Different time, not great location, but same tournament we all find a way to love…
The time is finally upon us. The 2022 FIFA World Cup is right around the corner. And while the timing is much weirder, the weather is much colder (at least where I am), and injuries are much more of an issue, we are all still finding a way to be excited for the world’s biggest sporting tournament. Vikram and I will be giving you a bit of a preview of the competition, highlighting some of the teams we think will do well or do poorly before picking who we think will win the whole competition.
Instead of doing a massive preview talking about every single team, we are going to break this up into a few categories highlighting a few specific teams and our thoughts on them relative to the wider beliefs and expectations surrounding them. You will get the idea as we go along.
So without further ado…
Team Expected to Do Well That Will Do Well
This is the lowest-hanging fruit possible when it comes to World Cup predictions, but it is simply too notable to ignore. Brazil are the best team in the world at the moment, and I do not think it is close. They are a team that, position by position, have simply much more talent than everyone else. A choice between two of the best in the world in goal, a defence that is experienced and solid, a midfield that pairs incredible technical quality with intelligence and an inexhaustible motor, and an attack that is as terrifyingly deadly as you would expect from Brazil. It is a team that mixes the experience of the likes of Neymar, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, and Casemiro with the youthful exuberance from Vinícius, Rodrygo, Raphinha, Bruno Guimarães, and many others. And, most importantly for a mid-season World Cup, they are a team that comes in as many players as possible both in great form and relatively healthy. This is the best Brazil since the days of R9, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, and others in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Semifinals at bare minimum is the expectation for the Seleção in Qatar; anything less would be a failure.
Jack has kindly made the explanation for me. Brazil are the team to watch this tournament and expect them to bang in the goals while doing so with samba flair.
Team Expected To Do Well That May Not Do Well
The reigning World Champions enter Qatar as the second-favorite among odds makers to win the competition, and to be quite honest, I do not know why. Les Bleus are traveling to Qatar with more questions than answers, more key injuries than many, and a general sense around the team that something is not quite right. Didier Deschamps’ 3-5-2 experiment has only left us with more doubts, and the likely return to the 4-2-3-1 used in 2018 still leaves many questions around who plays in defense and midfield. Injuries to several key players, namely Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, as well as the phasing out of some of the players from 2018 thrusts significant responsibility on young and untested, albeit still talented, players. A return to the 4-2-3-1 also begs questions in attack, if it is possible for Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappé to coexist together in that system. If one is benched, then who? Can Benzema fill the role Giroud did in that system in 2018? Which Antoine Griezmann will show up? Will Mbappé return to the more selfless team player he was in 2018? See, plenty of questions, not many easy answers. All of this coupled with questions surrounding the continuation of Deschamps as manager and Zidane’s potential arrival makes this feel more like a team in transition rather than one that is ready to be champions again. While I believe France get out of their group (a full World Cup Winner’s Curse might not happen), a Round of 16 or Quarterfinals defeat would not surprise me.
I can’t agree more with Jack here. France have also lost Karim Benzema, who has been ruled out of the World Cup with a thigh injury hours before the opening day fixture. Unfortunately, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner won’t be featuring for France and after a sensational campaign for Real Madrid, he’ll be sorely missed – especially by Jack.
As Jack points out, the main issue for me is the lack of experienced squad depth the French actually has in defence and midfield. Now, don’t get me wrong. Youssouf Fofana, Eduardo Camavinga, Matteo Guendouzi, Theo Hernandez, Ibrahima Konaté, William Saliba, and Dayot Upamecano are all exceptional talents that have the potential to become the new guard of French football in the decade to come. However, they lack international match experience and as we have seen multiple times, good form while playing for your club doesn’t necessarily translate to good performances for your country.
Long live the European World Cup champions’ curse.
Team With Not Many Expectations That Could Do Very Well
To be honest, this was originally going to be Senegal, but the injury to Sadio Mané has changed my answer here completely. I am a fan of Ecuador and think they have the potential to advance out of Group A in place of Senegal, but I am higher on another nation.
Croatia, remember them? The team that came 90 minutes away from immortality in 2018 is back, still led by ageless wonder Luka Modrić but featuring some new faces. While Ivan Perišić, Marcelo Brozović, and Andrej Kramarić return from the 2018 team, there are some new inclusions that make this Croatia side incredibly interesting. The bedrock of this team is undoubtedly the midfield trio of Modrić, Brozović, and Mateo Kovačić, which could be one of the best midfields in the whole tournament led by Modrić, arguably still one of the tournament’s best players. Everywhere else on the pitch, though, looks much different from 2018. While both Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida will travel to Qatar, much of the responsibility for leading the defense is being transitioned to 20 year old Red Bull Leipzig center back Joško Gvardiol. Gvardiol is among the sport’s brightest young stars, and he will likely take the stage in Qatar as his chance to show the world his immense talent. His partner in defense could potentially be 22 year old Dinamo Zagreb center back Josip Šutalo, who could potentially be one of the breakout names of the tournament. The attack is where the difficulties lie, however. With no Mario Mandžukić leading the line, Croatia must find goals from elsewhere. Kramarić is back from 2018, and either him, Ante Budimir, or Bruno Petković will have to be good enough in attack to get by this tournament, likely being flanked by Perišić and Atalanta’s Mario Pašalić.
But there is certainly enough there to make you think that they could maybe do it again. There is star power in midfield and a great mix of experienced leaders and young stars like Gvardiol and Šutalo, as well as Rennes’ Lovro Majer and Salzburg’s Luka Sučić, to make you think that they can be dangerous. A group including Belgium, Morocco, and Canada is difficult, but Croatia have the capability to advance. Their form coming into the tournament, including wins over France and Denmark, shows they have the capability of beating anyone.
Always in the shadow of fellow South American titans, Brazil and Argentina, it’s easy to forget that La Celeste has two World Cups under their belts. Yet, there are other reasons why many will refrain from backing the Uruguayans to go the extra mile.
The dismissal of Óscar Tabárez in 2021 marked the end of a an era, with El Maestro at the helm for 15 years. Diego Alonso took over the reins and while he guided the Uruguayans to qualification, it’s important to note they barely managed to scrape through to the Finals. Of course, the CONMEBOL qualification zone is no walk in the park, but there are question marks surrounding Alonso’s relative inexperience in the international arena. Furthermore, this World Cup could very well be the last for several core players that have carried Uruguay for the past decade. Luis Suárez, Sebastián Coates, Martín Cáceres, Edinson Cavani, Fernando Muslera, and skipper Diego Godín are well into their thirties and while they have demonstrated that they have plenty left in the tank, it remains to be seen if they possess enough to fuel them all the way.
Having said all that, Uruguay enter Qatar off the back of an impressive 2022 thus far. Barring a shock 1-0 loss to Iran, have not lost a single game this year. It’s the kind of momentum that any team would want going into the tournament. While the World Cup squad includes many veterans in his squad, his team also boasts many young stalwarts. The likes of Rodrigo Bentancur, Federico Valverde, Darwin Núñez and Ronald Araújo can form the nucleus of Alonso’s team in the years to come (should he remain as head coach). With it most likely being their last World Cup, expect the old guard to give their all and expect the younger players to push themselves to justify why they are worthy of carrying this mantle of responsibility.
Wild Card Team
Portugal are very interesting, a team with a wide range of possibilities in this tournament. They could win the whole tournament. They could go out in the Group Stage. Who knows? On paper, Portugal are among the best teams in the competition and have serious quality in every position. There are genuine game-breaking superstars in this team, with the likes of Rafael Leão, João Félix, and Bernardo Silva joining, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo going forward. Players like Vitinha, Nuno Mendes, Matheus Nunes, and Diogo Costa also present themselves as likely candidates for the tournament’s biggest breakout star. There is incredible balance in the team, quality in every position, and every capability within the team to win this whole tournament.
There are just three issues. The first is the manager, Fernando Santos. Santos was the man who led Portugal to their greatest achievement, winning the Euros in 2016, but he has come under very fair and valid criticism for Portugal’s performances since that famous day in Saint-Denis. Portugal often play very timid and uninspired going forward, which was fine with a weaker team in 2016 but not so with this group of talented players. Portugal disappointed at Euro 2020 and at the World Cup in 2018, and they needed to go through the playoff to secure a spot in Qatar after disappointing in qualifying, likely feeling very fortunate to have played North Macedonia in the playoff final instead of Italy. Santos’ management will likely face significant scrutiny if they underachieve here. The second is Ronaldo himself. While I am not fully sold on the idea that Portugal are better without him, I do get the sense that they would play much more fluidly without him. Given that Man United have, frankly, been better without Ronaldo this season, I am willing to buy into the idea that Ronaldo’s influence on the national team is starting to hold them back. The third is the group itself, as Portugal find themselves in what is probably the toughest group in the competition. South Korea, Ghana, and Uruguay are all very good sides in their own right, each good enough to win the group themselves. Ironically enough, these three are all also responsible for Portugal’s elimination from the World Cup in 2002, 2014, and 2018. The demons of the past have quite literally caught up with them and could once again be the reason for Portuguese underachievement at a major tournament.
Drawn against France, Australia, and Tunisia, Denmark do have enough to qualify out of Group D and may even top it. While France may be the reigniting World Champions, the Danes beat Les Bleus 2-0 in their most recent international fixture back in September and will surely be taking inspiration from that performance as they face them yet again in Qatar. Tunisia and Australia may prove to be tricky opponents but I have a feeling that Denmark can easily overcome both sides.
With Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Simon Kjær in the heart of defence, Christian Eriksen as midfield general, and Martin Braithwaite leading the frontline, Denmark have seasoned veterans along the team’s spine. This invaluable experience blended with the youthful exuberance of players like Kasper Dolberg and Andreas Skov Olsen may see the Danes going all the way. Yes, it may be wishful thinking but it’s the World Cup, literally, anything can happen.
Of course, that challenge will prove to be immensely difficult should they end up as runners-up and if a Messi-led Argentina team emerge first in Group C.
Why? I’ll let Jack explain in the next section.
Now, Who Will Win the 2022 World Cup?
I gave you every reason above as to why Brazil would win the tournament but left out one major piece of information: since FIFA created their FIFA World Rankings in 1992, the team ranked number one in the ranking going into the World Cup has never left the competition as World Champions, and Brazil will enter Qatar as the world’s number one ranked team.
Do with that information what you will, but regardless of curses or not, Argentina have an incredibly strong team of their own who are more than capable of winning the competition. With plenty of questions surrounding the major European powers, this feels like the tournament made for South American success, and Argentina showed during the Copa América that this team has the capability to win major competitions and, specifically for this instance, the capability of beating Brazil in major competitions. A capable goalkeeper, solid defense, dynamic midfield, and threatening attack paired with one of the best players in the world in Lionel Messi, Argentina have everything needed to be champions. The ball never bounced the right way for him in the past for La Albiceleste, but the talent is there and if the luck is too, Lionel Messi will leave Qatar with his reputation-sealing World Cup, unequivocally the greatest footballer who ever lived.
I firmly believe that if it’s any team that could break this hoodoo – that the team ranked number one in the FIFA ranking going into the World Cup has never won the trophy – it’s Brazil.
Yes, I agree with Jack that La Albiceleste are serious contenders as well.
Argentina and Brazil will face each other at some point in the tournament and unsurprisingly so – they are both the best sides on paper and they are set for a collision course – the victor of which will most likely seize the crown.
Yet, will Argentina overcome Brazil? I don’t think so. Brazil may lack Messi-esque figure but are stacked with quality in every single position. The Brazilians can not only nullify Messi’s ability to influence the game but control it from the get-go.