And now, finally, some football. For much of the 12 years since Sepp Blatter’s fumbling fingers ripped open an envelope containing one word and a thousand questions, the 2022 World Cup has been able to exist in our minds as little more than a surreal abstraction. A computer-generated simulation. Some Philip K Dick-infused vision of a future that might never come to pass; that could even somehow be averted if we made the right choices. But the time for daydreaming and denial is over. This is happening. Matty Cash is going to Qatar, and to greater or lesser extents, we’re all going with him.
Why? How? Why here? Why now? And – frankly – what the hell? Just a few of the more intelligible responses to a project that from its grubbily cynical inception has felt like a giant step into a sun-scorched unknown. This is not the first World Cup to be held in the shadow of totalitarianism. It is not the first to be awarded under questionable premises, nor the first to be built at a ruinous expense to the public exchequer and the planet. But in most other respects it is like nothing this sport will ever have seen before.
Of course, you didn’t choose this. Nor did the players or coaches. A winter World Cup in a tiny desert state with no footballing heritage and a litany of human rights abuses to its name was instead imposed upon us by the 22 men of Fifa’s executive committee, three of whom are now dead. There is, perhaps, a certain dark irony in the fact that the survival rate of the people who awarded the World Cup was even lower than that of the people who built it. But the very existence of this tournament is a reminder of where the power has always resided in this sport. You are of course welcome to turn up, tune in and enjoy. But this spectacle is not yours, and never has been.
So perhaps the first thing we can do is to shake ourselves free of the idea that anything that happens on the pitch over the next month can ever redeem or mitigate its colossal moral expense. Football loves to spin this self-serving yarn about itself: the notion that whether through noble escapism or shared joy or athletic beauty, it serves in some small way to make the world a better place. But in this case of Qatar 2022, football has made the world measurably and noticeably worse. It has quite literally killed people. How you feel about that is totally up to you. But the very least we owe the victims of this World Cup is our present remembrance and future vigilance.
Almost inevitably, very little of this human wastage will impinge on the show itself. Those of you watching on television will encounter pretty much the same curated, star-studded, heavily branded, tournament-flavoured substance you know and love. For those involved, Qatar will be experienced in much the same way they experience everywhere else: through the windows of a bus, on a familiar treadmill from hotel room to dressing room via pool and training ground, by the reassuringly stateless whiff of fresh paint on temporary plasterboard. The heat may be a factor. The lack of atmosphere may be a factor. Fatigue and curtailed preparation time will certainly be a factor. So, what sort of tournament can we expect?
The temptation is to home in on the stars, to weight our analysis towards the household names. Kylian Mbappé and Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin De Bruyne and Vinícius Júnior, Sadio Mané and Gareth Bale. And individual brilliance will certainly have a part to play in this tournament, particularly in the latter stages where the margins are at their finest.
But by and large it is cohesive teams rather than great collections of players – or even great coaches – who tend to go deep at World Cups: teams with a defined style of play, a collective understanding and a sense of their own momentum. Recall that a ruthlessly drilled Russia and a baggy Brazil both did equally well at the last World Cup; recall too that Croatia did better than both. Star quality can raise expectations and occasionally get you over the line. But it is never sufficient on its own.
Perhaps the most interesting distinction to be made is between those teams with a distinct identity based on possession and high pressing, and those who in tough times will fall back on the classic tournament nostrums of counterattack, set pieces and individual inspiration. In the former group: Hansi Flick’s mercurial Germany, the gilded but largely untested Brazil, Luis Enrique’s exciting Spain, the last gasps of a great Belgium side and the Netherlands under the idiosyncratic tutelage of Louis van Gaal.
In the latter group: the quietly fancied Argentina, defending champions France, the talented but limited Portugal and a limping England that appears ripe for another bout of navel-gazing angst culminating in an early exit. Neither approach, by the way, is objectively better than the other. Pragmatism worked for Portugal in 2016 and France in 2018, for Argentina at last year’s Copa América and Senegal at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Ideology triumphed for Germany in 2014, for Brazil in 2019 and Italy in 2021. Further down the pecking order the relevant divide is between more explosive and direct teams like Canada and Ecuador, or teams like Iran and Costa Rica who will simply sit in and try to limit the damage.
Wales travel to their first World Cup in 64 years with high hopes of upsetting the odds again, even if their deep-lying system seems to invite pressure. Poland, boasting one of the world’s greatest strikers and one of Aston Villa’s best full-backs, have a favourable group as they attempt to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1986. Switzerland and Serbia would both be highly fancied were they not unfortunate enough to be drawn in the same group as Brazil.
Perhaps the greatest unknown, however, centres on the hosts. Qatar’s squad is entirely domestic-based and has not played a competitive match in a year. But they are perhaps the best-prepared of all the squads this winter, and what they lack in raw talent they will make up in organisation and nationalistic zeal. They may just spring a surprise.
In short: we just don’t know. No World Cup has ever taken place under these circumstances, midway through a European domestic season, with a heavy toll of injuries (N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Diogo Jota, Son Heung-min and Paulo Dybala are among those out or in doubt) and teams that have barely spent any time together in months.
Maybe anger is the appropriate response here: anger at the lack of compassion or foresight, anger at the way powerful men have simply strong-armed this ruinous tournament into existence. But equally, this thing is also irresistibly enjoyable. The football starts, and everything else stops. There will be upsets, there will be feats of greatness, there will be heartbreak and there will be triumph. To celebrate these things is not to condone them; it’s simply all there is. A non-alcoholic toast, then, to Qatar 2022, and the weirdest, most horrifying good time we’ll ever have.