By Suresh Nair

THIS weekend onwards and for the next four weeks, you will be glued to their television sets for the first-ever desert World Cup – something unimaginable to be happening in Qatar.

The envy of the Europeans, in particular, was plain to see as Qatar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, anywhere from the deaths of migrant workers to corruption and the organisers anti-LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, and asexual (or allies) stand.

But as one of the biggest sporting events in the world is about to start at midnight Monday, with host Qatar taking on Ecuador, the focus will hopefully shift to the best of football.

For the record, the first World Cup in the Middle East or West Asia has 32 teams in eight groups and the event that will go on for 29 days will have 64 matches. It’s anyone’s guess who will be rank favourites to win as at least eight teams appear equally matched.

Just look at the eight groups:
Group A: Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador
Group B: England, USA, Wales, Iran
Group C: Argentina, Poland, Mexico, Saudi Arabia
Group D: France, Denmark, Tunisia, Australia
Group E: Germany, Spain, Japan, Costa Rica
Group F: Belgium, Croatia, Canada, Morocco
Group G: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon
Group H: Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana, Korea Republic


What matters is whoever rises to the right form on match-day in the world’s greatest blockbuster franchise, with a projected cumulative audience of five billion, will be the talking point.

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Say what you want, the 2022 World Cup is guaranteed to be a singular experience, for reasons both commendable and skulduggerous.

In my view, this will almost certainly be the tournament where the curtain falls on the international careers of two of the most dominant players of all time: Cristiano Ronaldo, that 37-year-old Portuguese bottle of Drakkar Noir in human form, and his arch-rival, 35-year-old Lionel Messi, the diminutive Argentine with the imagination of a poet-warrior.

What really excites me are the stories of the minnows causing upsets over the big names to go deep into the tournament. From Costa Rica’s landmark run in 2014 – a penalty shootout away from the semifinals – to hosts South Korea going all the way to the final four in 2002.

As Asia prepares to host its second World Cup, the expectation is that there will be a few surprises. To make things more interesting, the Asian contingent is stronger than in recent editions, both in terms of number and quality. Qatar 2022 will see six Asian teams, of which three (Iran, Japan, South Korea) are in the top 30 in the world.

I feel Iran, Japan, South Korea and Australia (an Asian Football Confederation member) are good enough to be competitive in their groups. Hosts Qatar (rank 50) are in a difficult group with the Netherlands and Sadio Mané’s Senegal, but can hope for a result in the tournament opener against Ecuador. For Saudi Arabia (rank 51), things look bad. The team is in Group C with Argentina, Mexico and the Robert Lewandowski-led Poland.

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Even one draw in the group can be considered an achievement. But, all three of their non-Asian opponents would be taking the Saudis seriously.

“Saudi Arabia has a solid defence and good tactical awareness,” Lewandowski said in a recent FIFA interview. “They are agile and capable of good build-up play.”

During the qualifiers, the Saudis topped a group that had Japan and Australia. In recent friendlies, it held Ecuador and the US to 0-0 draws, and while it is not likely to progress, the team can have an impact on who makes it out of the group.

So my best advice to you: Stay glued to your television sets, keep your fingers crossed for the first-ever “desert” World Cup, which may well bring upsets-galore.

The writer is an award-winning sports journalist who is also a qualified international coach and international referee instructor.

More stories related to the FIFA World Cup here.

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