With a stroke of Gareth Bale’s magic wand of a left boot and an, unfortunately, attempted clearance from Ukrainian captain Andriy Yarmolenko, the qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup had finally been determined. From Europe, at least. It was Captain Bale and his Welsh gladiators – namely the Herculean Ben Davies and the brick wall known as Wayne Hennessy – who emerged victorious in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon, securing their passage to Qatar, their first appearance at football’s greatest showpiece for over 60 years. Oddschecker, who compare online bookmakers providing betting and free offers on the World Cup, have determined that Wales have a decent chance of progressing out of Group B and into the knockout stages. They may provide some shocks on the way, just as they did back at Euro 2016 when they downed Belgium en route to the semifinals.
But it isn’t just Robert Page’s men who could turn a few heads. The World Cup always has the potential to surprise. Heung-Min Son’s late winner for South Korea knocked reigning champions Germany out four years ago. If we look further back, who can forget the curtain-raiser back in 2002? That time around it was tournament debutants Senegal who defeated a France team that won the competition on home turf four years prior, with a squad containing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. This year’s battle in the desert also has plenty of potential to surprise. Here are our ones to watch out for this winter.
Qatar – Group A
Can you believe that it’s been 12 years since Qatar were awarded the honour of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup? Believe it or not, it was way back in December 2010 that the world’s collective jaws dropped upon the disgraced Sepp Blatter revealing that football’s biggest party was heading to the Middle East. At the time of the announcement, the Qataris could not have been faring much worse on the pitch.
They were way down in 113th place in the FIFA World Rankings, below the likes of North Korea, Iraq and Syria. To make matters worse, videos were going viral of striker Fahad Khalfan missing an open goal from one yard out against Uzbekistan and the planet was bracing itself for the future hosts to be embarrassed in front of their very eyes.
‘The Maroon’ however, have put those 12 intervening years to good use. They’ve steadily risen up the world rankings and even managed to pick up silverware on the way, defeating World Cup regulars South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan en route to AFC Asia Cup success in 2019. They then enjoyed a run to the semifinals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, narrowly losing out to the USA via Gyasi Zardes’ late winner. Their manager, Felix Sanchez, is a former Barcelona youth coach, and during his five years in charge of the Gulf state, they’ve managed to develop an understanding which has reaped rewards.
The power of home support cannot be understated. Russia ranked a lowly 65th in the world were propelled all the way to the quarter-finals four years ago, defeating Spain on the way. In fact, if it wasn’t for a penalty shootout defeat against defeated finalists Croatia, they’d have made it to the final four, just as Guus Hiddink’s Korea Republic did back in 2002. They will be the first hosts since aforementioned South Korea 20 years ago to not open their own World Cup, instead opting for the second game of the opening day, a 17:00 (local time) meeting with Ecuador. Should they manage to defeat the South Americans, African champions Senegal and the Netherlands – who were eliminated prematurely in last summer’s European Championships – would be all that stood between them and a place in the knockout round. And who knows where after that?
Canada – Group F
Just as Wales have ended their 64-year wait to appear at the World Cup, Canada have also ended their own drought. Their 4-0 victory over Jamaica back in March left the Canadians top of the CONCACAF qualifying group, ahead of two nations with major World Cup pedigrees, Mexico and the USA. Their 36-year wait is now over and Canada’s golden generation can finally shine on the global stage.
The Maple Leafs are led by superstar striker Jonathan David, whose 13 goals led Lille to the Ligue 1 crown the season before last, ahead of the oil-rich Paris Saint Germain. He’s followed that up with a further 19 goals in all competitions this season, as well as netting five times on his nation’s route to Qatar. The former Genk striker is a proven match-winner, and with support from Besiktas forward Cyle Larin, the defenders in Group F must be at the top of their game.
Manager John Herdman and the Canadian Soccer Association do have some issues to resolve ahead of their date with destiny, however. The first of which is the fitness of their star player Alphonso Davies. The Bayern Munich wingback has been out of action since January when he developed symptoms of myocarditis, a mild heart condition. He did return to action in April and helped his club to a tenth competitive Bundesliga crown, but now Herdman must integrate Davies back into his starting eleven.
Another issue they face is a pay dispute that has arisen since sealing qualification. Their recent friendly against Panama in Vancouver had to be cancelled barely two hours before kick-off as the players went on strike. In a joint statement, the players said “It is time for us to take a stand on the future of football in Canada.” They also said that they want 40% of the World Cup prize money, a travel package for friends and family as well as a fair structure for their women’s national team and the development of a women’s national league. Their demands don’t sound too unrealistic and such issues must be resolved ahead of their opening match against Belgium on November 23rd.