The most important tournament for the most popular sport begins this week. The 2022 World Cup will be a deviation from previous editions. This World Cup will be held in Qatar, the first nation in the Arab world to host the event. This World Cup will also split the club season in two, taking place in November and December as opposed to the summer due to the heat in Qatar. But perhaps most importantly, this will likely be the final World Cup for a number of world-class players, including the two best players of our generation – and arguably of all time – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ronaldo and Messi are thirty-seven and thirty-five, respectively, and likely won’t be able to play in the 2026 World Cup in North America. It could well be Ronaldo’s last dance with Portugal and the final time Messi leads the Argintenian team at the World Cup, and they are not unaware of it. Will this stimulate them to give everything for their nations, one last time? Or will other juggernauts like France and Brazil win the World Cup? That is the question that we will ask ourselves.
Cristiano Ronaldo has competed in four World Cups. In the 2006 tournament, with a twenty-one year old Ronaldo, Portugal played excellently, making it to the semi-finals before losing to Zinédine Zidane’s France. The past three tournaments have not been as glorious for Portugal, who lost in the round of sixteen in the 2010 and 2018 editions and did not even make it to the knock-out stage in 2014. Before the Ronaldo years, Portugal had only made it to the knock-out stage once. But they’ve since ascended rapidly with Ronaldo. In 2016, Portugal beat the hosts France and won their first ever Euro tournament, followed by the win of the 2019 Nations League.
The intrinsic quality of Portugal’s squad should make them one of the favorites for this edition. Ronaldo is no longer playing with teammates worse than him. But is Ronaldo in top form at the moment? It doesn’t appear so. Erik ten Hag, manager of Manchester United, decided to sit Cristiano Ronaldo in many matches this season after a missed pre-season and swirling rumors of transfers. When Ronaldo does play, the man once known as one of football’s most lethal finishers has failed to convert many of his chances. Furthermore, Portuguese striker Diogo Jota recently suffered a calf injury which will leave him out of the World Cup. Jota is a key piece for Portugal, having scored ten goals in his twenty-nine appearances with the national team. But in spite of their flaws, Portugal remains a threat. The national team has performed well in past years and Ronaldo is not one to back down when the pressure intensifies.
Argentina may have a better chance than Portugal at hoisting the World Cup trophy. If this is truly Messi’s last World Cup, as he said in an interview, then he will be extraordinarily motivated to win it. The current squad of Argentina can definitely help Messi win his first World Cup. Argentina is undefeated in their last thirty-five matches, and won the Finalissima against Italy this summer as well as the last Copa America against Neymar Jr’s Brazilian side last year. Argentina had known prior defeat in the Copa America after losing consecutive finals against Chile on penalties in 2015 and 2016 and losing the World Cup final in overtime to Germany in 2014. These heartbreaks even caused Messi to announce his retirement from the national team after his second Copa America loss in 2016. But, Messi has returned and Argentina’s current winning streak both exemplifies a significant renewal in the team and makes them a clear tournament favorite.
Argentina has never lacked world-class attacking players. They boast a deep roster equipped with offensive talents like Messi, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Kun Agüero, Paulo Dybala, and Mauro Icardi. Yet, Argentina’s midfield, defense, and coaching have been poor. In the 2018 World Cup, Argentina lost in the round of sixteen against France, illustrating Argentina’s ineffective defense as they conceded four goals. Since then, Argentina’s defense and midfield has improved dramatically behind Lisandro Martinez, Rodrigo de Paul, and Leandro Paredes. The manager, Lionel Scaloni, has been at the club since 2018 and has meshed well with the team.
The team has talent, depth, structure, and complete trust in the manager. Argentina seems invincible as all positions are filled with strong to elite players. Lionel Messi now has chemistry with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and is more confident than during his first year with Paris Saint-Germain. His impact on the field is starting to resemble the role he once had with Barcelona. The albicéleste squad has clear unity and positive momentum, something necessary to win the World Cup.
Argentina will face strong competition, namely from the defending champions France. France remains another front-runner even after recent international blunders. Following the 2018 World Cup, the team lost against all odds in the last sixteen of the Euros against Switzerland. Going into the 2021 Euros, France was by far the favorites for the competition, looking even stronger than they had in 2018. After finishing first in the group stage of death, France lost on penalties to Switzerland. Following the Euros, France won the Nations League in 2021, demonstrating once again that they are one of the best teams in the world. However, their last campaign in the 2022 Nations League was disastrous, with three defeats, two draws, and just one win. The team seems slightly weaker than the 2018 squad. Didier Deschamps, France’s manager, is also missing Paul Pogba and N’golo Kanté, his midfielders during their last World Cup run. They can still count on their dynamic front three of Griezmann, Mbappé and recent Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. France also carries the infamous World Cup curse, which states that the winner of the World Cup loses in group stages the following edition. This started with France in 2002, followed by Italy, Spain, and Germany throughout this century. Nonetheless, France’s squad is still one of the most talented, making them a credible contender for the prize.
Brazil is another World Cup contender. Brazil is not a stranger to this competition, with a record five total World Cup championships. Brazil ranks first in the FIFA world rankings list and has won its last fifteen games. The manager, Tite, is trusted and knows the players, while the players themselves seem to get along and have the skill to emerge victorious. There is a new generation of talents in the Brazilian team, with exciting young attackers and midfielders. Neymar has been on fire this season for PSG, with fifteen goals and twelve assists in nineteen games. Gabriel Jesus and Martinelli have also been doing well with Arsenal this season, who currently rank first in the Premier League. Midfielders Lucas Paquetá and Bruno Guimarães have also impressed in the Premier League with West Ham United and Newcastle, respectively. Their defense is solid with thirty-eight year old Thiago Silva, the third most used player for Chelsea this season, and Marquinhos, PSG captain. Brazil also has two of the best goalkeepers in the world: Alisson and Ederson. Just like Argentina, Brazil has a talented roster of established and connected players behind a trusted coach and aging superstar.
Other World Cup contenders include Belgium, England, Germany, Spain or even Denmark. As always, it is impossible to predict the World Cup winner. Who does well depends on a number of ever-changing variables: how well players are performing for their clubs, the chemistry in the squad, the impact of the manager, etc. Club football is easier to predict as players play every week and train every day with their teammates. In national teams, groups do not have much time to work on tactics and organization. Much depends on whether the players can handle the pressure and still perform highly. World Cups are also short: two defeats in your first two games will result in almost a certain elimination. This year there will be less time than usual with the World Cup being in the middle of the club season.
The World Cup is a once in four year event to determine which nation is the best in the world, and football’s best will be on the world’s stage for one of sport’s biggest events. For many world class players like Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Manuel Neuer, or even Luka Modrić, this may be their final World Cup, making this year an extra special edition of the tournament.