A World Cup 12 years in the making

DUBAI: The first FIFA World Cup to take place in the Arab world will kick off Sunday in Doha when the host nation take on Ecuador in the tournament’s opening match at Al-Bayt Stadium.

The journey from winning the nomination on Dec. 2, 2010 to the big kick off on Nov. 20, 2022 has not been without challenges and controversies, but for the teams and fans who have landed in Qatar, and for millions around the world, the moment of truth has arrived.

As in Russia four years ago, there will be four Arab nations taking part in the tournament. This time around they are Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are among a record six Asian Football Confederation members taking part, along with Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia.

Of the Arab nations, Qatar have an immediate chance to get three points on the board against Ecuador — arguably the easiest of their three matches in group A, which also includes the Netherlands and Senegal.

A win would leave the Asian champions requiring perhaps just a single point from their two other matches to become only the fourth Arab nation — after Morocco (1986), Saudi Arabia (1994), and Algeria (2014) — to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup.

Saudi Arabia have the toughest start of the Arab nations, taking on Argentina in their Group C opener, before facing Poland and Mexico in two matches that are only marginally less difficult.

A strong Morocco squad will have high hopes of causing an upset in Group F against Belgium Canada and Croatia, while Tunisia were dealt a tough hand when placed with champions France, Denmark and Canada in Group D.

While the Arab teams might struggle to progress beyond the group stages, it is a mission they should embrace. Players like Qatar’s Akram Afifi and Almoez Ali, Saudi’s Salem Al-Dawsari, and Tunisia’s Hannibal Mejbri could introduce themselves to a whole new audience.

Others, like Seville keeper Yasssine Bounou, and his Moroccan colleagues Achraf Hakimi of PSG and Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea are already familiar to audiences worldwide.

Standout matches for the Arab contingent will be Qatar’s showdown with the Netherlands on Nov. 29; Saudi’s second Group C fixture against Poland, which could provide their best chance of an upset; Tunisia’s clash with champions France; and Morocco’s final Group F match against Canada, potentially a match in which they could seal their progress to the round of 16 if they already have points on the board.

Elsewhere, there will be titanic clashes (Spain vs. Germany), international “derbies” (England vs. Wales), politically charged matches (Iran vs. USA) and revenge missions (Ghana vs. Uruguay)

Among the favorites for the trophy will be France and Brazil, both of whom have named fearsome squads, as well as Euro 2020 finalists England and South American champions Argentina.

The latter have become many people’s sentimental favorites, with a swell of emotion building behind Lionel Messi’s bid to end a glorious career with the trophy he craves the most.

Win it on Dec. 18, in what would be the Argentine maestro’s 1000th professional game, and the title of greatest footballer of all time will no longer be debated.

Messi’s rival for the title of greatest player of his generation, Cristiano Ronaldo, will also be playing in what is surely his last World Cup. And while things have not gone smoothly for the Portugal captain at Manchester United this season, his army of fans will no doubt be watching to see if he can pull one last rabbit out of the hat.

With Messi and Ronaldo walking into the sunset at the end of Qatar 2022, the position of world’s best player is up for grabs. The contender most likely to fill the void is Kylian Mbappe.

Already a world champion, the Frenchman has long been many people’s choice as the world’s “next” best player, and though he has continued to excel for club and country, the fact that he has remained at Paris Saint-Germain and, crucially, failed to land the coveted Champions League for them, means the jury is still out.

And then there is Neymar. This World Cup could well be the final chance for the Brazilian teammate of Messi and Mbappe at PSG to prove that he belongs among the greats after two World Cups plagued by injuries and underwhelming performances. 

Other veterans including Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Croatia’s Luka Modric will also have the chance to bid their fans a fond farewell at the highest level.

Among a new generation of players to watch in Qatar are the likes of Brazil’s Vinicius Jr, Raphinha and Bruno Guimaraes; France’s Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni; Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez; Germany’s Jamal Musiala; and the brilliant 19-year-old Spaniard Pedri.

The stage is set, the curtain rises on Sunday night.

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