The World Cup is finally here and with the club football season on ice for a month, this most controversial of World Cup’s will begin on Sunday. Here is a quick guide of what to look out for in the first days of the tournament:
The Talking Point: The Hosts
Ever since the infamous draw 12 years ago, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has been the most controversial episode in FIFA’s checkered history. The country’s poor human rights record, specifically its ban on homosexuality, has been in sharp focus, Gianni Infantino’s tactless intervention on which hasn’t helped. The treatment of migrant workers during construction of the stadia and supporting infrastructure remains an omnipresent issue that seems unlikely to abate when the first ball is kicked.
There is also the practical problems of such a tiny state holding an event on this scale with major concerns about accommodation shortages. This week’s buildup has only added to the controversy after an unseemly incident which saw a Danish reporter harassed by overzealous Qatari security and the hosts reversing a previous commitment to allow alcohol to be served at stadiums.
Amidst all the controversy, Qatar will kick off the tournament on Sunday with the small question of how well the host team will report when they face Ecuador in Al Khor.
Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo
FIFA might actually thank Piers Morgan; his incendiary interview with Ronaldo has been the one story keeping controversy in Qatar out of this week’s headlines. Ronaldo has almost certainly burned his bridges with Manchester United, making this World Cup an unlikely shop window for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner who has just one league goal to his name this season.
Ronaldo didn’t feature in Portugal’s warmup game this week and his awkward meeting with Manchester United clubmate Bruno Fernandes sent Instagram into meltdown. Ronaldo is almost certain to start on Thursday in a tight-looking opening fixture for Portugal against Ghana. Can the 37-year old rekindle the old magic or has father time finally caught up with CR7?
Team to Watch: Canada
The 2026 co-hosts will be making their first World Cup appearance since 1986 when they take on Belgium on Wednesday. Canada will be looking to improve on their only previous World Cup where they went out in Mexico without a point or a goal.
Canada topped CONCACAF qualifying with an attacking brand of football and a once-skeptical nation is becoming evermore gripped by football fever. Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies is the star turn, but striker Cyle Larin bagged the big goals in qualifying and Lille forward Ionathan David completes a dangerous-looking front three. Their opener is tough against a powerful Belgium team. Canada will be underdogs, but are one of the most intriguing teams of this World Cup.
Potential Upset: Croatia vs Morocco
The opening slate of World Cup games always contain a shock and there are plenty of contenders to do it this week, but perhaps the most likely are Morocco who take on 2018 runners-up Croatia. Morocco arrive on a run of one defeat in seven games and four successive clean sheets. The key man remains PSG right-back Achraf Hakimi whose raiding down the right is a potent-attacking weapon in a defensive side. The attack has received a boost with the return from the international wilderness of winger Hakim Ziyech making Morocco a dangerous proposition.
Croatia are again lead by the best player of the last World Cup in Luka Modric, but this time Croatia lack assurance in goal and at centre forward. They still have the talent for a deep run, but as they showed at the Euros, they do blow hot and cold. If they start cold, Morocco are more than capable of springing a shock.
Top Five Games of the Week
Netherlands vs Senegal
The heavyweight clash of the round sees African Champions Senegal face three-time finalist Netherlands. The Dutch are again under the stewardship of the ever-watchable Louis Van Gaal, who guided the Dutch back to the World Cup while undergoing cancer treatment. The Dutch don’t have the attacking superstars of the past, but have a very solid defence lead by Virgil Van Dijk in a back three. The midfield looks technically gifted with Frankie De Jong dictating play. However, they do lack a reliable goal-scorer in the absence of the injured Georginio Wijnaldum. Meanwhile, Memphis Depay has struggled for game time at Barcelona.
Senegal have their own injury concerns with Sadio Mane out of the tournament, meanwhile key duo Edouard Monday and Kalidou Koulibaly are both enduring difficult seasons at Chelsea. Despite their problems, Senegal do have a robust defence and Ismaila Sarr is capable of the spectacular in attack. In one of the weaker groups, this clash is likely to decide who tops Group A.
USA vs Wales
The US are back with the most technically-gifted squad they’ve ever sent to a World Cup. Their high-pressing style will be easy on the eye, but conversely this team lacks the stand out goalkeeper of previous US sides and a goal-scoring number nine. Much will depend on Christian Pulisic, who has stepped up at international level despite a patchy time in the Premier League.
Wales are making their first appearance at the finals since 1958, leading to some suggestions in the US media they may freeze on the big occasion. That seems highly unlikely given Wales’ nerveless performances which saw them outperform expectations in successive European Championships on their long-awaited return to tournament football. Crucial to those runs was the form of the now LA-based Gareth Bale, who arrives on the back of an MLS Cup win. There are concerns about the ageing legs of key trio Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen.
The game will see a clash in styles between the US high press and the Welsh who excel on the counter, with England and Iran also in the group the opener looks a pivotal match for both teams.
France vs Australia
Can France avoid the curse of champions that befell the last three World Cup holders who all suffered embarrassing first round exits? French concerns will no doubt de heightened by their last showing as defending champions that saw them depart without even a goal back in 2002. France have been beset with injury problems with N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Presnel Kimpembe all missing the tournament. Didier Deschamps, however, still has a powerful squad at his disposal including newly crowned Ballon d’Or Karim Benzema.
Australia will be hoping to follow Senegal and Cameroon into the history books for upsetting the holders on opening night and are a tough defensive side, but this time have an attacking edge provided by the promising Ajdin Hrustic. These two opened against each other four years ago in Russia with a late own goal edging France to a 2-1 win. This could again be a closer than expected encounter.
Brazil vs Serbia
There is always a nostalgic feeling to Brazil’s opening game, rekindling memories of Pele, Zico, Romario et all. Tite’s side begin as ever amongst the favorites and with a strong balance of stingy defence and inventive attack. Neymar will be the center of attention in what he’s suggested will be his final World Cup, but Barcelona’s Raphinha could be the player that gives Brazil an X-factor this time around.
The opener isn’t a gimme for Brazil against a gifted Serbia team. Dusan Tadic leads a skillful attack and Serbia will be desperate for the in-from Aleksandar Mitrovic to be fit to lead the line. Defensively, Serbia aren’t the best so this could be a high-scoring encounter.
Germany vs Japan
Germany arrive with a new coach in the shape of Hansi Flick, looking to bury memories of their dismal 2018 campaign. Germany have a new superstar in Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala adding to an impressive array of attacking options. However, Flick has yet to find the right balance at the back.
Their opening opponents are an intriguing Japan team who made the knockout phase four years ago. Japan play an attractive brand of football and winger Takeusa Kubo could be one of the emerging stars to keep an eye on in Qatar. Both these teams create chances and neither are great defensively, this should be an entertaining encounter that comes down to who can be more clinical in front of goal.
Qatar 0-1 Ecuador
Netherlands 1-0 Senegal
England 1-0 Iran
United States 1-1 Wales
Argentina 4-1 Saudi Arabia
Poland 2-1 Mexico
France 1-0 Australia
Denmark 3-1 Tunisia
Brazil 2-1 Serbia
Cameroon 1-1 Switzerland
Belgium 3-1 Canada
Croatia 0-1 Morocco
Germany 3-2 Japan
Spain 1-0 Costa Rica
Uruguay 2-1 South Korea
Portugal 2-2 Ghana