Denmark team of Christian Eriksen. Nine months on from suffering cardiac arrest at the Euros, Eriksen returned and scored with his first touch in a 2-4 loss to Netherlands. In Eriksen’s absence Denmark made the semi-finals of the Euros and breezed through World Cup qualifying. After the loss to the Dutch came a rousing 3-0 win over Serbia with Eriksen again on the scoresheet to keep Danish optimism high. The draw was a near carbon copy of Denmark’s group in 2018 with France and possibly Peru or Australia, the Danes will be expected to progress.
The Oranje are back! After missing out on the last World Cup and a disappointing Euro 2020 exit, Louis Van Gaal has returned to revive the Dutch. He’s been helped hugely by the return to fitness of Virgil Van Dijk and the Dutch remain unbeaten in nine games. A 4-2 friendly win over Denmark and draw with Germany showed the Dutch are on track. Winger Steven Berwijn has been impressive of late, hitting four goals in three games in a revised 3-4-3 formation. The draw was favourable and the Dutch will start Group A as favourites. Van Gaal has since revealed he’s being treated for prostate cancer, we wish him a speedy recovery.
After their stunning loss to Serbia in November, Portugal took their second chance and qualified via the playoffs. A 3-1 win over Turkey looked secure from the moment Otavio gave them the early lead. Then came Italy’s conquerors North Macedonia and a hard fought contest in Porto. Bruno Fernandes came good when it mattered the most and his double secured a 2-0 win. Fernando Santos still has problems ahead of the finals, despite a hugely gifted squad. How much should he lean on the old guard of Pepe, Jose Fonte and of course Cristiano Ronaldo – how does he blend them with his younger talents? One youngster who does appear set for a starring role is 22-year-old goalkeeper Diogo Costa who took over the gloves for the playoffs and looks set to keep them.
The Hansi Flick era is up and running, but questions remain for Germany. Flick’s revitalised team reeled off eight straight wins but against modest opposition, a trip to Amsterdam ended in a 1-1 draw with Netherlands. Germany certainly look more comfortable in Flick’s 4-2-3-1 system and Kai Havertz is maturing into the creative force Germany need to compete at the sharp end of tournaments. Germany’s diminished standing was reflected in being put in the unfamiliar pot two for the draw and they were given a group with a Spain team that beat them 6-0 in November 2020. Flick won’t be worried by the past but this summer’s Nations League clashes with Italy and England will give us a better perspective on how far Germany have come.
Belgium have finally lost their top FIFA ranking, but the question for Roberto Martinez remains can his team deliver a trophy or even a final? Belgium qualified at a canter and the squad is filled with quality, but Eden Hazard is still struggling for form and fitness, Romelu Lukaku has disappointed at Chelsea and the creaking defence needs reinforcing. Martinez wisely spent the recent friendlies experimenting with young defenders Sebastiaan Bornauw and Siebe Van Der Hayden amongst those auditioned. If everyone is fit and firing Belgium are capable of winning the World Cup, but in Hazard’s case that remains frustratingly out of reach.
Luis Enrique is re-establishing Spain at football’s top table, semi finalists at the Euros and runners up in the Nations League has Spanish fans dreaming of a second World Cup. The new optimism sweeping through Enrique’s old club Barcelona is at the forefront of the new Spain, with Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati the dynamic young talents. There are still questions to answer down the centre of the team over the viability of goalkeeper Unai Simon, the central defensive pairing and who should play centre forward. For now, friendly wins over Albania and Iceland continued the progress for Enrique’s team.
There has been no repeat of Argentina’s traumas of 2017-18 with a Copa America title and unbeaten qualification campaign testament to the work of Lionel Scaloni. The other Lionel of course remains the centre of attention despite a (relatively) poor season with PSG. Scaloni’s team has a more settled look with Rodrigo De Paul a central figure, although Emiliano Martinez’s drop off in form is a concern. Ultimately though much still depends on Messi, if he’s got one more tournament in his locker the one prize that’s always eluded him is there to be won.
Gareth Southgate’s team continue to progress and remain unbeaten since Euro 2020. This month’s friendlies saw the momentum continue to build with a come from behind win over Switzerland and an easy win over Ivory Coast. Southgate used the friendlies to give more opportunities to emerging talents with Connor Gallagher and Jude Bellingham advancing their cases whilst Harry Kane closed in on Wayne Rooney’s goal scoring record. The club form of Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire is a concern for Southgate, although both look different players for England. The draw threw up some emotive ties against Iran, USA and possibly Wales or Scotland. Regardless, England will be expected to progress but can Southgate overcome his natural caution at the business end of a tournament?
Brazil made very light work of qualifying and the draw should please manager Tite. Brazil continued to pile up the wins beating Bolivia and Chile 4-0 each, with Philippe Coutinho’s revival a boost to Brazilian hopes in Qatar. Brazil’s problem remains taking on European heavyweight sides with France, Netherlands, Germany and most recently Belgium taking them out of successive World Cup’s before the final. Tite’s squad has a nice balance of youth and experience with Dani Alves and Gabriel Martinelli at opposite ends of that spectrum. Brazil have regained the FIFA number one ranking, but Tite knows that won’t cut much ice back home if the 20 year wait for a sixth title remains unfulfilled.
The holders remain the team to beat heading to Qatar. After the disappointment of the Euros, Didier Deschamps’ team responded by winning the Nations League and are now on a run of seven straight wins. Deschamps will be painfully aware of the recent curse of defending world champions that saw Italy, Spain and Germany end their title defences at the group stage, France themselves suffered a humiliating early exit in 2002. There are a few chinks in the armour, specifically whether veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is still able to lead the team and if Antoine Griezmann overcome a disappointing spell at club level. One man who seems immune to aging is Karim Benzema, who’s been outstanding for club and country and France remain unquestionably the team to beat.