However, where do you even begin with what is wrong with this edition? Firstly, the tragic deaths of up to 7,000 migrant workers involved in constructing stadia, but then in no specific order: the appalling human rights record host nation Qatar has, its stance on homosexuality, the severe constraints put on women in every-day Qatari life, the way this tiny desert state, with no football heritage, was awarded the event, the upheaval of the usual football calendar, under-prepared squads due to the scheduling, 13 group matches not close to a sell-out, Sepp Blatter’s bleating, Gianni Infantino’s toe-curling monologue on the eve of the big kick-off, the final being played seven days before Santa arrives and no alcohol inside the grounds.
Actually, the furore over the decision to ban sales of beer at the stadiums is a bit tickling. Out of all the things to complain about at World Cup 2022 and people are frothing over not being able to have a drink. What did they expect? This is Qatar, after all.
But joking about this World Cup feels slightly wrong because this tournament takes place under the shadow of sombre, vexing conditions. Let’s not pretend that the western world is perfect. However, given the deeply troubling death toll associated with constructing this tournament and some of the ideologies held dear by Qatar and its people, it means many people will be checking their moral compass when it comes to watching football over the next month. That’s not how you are supposed to feel when, every four years, the World Cup comes around. It is supposed to be a joyous, exciting affair – sweepstakes, wallcharts, silly bets on the Golden Boot winner, supporting anyone but England for 25 per cent of the Scottish population, purring over Brazil and wondering where you can buy the Cameroon shirt.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp hit the nail on the head a few weeks ago when he was asked about the World Cup. He plans to watch it, as we all do, but he questioned whether more could have been done – particularly by the media – when Qatar was awarded the event back in December 2010 to shine a brighter light on it all. He asked that the players be allowed to get on with their jobs and not to be constantly asked about the politics. They are having to play at the pinnacle of their careers in such unusual circumstances.
When the football does begin – today at 4pm, when hosts Qatar take on Ecuador – it will feel strange watching a World Cup in mid-November, when normally you’d be settling down for Chelsea’s boring goalless draw against Manchester United on “Super Sunday” (Qatar v Ecuador might be just as dull). But next week, there’s a feast of football. The bigger nations roll into town. That’s when this tournament should be enjoyed and don’t feel bad if you want to settle down and watch four matches in one day in your pyjamas because, remember, you didn’t ask for this, you didn’t vote on whether football’s crown jewels rocked up in Qatar.
Let’s talk about the teams. The holders, France, still have the crux of the squad that won the World Cup four years ago but, without injured midfield kingpins Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante and internal disputes, they are not the favourites. That tag belongs to Brazil, with many believing this is their and Neymar’s time. Copa America holders Argentina have not lost in three years and this is almost certainly Leo Messi’s last dance on the global stage. The same can be said of Belgium’s ageing yet still talented golden generation. Past winners Spain and Germany are in the same group and are slightly surprisingly not viewed as major contenders. 2018 runners-up Croatia are not as good as they were in Russia. The Netherlands might be a dark horse, so could be Uruguay. What will Portugal be like after Cristiano Ronaldo’s bombastic interview with Piers Morgan? England appear to be unravelling under Gareth Southgate, but yet they have a straightforward group, as is often the case.
Of course, there is no Scotland – had we qualified via the play-offs, we would be in Group B alongside the English, the US and Iran. That privilege falls to Wales. There is no Italy either, the European champions. How did that happen? North Macedonia – yes, North Macedonia – put them to the sword. Some top players have been cruelly sidelined by injury, the most recent being Senegal’s talisman Sadio Mane. Further down the football foodchain, Hibs winger Martin Boyle is struggling to overcome a knee injury that would deny Australia their best forward. But there are other Scots to cheer on. Jason Cummings is now a Socceroo, three Hearts players are in their squad, St Johnstone’s loveable midfielder David Wotherspoon is playing for Canada and Croatia are represented by both sides of the Old Firm. The SPFL has its own band of merry men in Qatar.
Who is most likely to win? Well, given the climatic conditions (very hot and humid), the South American behemoths of Brazil and Argentina come highly tipped. If they both win their groups – and they should – then they can meet at the semi-final stage. In the bottom half of the draw, England could actually go deep if they get their act together. Don’t be too surprised if Denmark or Switzerland pull off a bit of a surprise, two European nations playing very, very well.
Regardless, whatever happens on the pitch over the next 28 days, it will be shrouded by what has gone on off it. Enjoy the football but be very cognisant of the bigger picture. But that’s really not the way it is supposed to be.