Under normal circumstances, the FIFA World Cup would be the perfect backdrop to a long summer of Cuban cigars in the sunshine, surrounded by friends as we gather to watch some of the greatest footballers on the planet. The climate of host nation Qatar has put paid to that idea – at least until 2026, when the circus moves to North America – and for 2022 we will be treated to a run of extraordinary matches up until the Christmas break. After a longer wait than normal, we have less than three weeks to go until the biggest of kick-offs.
The fact that this tournament should never have been sent to this nation, for a variety of reasons, should not be ignored. Nor, however, should it be allowed to overshadow the football itself. This World Cup will see the hosts make their debut, the 2 greatest players in history make (probably) their final appearances on the biggest stage, and some nations not often seen at this stage of the tournament clash with some true heavyweights. Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting group stage fixtures.
Germany's Thomas Muller won the World Cup in 2014
Spain v Germany (27/11, 19:00 GMT)
At most World Cups of recent years this would have been considered a meeting of 2 heavy favourites, but the truth is that these are both teams in transition. The respective winners of the 2010 and 2014 tournaments have seen fortunes slide since those triumphs, so much so that most bookmakers even class England as more likely to win the tournament than either of them. Despite this, the squads each named for the most recent round of nations League matches were still packed with talent, and this match should be the stand-out of the first phase. The pace of Leroy Sané and tournament-winning experience of Thomas Muller, or the raw energy and youthful invention of Gavi and Pedri – whichever triumphs, this should be a brilliant game for the neutral.
Senegal v Netherlands (21/11, 16:00 GMT)
The Netherlands are another European team normally considered among the favourites but who have fallen short of their own high standards in the last few years. In Louis van Gaal they have gone back to a coach with whom they have had much success in the past; in van Dijk, de Ligt, de Jong and Depay they have the spine of a very impressive team. Their toughest test in the group games will surely come at the hands of reigning African champions Senegal. Sadio Mané is one of the best attacking players around, and will be looking to lead from the front as his country look to take their continental success to the world stage. This was originally intended to be the opening match of the tournament, before organisers decided to revert to the tradition of having the hosts launch proceedings – one suspects Senegal v Netherlands will be the first game of note.
A World Cup win would surely cement Lionel Messi as the greatest player of all time
Poland v Argentina (30/11, 19:00 GMT)
The obvious appeal of this one is the presence of Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi. Both are the talisman for their respective nations, although Lewa is probably some way short of the back-up Leo can call on. The former has recently moved to the latter’s old club, and his advancing years and the change of scenery have had no detrimental effect on his goalscoring ability – 18 in 17 competitive matches so far for Barcelona, including 5 in 5 in their doomed Champions League campaign – but the service he will receive in the national team remains an issue. Messi, on the other hand, captains a team with a fearsome forward line. Lautaro Martinez and Paulo Dybala, as well as the veteran Di Maria, will look to profit from Messi’s vision and distribution from his new, deeper-lying style of play. Lisandro Martinez, once known as The Butcher of Amsterdam and now revelling in his new role in Manchester United’s backline, will look to keep things under control at the back – if things begin to click for this squad they could finally deliver Messi the one trophy which eludes him.
Romelu Lukaku will spearhead an impressive Belgian attack
Croatia v Belgium (01/12, 15:00 GMT)
These two both lost to winners France in 2018, Belgium in the semi-finals before Croatia were blown away in the final. While many column inches will be devoted to Messi and Ronaldo throughout this tournament, Croatia have their own little maestro most likely playing in his last international showpiece. Luka Modrić was instrumental in their journey to the final last time round and is still the metronome at the heart of his national team. Belgium, on the other hand, are faced with the demise of their “Golden Generation” of players it was hoped would win them their first major trophy. The return from injury this week of Romelu Lukaku could prove extremely timely, the Hazard brothers both bring the ability to change a match in a moment (though both have struggled for consistency in the last few years) and Kevin de Bruyne has succeeded Modrić as the planet’s greatest playmaker. As the last game in the group this one could be vital for qualification, so should produce some exciting, attacking football.
In addition to these games, the group stages of this World Cup will see tournament favourites Brazil look to build a bit of momentum, reigning champions France hope to lay down a marker by making short work of what looks like a relatively simple group, and Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping to drag his teammates through a set of games that could prove to be his last at a FIFA tournament. Whatever happens, we are guaranteed an amazing month of football.