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History Is on Europe’s Side Following Competitive 2022 World Cup Draw

Thirteen of the 16 semifinalists in the last four World Cups have come from the same continent. Will the Qatar edition be the first time in 20 years that a non-European nation takes home the trophy?

Seven and a half months out from the start of the tournament, the World Cup exists in a realm of pure potential. Nobody is injured; nobody is out of form. As the draw was made in Doha, it was possible to imagine the 32 teams at their best, as they would be if nothing went wrong between now and then.

And that’s the problem with previews this far out. There can be no signings to complicate the picture, of course, but a huge amount can change between now and November when the World Cup will get under way with the host, Qatar, against Ecuador.

What we do know is that this will be a very familiar bunch of teams. Qatar is the only debutant. And unless Scotland, Wales or (less likely) New Zealand makes it through the playoffs, Canada is the only other side that won’t have been there in either 2014 or ’18. Four-time champion Italy is the biggest absentee, followed by Sweden, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Chile and Colombia. 

And that perhaps hints at a growing sense that the expansion of football seen in the 1980s and ’90s is heading into retreat, that money is beginning to dominate the international game as the major western European nations invest in youth development. After all, the last four winners have all been European, while 13 of the 16 semifinalists at the last four World Cups came from Europe. And for all that Africa may demand greater representation, it has had 16 representatives at the last three World Cups and only three sides have made it through the group—as opposed to 14 of 16 CONMEBOL sides.

That suggests European and South American domination of the latter stages, but this is just the second World Cup to be staged in the Asian confederation, and the last brought the last non-European winner in 2002. Which, of course, brings up the biggest issue of this World Cup: that it is being held in Qatar, the most controversial host since the Argentinian junta of 1978.

FIFA’s statutes may speak of its anti-discrimination outlook, but 16 LGBTQ groups are still awaiting assurances from Qatari authorities that LGBTQ fans and staff will be able to travel safely. The past week has brought a raft of new stories about the treatment of migrant laborers who have built the stadiums. There are major questions about women’s rights.

And perhaps what’s been startling has been the aggressive tone of local organizers to any criticism. The secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Hassan al-Thawadi, told Norwegian federation president Lise Klaveness to “educate herself” after she raised various concerns at the FIFA congress on Thursday. Of course, that would be a much easier process if journalists investigating Qatar weren’t subject to arrest and detention, as happened to a Norwegian state TV crew in November. It’s staggering that no PR strategy seems to have been thought out, and the hostile tone must raise questions about what may happen to any dissenting voices during the tournament itself.

Football may feel like only part of this story, but here is an assessment of the eight groups.



Qatar, Ecuador, Netherlands, Senegal

No coach has been so outspoken as Louis van Gaal in criticizing the fact that the World Cup is being staged in Qatar, which should offer an additional frisson when his Netherlands side faces the host. Van Gaal led the Netherlands to third at the 2014 World Cup. Ever since, Dutch football has been even more turbulent than usual, failing to qualify for the World Cup in ’18. The Netherlands improved enough under Ronald Koeman to reach the final of the inaugural Nations League in ’19, but when he left for Barcelona, chaos returned. Van Gaal’s clarity of vision turned out to be just what a potentially promising Dutch squad required.

With Qatar and Senegal, the group comprises the reigning Asian and African champions. Hosts are never easy to assess given their dearth of qualifiers, but despite that Asian Cup success in 2019, there must be concern about the string of heavy defeats to Portugal, Ireland and Serbia last autumn and a draw against Azerbaijan. South Africa, though, remains the only host to fail to make it out of the group. 

This is the golden age of Senegalese football. It reached the final of the African Cup of Nations in 2019, and then won the competition in February. In Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ismaila Sarr and Sadio Mané, there is a core of an excellent team, while manager Aliou Cissé has made it extremely hard to beat even if the sense is that at times it should score rather more goals than it does. Ecuador is one of the less intimidating South American sides, having lost six of its 18 qualifiers.


England, Iran, United States, European Playoff (Wales vs. Ukraine/Scotland)

England knows all too well the danger of underestimating the United States, having failed to win either of their two previous World Cup meetings. Indeed, the immediate sense for England was that this draw mirrored the group in 2010 when a 1–1 draw in its opening game against the U.S. began one of its most disappointing World Cup campaigns. Memories of that embarrassment and Gareth Southgate’s admirable sobriety should guard against overconfidence, as should the fact that, by world ranking, this is the toughest group. With an extremely deep squad, Southgate has created a much more positive and tournament-savvy England side than most that have gone before, even if questions remain about his capacity to make tactical changes if games begin to slide away from him. After reaching the semifinal four years ago and the final of Euro ’20, England, for once, is a realistic contender.

There is so much exciting young talent in the U.S. men’s national team with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie all regulars at major European clubs. Meanwhile, the U.S. qualified comfortably enough after having missed out on the last World Cup, but inconsistency of selection has raised doubts. 

Under the Croatian coach Dragan Skočić, Iran is solid rather than spectacular. Ten games in the second group stage of qualifying yielded just 15 goals for and four against. It had only ever won two matches at a World Cup stage, but one of those was against the U.S. in 1998. Iran’s involvement adds a dash of political intrigue that is only magnified by the final team in the group: either another British side in Scotland or Wales, or Ukraine.


Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

As the number of great attacking players has diminished, so Argentina has begun to look like a far better side. For years, the question was how many of the illustrious forwards could be accommodated and the tendency was to shake the pot too often while trying to find a winning combination. With fewer options, its perhaps become easier for Lionel Scaloni to find consistency and balance. The result was the Copa América success in 2021, which ended a 28-year trophy drought. With Lionel Messi reversing the previous dynamic and playing far better for his country than his club, Argentina is a serious contender.

It faces familiar opposition in Mexico, now under a former Argentina coach in Gerardo Martino. They met in the first World Cup and they’ve met twice since, Argentina wining on all three occasions. Despite forwards of the caliber of Hirving Lozano, Raúl Jiménez and Jesús Corona, qualification was a slog, but recent history—at least the last seven World Cups—suggests Mexico will get through the group and lose in the last 16. 

Poland has never won a knockout tie at a major tournament without recourse to penalties and, although they did exploit second group phases to finish third at World Cups in 1974 and ’82, its modern reputation is for underwhelming on the biggest stage. Certainly there is a sense that with Robert Lewandowski, it should be more successful than it has been. Saudi Arabia’s Hervé Renard remains the only coach ever to win the African Cup of Nations with two different countries and is an instantly identifiable figure with his trademark white shirt, but he tends to be rather more stylish than his teams. The Saudis conceded a single goal in 10 qualifiers, losing only to Japan.


France, Intercontinental Playoff 1 (Peru vs. UAE/Australia), Tunisia, Denmark

France has such strength in depth that a second-string squad would have a reasonable chance of success. The doubt about the world champion is really about its coach, Didier Deschamps. Perhaps winning the World Cup four years ago is sufficient vindication of his extremely conservative approach, but then there are the defeats in the final of the 2016 Euros and the exit against Switzerland in the last 16 of last summer’s Euros. Given the extreme quality of the squad, it’s hard not to wonder whether he might do more with it, while the struggles to break down dogged opponents such as Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina in qualifying suggested the problems his reactive football can have.

Set against that is the fairytale story of Denmark. Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on the pitch at the Euros helped forge a ferocious team spirit. Kasper Hjulmand’s neat, modern side went on to reach the Euro semifinal and qualify for the World Cup by winning nine of 10 group games. Eriksen is now back and has scored in both games for Denmark since

Jalel Khadri replaced Mondher Kebaier as Tunisia coach after the African Cup of Nations, in which Tunisia reached the quarterfinals, but the blueprint remains the same. Tunisia breaks the game up, apparently more determined to prevent the opposition playing than playing themselves. It beat Mali 1–0 on aggregate in the playoff (on an own goal, no less) having conceded just twice in six group games. The group is completed by either United Arab Emirates, Australia or Peru.



Spain, Intercontinental Playoff 2 (Costa Rica vs. New Zealand), Germany, Japan

There’s no doubting the headline game of the group stage: the meeting of the 2010 and 2014 champions, Spain and Germany, both of whom have suffered chastening World Cups since their successes. Spain has won just two World Cup matches since its 2010 triumph—against Australia and Iran—and went out in the group stage in Brazil and lost on penalties to the host in the last 16 in Russia. Under Luis Enrique, there has been a process of rebuilding. Balance was an issue at the Euros as Spain tried to play with increased verticality—pass-heavy draws against Sweden and Poland were followed by a reckless openness against Croatia until it reached the semifinal. But this is a gifted young squad that reached the final of the UEFA Nations League and qualified with some ease, winning twice against every side in its group apart from Greece.

Beaten by Mexico and South Korea, Germany’s group-stage elimination in Russia was the first time it had gone out on the first round since 1938. Jogi Löw, seemingly through a misplaced sense of gratitude for the 2014 success, hung around for a disappointing Euros, but has since been replaced by Hansi Flick. Under Flick, Germany has looked a dynamic, modern side, probably the most aggressive pressing national team. Other than a bizarre defeat to North Macedonia, it won nine of 10 qualifying games, racking up 36 goals. 

Japan can feel unfortunate to have such a tough draw having sealed a seventh successive qualification with an impressive 2–0 away win against Australia. There were few goals generally in Asian qualifying, but scoring 12 goals and conceding four in 10 third-phase qualifiers shows Japan’s strength under Hajime Moriyasu. Costa Rica or New Zealand will round out the group.


Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Belgium’s golden generation is looking rather old now, but Roberto Martínez’s side still qualified undefeated. Kevin De Bruyne remains one of the best midfielders in the world, but, while there are questions about Romelu Lukaku’s form, the biggest issues are at the back where Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will have a combined age of 68 by the time the World Cup begins. That could offer an opportunity for Canada. In its only previous World Cup appearance, in 1986, Canada lost all three games and failed to score (in an admittedly tough group). This Canadian squad, though, is an entirely different level, led by Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and Jonathan David of Lille.

But this is a very well-balanced group. In part, Croatia benefited from a relatively kind draw in qualifying, but the runner-up from four years ago remains a dangerous opponent. Luka Modrić seems eternal, but key players are beginning to age while the likes of Nikola Vlašić, who might have been expected to step up, have struggled for pitch time. 

Morocco, meanwhile, is in chaos. For the third time, coach Vahid Halilhodžić is likely to be sacked by a team he has just led to a World Cup. Although his side had looked like perhaps the best attacking side at the African Cup of Nations before getting caught up in Egypt’s mind games in the last 16, he is feuding with Hakim Ziyech and is deeply unpopular with both players and fans.


Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Brazil won the World Cup last time it was staged in Asia. Twenty years on, it is one of probably only two sides with a realistic chance of putting a stop to the run of four straight European winners that have followed. There remain major concerns about the retrogressive instincts of Brazilian coaches at club level, but Tite is more open-minded than most. The problem for him, as it has been for Brazil coaches for a decade, is Neymar. He may be Brazil’s most talented player, but he has become such an enormous figure that teams he plays for always end up being centered on him, which, as Belgium showed at the last World Cup, can make them easy to stifle.

Progressing to the last 16, though, should not be a problem. It’s hard to know quite what to make of this Serbia side, which qualified unbeaten atop its group above Portugal and yet kept only one clean sheet while doing so. After years working in Japan and China, Dragan Stojković returned home last year and oversees a side based on the creative talents of Dušan Tadić, Aleksandar Mitrović, Dušan Vlahović and Luka Jović. Quality is likely to be less of an issue than Serbian football’s traditional penchant for self-destruction. 

Vladimir Petković’s seven-year reign as Switzerland coach came to an end after an impressive Euros, in which Switzerland eliminated France before losing on penalties to Spain in the quarterfinal. Murat Yakin had remained unbeaten as coach until defeat to England in a friendly last weekend. Cameroon’s presence after a playoff in which it was largely outplayed by Algeria feels vaguely miraculous, but Rigobert Song’s side had previous come through a tough group including Ivory Coast.


Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, Korea Republic

Group H is arguably the most intriguing balanced in the competition. Portugal is another side whose qualities have come to feel increasingly ill-served by a coach who led it to a memorable success a few years ago. This is a squad packed with attacking quality—including Cristiano Ronaldo even if he is beginning, at last, to show signs of age—and yet the instincts of its coach Fernando Santos are to sit deep, spoil and absorb pressure. That won them the Euros in 2016, but the necessity for a playoff and the fact Portugal won just one game at Euro 2020 is an indication of potential problems.

Uruguay made the difficult decision last year to remove a long-serving and successful coach. Óscar Tabárez had been in charge for 15 years, had reshaped the entire structure of the country’s coaching and youth development, won a Copa América and led his side to a World Cup semifinal, but a sense of staleness had taken hold. Four wins in four games under his replacement, Diego Alonso, propelled Uruguay to third in CONMEBOL qualifying. 

South Korea qualified convincingly under former Portugal coach Paulo Bento, winning seven and drawing two of 10 qualifiers in the third phase, losing only after qualification had been secured. Son Heung-min is the obvious star, but this is a side based on its defense; it conceded just three goals in those 10 group games. This is the 10th World Cup in a row for which South Korea has qualified; only twice before has it made it past the group stage, although it did reach the semifinal on home soil in 2002.

Ghana is much harder to assess. It went out in the group at the African Cup of Nations, and rather limped through qualifying, needing a highly questionable penalty against South Africa to top its group before an away goals win over Nigeria in the playoff. Otto Addo was placed in temporary charge for that playoff and he could point with justifiable satisfaction to the way his side controlled the game even in the hostile atmosphere in Abuja. It may feel it has a point to prove against Uruguay, after the way Luis Suarez’s handball denied it at the last minute in the 2010 quarterfinal.

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