Europe's World Cup Qualifying Road to Qatar Is Not Straightforward After All

Germany's loss to North Macedonia was the pick of a bunch of surprising results, with the road to Qatar starting with some detours.
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It reads like the punchline of an April Fools' joke.

Germany 1, North Macedonia 2

Yet there was nothing fake or manufactured about that scoreline. The result was really real and quite deserved, as staggering as it may have been. In its storied history Germany had lost just two World Cup qualifiers before Wednesday's shocker in Duisburg. One came as West Germany vs. Portugal in 1985, the other vs. England in 2001. That's the list. 

Its 35-match unbeaten streak in qualifying over the course of nearly 20 years now gone, there's a greater sense of doom surrounding the 2014 World Cup champions entering a European Championship summer—where they're grouped with a formidable trio of France, Portugal and Hungary—and a stark reminder that perhaps UEFA's road to Qatar isn't going to be as straightforward as initially anticipated.

After the first set of matches, only six of the 55 teams are still in the running to accomplish what Germany did in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and win every qualifier—and it's a group with some range. England, Italy, Denmark and Armenia are the only ones to go 3-0-0 in the opening window of the competition, while Sweden and Switzerland only played two qualifiers and won them both.

Germany loses to North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying

The reasons for that are plentiful, and nations in other regions should take note. With the schedule congestion and tripleheaders brought on by the pandemic, it's only natural for tiring legs and squad rotation and a lack of sharpness to factor in more than ever before. Germany coach Jogi Löw, on the flip side, opted for almost no changes to his starting lineup in his three matches and felt the repercussions that come with a weakened and tired group. Despite matchups that, on paper, looked rather lopsided, it would appear that the "that's why they play the games" mantra is going to remain appropriate for this campaign.

Consider Luxembourg's win over Ireland and brief lead over Portugal; France's draw vs. Ukraine; Croatia's loss to Slovenia, which then went and lost to Cyprus; Malta's draw with Slovakia; Georgia's lead over Spain, which only turned into a defeat in stoppage time; Turkey's blown lead and draw vs. Latvia (that followed impressive wins over the Netherlands and Norway). The underdogs appear empowered, motivated and capable, while the favorites are more susceptible, timid and reserved. Given the talent disparity in some of these matchups, it's only natural for the guard to come down and focus to drift, but there's a price to pay in the form of points in the table.

Even after a group exit in the 2018 World Cup, even after a 6–0 Nations League loss to Spain in November and even after this most recent result, the price is unlikely to cost Löw his job, given that he's already announced he's stepping aside after the Euros. But sitting in third in the group, behind unheralded Armenia and North Macedonia, is hardly going to sit well at the German federation, which will install another manager by the time qualifying resumes in September. 

Here are a couple of more takeaways from the start of UEFA's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign:

Focus on human rights

The competitive road to Qatar may involve some unusual turns, but it's quite evident that the path off the field will as well. Players from the Netherlands, Germany and Norway all made loud statements regarding human rights—a clear nod to everything that's transpired in Qatar over the last decade—as the stadiums to pull off this World Cup have been constructed.

The Guardian recently reported that there have been over 6,500 migrant worker deaths in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in December 2010, and while there has never been any indication that FIFA would consider relocating the tournament or speaking out against Qatar and its laws and working conditions, its member associations aren't staying as silent.

The Dutch, Germans and Norwegians wore T-shirts to bring attention, and while suggestions of boycotts have been floated, it doesn't appear anyone will take it to that level.

"I think we're 10 years too late to boycott the World Cup," Germany star Joshua Kimmich said. "It wasn't allocated this year, but a couple of years ago. One should have thought about boycotting back then.

"Now we need to take the opportunity and use our publicity to raise awareness about things. But it’s not just down to us footballers ... we should work together.

“As footballers we have a certain responsibility. We have the responsibility to talk about things. Regarding this topic, we tried that with a very spontaneous shirt activity.

“In football, you have the chance to point things out and we should continue doing that.”

Belgium coach Roberto Martínez also stopped short of advocating for a boycott, with the prevailing wisdom being that using the event and the run-up to it as a means to call attention to the tragedies and wrongdoing could serve a greater purpose than withdrawing from it completely. Regardless of whether that's correct, you can expect to see more displays of nations and players using their platforms in the coming months leading up to the November 2022 first kick.  

Key injuries and their knock-on effects

Two of the most influential players for their clubs and countries suffered the injury bug on international duty, and now it remains to be seen just how costly that will be.

Bayern Munich and Poland star Robert Lewandowski, the reigning FIFA Best Men's Player of the Year, will miss the next four weeks with a knee injury, while it's expected that Real Madrid and Spain captain Sergio Ramos will reportedly be out for a similar amount of time with a leg injury of his own.

The injuries come at the precise time of the most important matches of the season. Bayern's Bundesliga title reign is under threat from RB Leipzig, and the two sides meet on Saturday. After that it's the two-legged Champions League quarterfinals vs. PSG (and a rematch of last August's final), and whether or not Bayern is able to prevail, it could still be without Lewandowski for the first leg of the semis.

It's just as dire for Real Madrid, which is a different team with and without Ramos patrolling the back line. He'll miss a 2018 Champions League final rematch vs. Liverpool (and a showdown with Mohamed Salah, whom he injured in that final) and a Clásico that falls in the middle of the two UCL matches with both Real and Barcelona hot on Atlético Madrid's tail in La Liga's title hunt.

The road to the World Cup via Europe may not be so straightforward, and one of the byproducts of that is that the club season run-in may no longer be, either.