Football is in focus after the turbulent preparations for the World Cup
DOHA: After 12 years of buildup swept up in a desert storm of controversy, the World Cup finals finally kick off in Qatar on Sunday, as Lionel Messi aims to cap his illustrious career by winning football’s biggest prize.
The first-ever World Cup in the Arab world – and the first outside the summer window in the Northern Hemisphere – kicks off at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium, with Qatar facing hosts Ecuador in Group A.
It marks the beginning of the month-long football extravaganza that Qatari organizers have besieged and desperately hope will be remembered in action on the pitch rather than off it.
Talk of heroism has so far struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by allegations of corruption, mistreatment of migrant workers, and criticism of Qatar’s human rights record.
However, there are enough storylines to suggest that the 2022 Finals could be just as interesting as previous editions once the action kicks off this weekend.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is Argentina and their captain Messi, who is 35 years old and playing in his fifth and final World Cup.
The Paris Saint-Germain and former Barcelona star has won everything there is to be won in club football, but has found success on the elusive World Cup stage.
But under the leadership of Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni, Messi flourished in the “Albiceleste”, winning the America’s Cup last year and helping the team go on a 36-match unbeaten streak.
Argentina opens its campaign against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and is expected to top Group C, which also includes Poland and Mexico.
Elsewhere, Brazil are installed as many bookies’ favorites to win a sixth World Cup, with Messi’s PSG teammate Neymar determined to atone for the disappointments of the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
“The World Cup is my biggest dream,” Neymar told Britain’s Daily Telegraph this week.
“I have since understood what football is. Now I have another chance so I hope to achieve it.”
The Brazilians face Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon in Group G, and could face quarter-finals against Germany or Spain if the tournament’s seedings go as planned.
“The World Cup is full of surprises,” said Neymar. “You get teams that unexpectedly go very far even in the competition even if many people don’t believe in it. But I think the favorites are Argentina, Germany, Spain and France.
“I think these four, along with Brazil, are fully capable of reaching the final.”
While Argentina and Brazil had their best in Qatar, defending champions France landed in Doha amid uncertainty.
The 2018 champions are aiming to become the first back-to-back World Cup champions since Brazil completed a double in 1962, but have struggled with injuries that have deprived them of midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
France, which reached the semi-finals of the European Championship 2020, will face Denmark, Tunisia and Australia in Group D. The reward of winning the group is likely to mean Argentina avoiding the last 16.
Should France go top of their group, they could set up a quarter-final clash against England, who head into the tournament with little to suggest their 56-year wait for a major trophy is about to end.
Gareth Southgate’s side have failed to win any of their last six matches, their worst performance since 1993.
The Three Lions start their campaign against Group B rivals Iran on Monday, then face potentially embarrassing tests against Wales and the United States.