The main event
We have reached that significant point in the group stage at which all 32 teams in Qatar have played. Whose name is on the 2022 World Cup, as far as we can see?
Spain, most obviously, given the ease with which they swatted aside Costa Rica, starving their admittedly limited opponents of possession, while threatening the goal every time they went forward. The 2010 winners were unfortunate to be knocked out of last year’s Euros after outplaying Italy in their semi-final, boast an increasingly accomplished coach in Luis Enrique, and potentially the breakthrough star of the tournament in the 18-year-old Barcelona schemer Gavi. Just try getting the ball off them.
France were exceptional in dismantling Australia 4-1 in Group D, the ageing-like-a-fine-wine Oliver Giroud knocking in a couple of goals, the absurdly gifted Kylian Mbappé ominously shifting up a gear or two as necessary. Their coach, Didier Deschamps, has been around the block more than once, of course, even managing to rustle up the trophy in Russia four years ago. To borrow a well-worn horse-tipping catchphrase, Les Bleus are most certainly worth a second look.
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Richarlison, meanwhile, scored probably the finest goal of the first round of matches in Brazil’s 2-0 dismissal of Serbia last night, swivelling on his own silky first touch and cracking a wonderful volley into the corner. The Tottenham forward got the first goal, too, and while Neymar started his tournament relatively quietly, Brazil’s wealth of attacking talent and defensive solidity makes for a team you’d rather avoid in the knockouts.
England looked useful against Iran in that 6-2 win. With his box-to-box drive and all-round footballing intelligence, Jude Bellingham is inviting comparisons with Bryan Robson. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder continues to show a maturity well beyond his 19 years on and off the pitch. With Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish jostling for a place in the front six with the undroppable Harry Kane, this is an England generation with a hint of precious metal about them. Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands found their way past a stubborn Senegal with a couple of late goals. If World Cups were handed out on managerial experience alone, the Oranje would be nailed on.
Argentina’s opening defeat by Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the great World Cup shocks: will Lionel Messi ever fulfil his destiny on the biggest stage? The same question could be asked of Robert Lewandowski, who missed a penalty in Poland’s opening stalemate against Mexico.
There are tougher tests to come for Spain, sure, but that 7-0 thrashing was an eye-catching way to tune up for Sunday’s sizeable collision with Germany, who succumbed to a dynamic Japan. Hansi Flick and co arrived with high hopes, but they need a result, or they will be going home early yet again. Football no longer lasts 90 minutes, as some of the mammoth stoppage times have shown, but will Germany win at the end? It may still be unwise to bet against it. LMc
No diminishing sense of interest
Fifa has released a set of figures that appear to contradict any idea of people disengaging from the World Cup, with viewing figures for the opening match up across the globe compared to 2018. According to the governing body, viewing figures in Brazil, France and the UK were all up on the opening fixture in 2018. In Ecuador – who won the opening match against Qatar 2-0 – a peak of 3.8 million viewers was recorded, from a total population of just under 18 million people. One slight caveat should be noted: the opening match of Russia 2018 was played on a Thursday, in the European afternoon, while Qatar’s kick-off came on a Sunday, when most people would be off work. PMc
A camping carry-on
Fans who checked into their World Cup campsites only to find them unfinished have been promised full refunds by the organising Qatari Supreme Committee (SC). Blaming “operator negligence”, the SC said that fans would be reimbursed for any money spent – with one night at a shipping container campsite costing around $200 – and provided with free accommodation for the rest of their stay, according to reports by ESPN. “A section of units in these facilities, which are delivered and managed by different private entities, have not met the required standards that were advertised to the fans,” an SC spokesperson said. PMc
Teams not standing out
Another humiliating own goal for Fifa? The world governing body has been accused of ignoring its own guidelines after colourblind supporters endured a “disaster” kit clash when Switzerland and Cameroon both wore their home kits, red and green respectively, for their Group G clash. Fifa regulations state that a team should switch kit or combine different items from its different playing kits as necessary in order to achieve such a clear distinction, even if the match has already started. Colourblindness affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women worldwide. Recent research by Colour Blind Awareness demonstrated 6% elite male players are colourblind (meaning an average of at least one player in every squad). “You’d think that even if Fifa can’t police their own regulations the national teams would, even if only to ensure their own players and teams aren’t disadvantaged,” said founder, Kathryn Albany-Ward. “We’d like to know how the red/green colour combination for the Switzerland v Cameroon game was allowed and why one team did not change into an alternative kit at half-time in accordance with the regulations. As Fifa is based in Switzerland this is particularly embarrassing for them.” BF
Yesterday, Iranian security forces arrested Voria Ghafouri, one of Iran’s most famous footballers, accusing him of spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic and seeking to undermine the World Cup team. Ghafouri has been outspoken in his defence of Iranian Kurds, imploring the government to stop killing Kurdish people. He has previously been detained for criticising the former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.
The Iranian team have already been embroiled in controversy after failing to sing the national anthem before the defeat by England, and Ghafouri’s arrest is likely to be seen as a warning to the players not to repeat their protests. PW
The finger of blame continues to jab manically in all directions after Germany’s shock defeat by Japan. In his role as a pundit for the broadcaster ARD, Bastian Schweinsteiger lamented “big mistakes again in defence” and singled out Niklas Süle and Leon Goretzka for their role in Ritsu Doan’s equaliser. “The pressure on the German team before the big match against Spain on Sunday is immense,” writes Kicker. “Because when the world champions from 2010 and 2014 meet, the surprisingly early end of the World Cup threatens.” WM
The internet reacts
In a sentence nobody wants to have to write, John Fashanu has been holding forth on the OneLove armband controversy. Whoever at Good Morning Britain thought that was a good idea, kudos on the worst decision since the crew of the Titanic opted to take a laissez-faire approach to avoiding icebergs. In possibly the most pitiable rant of the World Cup to date, Fashanu lamented: “If politics goes into football, which is what is happening, the politics go up, and up, and up, and eventually they will win.” Of course, there’s nothing political about a repressive regime using the biggest event in football to promote their soft power. A limited pro-equality gesture, though? Careful now, that sounds a bit provocative.
This is an issue Fashanu seems to only do more damage than good & they know that. Creating debate over the existence of LGBTQ/ human rights issues. Then next week they’ll be asking questions about how can football be more inclusive and eliminate homophobia in the same breath. 🙄 https://t.co/Qs6pdZjrVj
— Anita Asante (@NicenNeetz) November 24, 2022
Elsewhere, Breel Embolo was the centre of attention after scoring against Cameroon, the country of his birth, to give Switzerland a winning start. While players are often derided for refusing to celebrate against former clubs, Embolo’s muted reaction speaks to the complexities of personal identity and international football. What’s more, it has spawned lots of good memes. WM
Just saw that Embolo, born in the capital of Cameroon, is who scored the winning goal for Switzerland. pic.twitter.com/dUjcdpLqmp
— Zito (@_Zeets) November 24, 2022
Wales v Iran (Group B, 10am GMT, BBC One) It seems a bit surreal given we’re only six days into the tournament, but it’s crunch time for Wales. Having eked out a 1-1 draw with the USA, they need a win against Iran or even Gareth Bale’s knack for the miraculous might not be enough to take them into the last 16. Wales struggled with Dan James up front, rallying after half-time when he was replaced by Kieffer Moore, so Rob Page may well utilise Moore’s hulking link-up play against an Iran side outmuscled in the air by England. For Iran, whatever happens, this tournament will be remembered for their unflinching bravery regardless.
Qatar v Senegal (Group A, 1pm GMT, BBC One) Costa Rica may have stolen their thunder as the worst team so far, but Qatar were dreadful in their opener against Ecuador. Lose to Senegal and they will effectively be out of their own World Cup after two games. Given that this is an event built on human misery, few will feel sorry if, as seems likely, Qatar become only the second host to go out at the group stage after South Africa in 2010. Senegal had their moments against the Netherlands and will be confident of beating a side that failed to get a shot on target in their curtain raiser.
Netherlands v Ecuador (Group A, 4pm GMT, ITV) Having left it late against Senegal, the Netherlands will be looking for a more dominant performance against Ecuador. Louis van Gaal admitted his team were “shoddy in possession” in their opener, so Frenkie de Jong and his fellow midfielders are under pressure to be better on the ball. They may have been comfortable winners against Qatar, but Ecuador weren’t exactly spectacular. Moisés Caicedo is the engine and will be tasked with overpowering De Jong and co.
England v USA (Group B, 7pm GMT, ITV) England have met the USA twice before at the group stage without beating them. A 1-1 draw in South Africa was the first indicator that all was not well with Capelloball – or Roonismo, to use the proper Italian term – while a 1-0 defeat in Belo Horizonte in 1950 still ranks among the biggest upsets in the history of the competition. Believe it or not, the USA have come on a bit over the last 72 years. Christian Pulisic may be their poster boy, but Timothy Weah looks equally dangerous. WM
Player to watch
Joe Allen He may no longer be the sprightly young thing that helped to propel Swansea to the Premier League – even if his career has since taken him full circle and back to his boyhood club – but Allen remains a crucial player for Wales. Out since September with a hamstring injury, he has now returned to full training. Having struggled to retain the ball against the USA, particularly in the first half, Wales have been crying out for Allen’s experience and assuredness in midfield. Whether or not he is ready to start against Iran, he could have an important role to play. WM
And finally …
Having adorned their training base with rainbow flags, Wales have become the latest side to essentially stick two fingers up at Fifa for their aggressive intervention against the OneLove armband. “For months and months we have known we were going to wear the OneLove armband and they certainly did,” Noel Mooney, the Football Association of Wales’s chief executive, told ITV. “To lay that one on us is pretty cheap and pretty low, to be frank … we have given Fifa everything we have got in terms of how furious we are about this decision. We think it was a terrible decision.” WM