Every four years, the greatest sporting event in the world connects people across the globe. Whether you’re sitting in the stadium or rubbing your eyes as you turn your TV on in the wee hours of the morning, you will be one of the billions of people following the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The grit, effort and passion on display in this spectacle is unlike any other sports experience.
With such a big occasion on the horizon, it only seems right to provide a preview of the tournament and what storylines to watch out for. Each of the eight groups in this year’s tournament are intriguing, setting up a month of glorious chaos and fantastic stories. Let’s dive into each of the groups to give you an idea of who the favorites are, who might surprise you, and which players are poised to have a great tournament.
Group A is probably one of the tournament's most well-balanced groups, though it may not appear that way on paper. Reigning Africa Cup of Nations champions Senegal and the historic powerhouse of the Netherlands are everyone’s favorites to advance, but there is plenty of reason to doubt the odds-makers here. It’s always unwise to bet against the host country, especially in the case of Qatar. They have been preparing for this moment for 12 years, investing heavily into their national team and touring the world to experience playing in the Gold Cup, Copa America, and the Asian Cup. Even if they don’t advance out of the group, expect The Maroon to acquit themselves well. Ecuador, on the other hand, is a bit of a wildcard. They narrowly beat out Peru and Colombia for the fourth automatic qualifying spot from the CONMEBOL region, relying on a young core to get them to Qatar.
The new generation of Ecuadorian footballers has arrived, and their level of talent is exciting. With young stars Moises Caicedo and LAFC’s Jose Cifuentes paired with the experience of Enner Valencia, La Tri is hopeful they can manage an upset or two on their way to a memorable performance. While Senegal will be missing their main man, Sadio Mane, they still boast superstar names like Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly of Chelsea. Similar to Senegal, the Netherlands roster carries a lot of star power, with Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona), Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool) and many others rounding out the stacked squad. Qatar and Ecuador will have to rely on superior chemistry and belief in place of star names, which both have in abundance.
Here it is, the group we’ve all been waiting for. Even casual soccer fans will be familiar with some of the Champions League stars leading the way for tournament title contenders England, including Harry Kane, Phil Foden, and Jude Bellingham. The Three Lions are absolutely stacked with talent, but never satisfied with themselves. Despite several good tournament performances recently, England seems to end every journey with disappointment. This is good news for the rest of the group, as Wales, the USA, and Iran will all be hoping that the mighty England drop some points to open the door to the Round of 16. After qualifying for the tournament late, Wales will be making their first World Cup appearance since 1958, where they advanced to the quarterfinals. Led by LAFC’s Gareth Bale, the Dragons will live and die by their captain’s performance in Qatar.
The United States finds themselves stumbling into this tournament following some lackluster tune-up games against Saudi Arabia and Japan. With one of the youngest squads in the world, the Stars and Stripes are filled with potential, but sorely lacking in valuable experience at the international level after missing the 2018 World Cup. Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and company must summon the same level of courage that won their country the last few CONCACAF titles if they want to make a splash in this year’s tournament. Finally, Iran has one of the world’s most in-form strikers in Mehdi Tahremi of Porto, as well as a nation desperately in need of encouragement. While their homeland is experiencing turmoil and violence, these players will be representing change, equality and hope when they take the field this month. If you ask the bookies, England and Wales are the favorites to advance, but this group is tailor-made for chaos.
- Saudi Arabia
Every match at the World Cup is subject to intense scrutiny. However, few games will be watched as closely as each of Argentina’s matches, as it may be the last time the world gets to see Lionel Messi on its grandest stage. Fresh off a Copa America triumph and a resurgent season at PSG, the little magician has the narrative, the motivation and the squad around him to put the perfect punctuation mark at the end of one of the sport’s greatest careers of all time.
Though the Albiceleste are favorites to win the group, second place in group C will be more closely contested. Both Mexico and Poland have a mixture of history and talent to make them formidable opponents, although neither team enters this cup overflowing with confidence. El Tri’s injury woes have seen Raul Jimenez and Jesus Corona sidelined, leaving big shoes to fill. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is arguably the best striker in world football, while the rest of the squad leaves a bit to be desired. Saudi Arabia has maintained a commendable level of consistency in the Asian Football Confederation in recent times, but have failed to make any noise worth listening to since they were runners-up in the Asian Cup in 2007. Unless the Green Falcons find a way to step it up in this year's tournament, this group will likely see Argentina advance with one of Mexico or Poland.
The (defending) champ is here! In 2018, France lifted their second World Cup trophy. Featuring what may be the deepest talent pool in all of world soccer, the 2018 champs are still at the top of everyone’s list for tournament favorites. Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema are two of the world’s greatest scoring threats, a duo that will have a truly world-class supporting cast around them. However, the superstitious soccer fan may not want to place any bets on Les Blues. In five of the last six tournaments, the defending champions have failed to advance from the group stage. The lone team to break this trend was Brazil in 2006, where they managed to win all three of their group games, but failed to repeat as champions.
France’s biggest competition in the group will be Denmark, a team that boasts incredible chemistry and belief. Ever since Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, this team has rallied to find another gear. They play unselfishly and hard, spurred on by passionate supporters and a togetherness that is inspiring to witness. They topped their group in qualifying with ease, putting them right behind France as favorites to advance from this group. While not much is expected of either Tunisia or Australia, they’ll have the champions' curse on their side, as well as historically supportive fans. Who knows, maybe the Socceroos will surprise everybody. Without Tim Cahill on the pitch though, it might be too tall an order.
- Costa Rica
Group E may be the strongest contender for this year’s “Group of Death,” a moniker given to the group that everyone expects to be the toughest to get out of. Spain and Germany have both won the World Cup before and remain giants of the game, while Japan and Costa Rica have put together impressive runs and performances in recent times. Spain brings a mixture of talent and experience that few nations can match, with players like Pedri and Nico Williams representing a changing of the guard for La Furia Roja. Questions linger around their striker Alvaro Morata, but his experience in international competition will likely serve him well this time around. Germany has also seen a new crop of players coming through, but they have thus far failed to fill the shoes of the team that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. With Toni Kroos stepping away from the Germany squad and Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer serving as the last major components left from that juggernaut of a team, Die Mannschaft has more questions than answers.
While they may make a run, they aren’t poised to go all the way. Costa Rica’s magical quarterfinals run in the 2014 World Cup was followed up by failing to get out of the group in 2018. This will likely be the last go-around for Tico legends Kendall Waston and Bryan Ruiz, so they’ll be hoping to replicate their 2014 storybook run to end on a high note. Finally, Japan has consistently threatened some of the world’s best. In 2018, they were agonizingly close to knocking Belgium out in the round of 16, ultimately blowing a 2-0 lead and exiting after a 3-2 loss. The Samurai Blue have an intriguing mixture of players, including a quartet that play for Scottish side Celtic. None of these teams will be easy to beat, making for an exciting group all around. Don’t miss any of these games.
Loon alert! Our very own goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair will be traveling to Qatar to represent his native Canada, though he will likely serve as backup to Milan Borjan between the sticks. This will be just the second appearance at a World Cup for the Maple Leafs, their first since 1986. They flew through qualification, beating both Mexico and the USA on their way to a first-place finish in CONCACAF qualifying. With Alphonso Davies’ participation currently in doubt, the Reds will have to rely on Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, and Tajon Buchanan if they want to stick around any longer than the group stages.
Heavyweights Croatia and Belgium bring distinct styles and big names to this group, as well as a disappointing lack of trophies to show for all their good play over the years. While Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and the rest of the Belgian squad are talented, they can be beaten, as can Luka Modric’s Croatia. Morocco brings a talented roster as well, with Achraf Hakimi clearly the crowned jewel of the bunch. At the end of the day, Canada finds themselves in a group filled with underachieving nations whose rosters are packed with talent. Every game in Group F is going to be tough; while Croatia and Belgium are tipped by the odds-makers, a shock from Morocco or Canada certainly isn’t out of the picture.
Here we find an interesting mix of heavyweights and dark horses. Brazil is currently number one in the FIFA World Rankings, a designation that has failed to prove anything since the rankings began. Since the ranking system was established in 1992, not a single number one ranked team has won the World Cup. Either the system is broken, or there’s some bad luck attached to that spot. One look at Brazil’s roster proves why they are the favorites to win the whole tournament; as they are loaded with talent, experience and the kind of flair that only Brazilians possess. Simply put, this squad is incredible. Whether they’re lining up against Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Thiago Silva or any other members of this historic team, the rest of Group G will need to be on top of their game when they face the Selecao.
Beyond the Brazilians, viewers should keep a close eye on Serbia. They topped a qualifying group that included Portugal, going undefeated through all eight games. Fulham ace Aleksandar Mitrovic is one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, while midfield maestro Sergej Milinkovic-Savic shows shades of Kevin De Bruyne-esque skillset just behind him. Across the pitch, Serbia is filled with surprises and are ready and capable. Likewise, Switzerland recorded five wins, three draws and no losses in their qualifying run, beating out Italy for the automatic spot. The resurgence of midfielder Granit Xhaka and defender Manuel Akanji will make the Swiss an even more dangerous outfit, with striker Breel Embolo providing that finishing touch and attacking boost. Finally, Cameroon (aka The Indomitable Lions) come into this tournament with low expectations. In fact, they have some of the lowest odds to win the tournament. However, the emergence of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for Bayern Munich and Andre Frank Zambo-Anguissa for Napoli will definitely boost the squad as they seek to exceed expectations and prove the doubters wrong.
- South Korea
Finally, we have our other candidate for the “Group of Death.” Portugal and Ghana will be familiar foes, having been in the same group in the 2014 World Cup. In what will likely be Cristiano Ronaldo’s final World Cup appearance, this Portuguese squad is stronger than it has been for years. A solid defense is flanked by some of the world’s best fullbacks, including Joao Cancelo and Nuno Mendes. Ruben Neves will be pulling the strings in the midfield, setting up Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, and the rest of the attacking talents at their disposal. Ghana has a rich soccer history, producing stars like Michael Essien and Abedi Pele. In the past, they have proven their skill at the highest level, making it as far as the quarterfinals in the 2010 tournament. Their World Cup run ended at the hands of Luis Suarez and Uruguay that year, literally. With the game winding down, Suarez blocked a Ghanaian shot with his hands to keep his team from losing in regular time, receiving a red card and giving the opponents a penalty kick instead. Miraculously, Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera managed to save the PK and lead the team to an extra time victory. The Sky Blue’s elimination of Ghana is still one of soccer’s most controversial moments. One way or another, there are going to be fireworks when these two meet again.
For Uruguay, this year’s tournament represents the coming of a new era. Stalwarts Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez are falling prey to Father Time, while Darwin Nunez and Federico Valverde seem ready to lead the team from here. This will be an intriguing World Cup from the two-time champions; will they find it within themselves to make another run or will personalities clash and see them implode once more? Lastly, South Korea looked set to take on this tournament without talisman Heung-Min Son, a blow that would have significantly damaged their chances of advancing. However, the Spurs star has managed to recover from injury just in time, giving his squad the heartbeat they need if they want to pick up any meaningful points, much like they did in the 2018 World Cup. The odds-makers say that Portugal and Uruguay will run away with this one, but it would be foolish to rule anyone out in this truly talented group.
This is the World Cup, the world’s greatest stage for the sport and its storytelling. What unfolds over the next month will defy the odds, boggle our minds and become the subject of debate for years to come. Who will step up? Who can handle the brightest lights? At the end of it all, 26 players will ascend into soccer legend, leaving the rest empty-handed and hungry for another chance. But this is an opportunity that isn’t guaranteed to come around again, regardless of your skill. There is no greater competition, nothing bigger to strive for in this sport. For everyone that has ever touched a soccer ball, this is the final destination that most only ever dream of. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the World Cup.