The international break may have come to an end, but there’s one more very important fixture which will have the whole world watching.
It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for, unless you’re an Italian fan, the World Cup 2022 draw takes place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is a much later date than usual for the draw, the reason being that instead of our typical summertime World Cup in June and July, this time we must wait for November/December. This of course means that the domestic football leagues will all be taking a break for that period, even Serie A, and we will have the World Cup Final on December 18th, just a week before Christmas.
The World Cup will feature 32 nations, and although the draw takes place today, there are still three places up for grabs. In Europe, Scotland still need to play Ukraine, and the winner of that game will take on Wales for a place in Qatar. The other two World Cup places will be decided by two inter-confederation play-off games. These will take place on June 13-14th in Qatar, one will see the CONMEBOL (South America) representative Peru take on the AFC (Asia) play-off winner, which will either be Australia or United Arab Emirates. The final spot will go to the winner of the play-off between Costa Rica and New Zealand.
The 32 teams will be drawn into eight groups of four nations, which means it will be a straightforward qualification of the top two teams in each group for the knockout stage. For the draw, the teams have been divided into four pots, based, mainly, on their current FIFA ranking. The top seeds also feature the host country Qatar, so although they’re ranked 51st, they will automatically be placed in Group A. The remaining seven top seeded countries feature those ranked from 1 to 8 in the World, with only Italy missing from the top ranked nations.
Along with Qatar then, the top seeds include Brazil, Belgium, France, Argentina, England, Spain, and Portugal. In Pot 2 we have Mexico, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Uruguay, Switzerland, USA, and Croatia. The third pot features Senegal, Iran, Japan, Morocco, Serbia, Poland, South Korea, and Tunisia. Which leaves us with the bottom seeds, Cameroon, Canada, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, and the three unclaimed places. Which seems a little unfair to some teams, if Costa Rica, Peru, Ukraine or Wales make it to the tournament, their ranking would have given them a place with the third seeded teams, but because their play-offs have yet to take place, they have been placed automatically in Pot 4. Then again, this is the FIFA World Cup, not the Fair Play World Cup.
So, it’s as straightforward as that? Pick one team from each pot and you have your groups? If only life, and football draws, were that simple. Teams from the same continent cannot be drawn together in the same group, but just to complicate things a little more, that does not include Europe because of the amount of European teams in the competition. A maximum of two European teams can be drawn in each group, but every group must contain at least one country from Europe.
The first teams drawn will be all of the top seeds, except Qatar who have already been placed into Group A. After that, all of the Pot 1 teams will be drawn and placed as the number one team in each of the other groups. When it comes to the rest of the pots, as well as being drawn into the groups, there will also be a draw to determine their position number in the group, from 2 to 4, this will affect the fixture list only. The draw starts to get complicated once we get to Pot 2, because teams from the same continent cannot be drawn together, but the European teams can go into any group at this stage as they can have two in each group.
It’s when we get to Pot 3 and 4 that it becomes even more complicated. This is because not only could some groups already have two European teams, but they also have to make sure there is one European team in each group, along with avoiding clashes from the other continents. I’m sure it will all become clear as the draw progresses, and surely there won’t be another blunder as happened in this season’s Champions League draw. Manchester United were drawn to face Villareal, a clash which couldn’t happen as they had already faced each other at the group stage. The organisers spotted this error, but later made another mistake when Manchester United were excluded from the teams which could face Atletico Madrid, and Liverpool had been included. A software error was blamed, and the draw needed to be repeated. Let’s hope the software has been updated and improved for today’s draw.
With all that technical stuff out of the way, who will everyone be supporting once the football gets under way? You may be lucky, and your native country has qualified in which case the choice is obvious. If you’re from Canada, this could be your first chance to see them at a World Cup, as the only other time they have appeared at the finals was back in 1986. For the rest of us, maybe there’s a reason why you’ll be supporting a particular country. Since we’re all Italian football fans, there will have been a lot of disappointment at their failure to qualify.
My country, Republic of Ireland, have failed to qualify again, meaning it’s the fifth consecutive World Cup where I won’t be able to cheer on the boys in green. Having previously lived in Italy, I’ve always cheered them on in major tournaments, but now that Poland is the place I call home, I was more than happy to watch them win their recent play off against Sweden to make it to Qatar. To be honest, if I had to choose between having Italy or Poland there, I would have picked Poland. It’s great to be in a country and watch them compete at the World Cup, and also, they’re not a country like Italy who expects to qualify. It was something I noticed when I lived there, not a lot of people watched or even cared about the qualification group, as they just assumed Italy would be at the finals and then they would take an interest. Now, after failure to qualify for back-to-back World Cups, that mentality may change. Besides, they’ve already won it four times and are current European champions, it’s more fun to cheer for the underdogs.
World Cups have always been surrounded by corruption, politics, money, and all the things which make it ever harder to love the game. The World Cup is, however, still the greatest show on Earth. My football memories are filled with moments and matches from nine different World Cup competitions. I was in Italy when they lifted the trophy at the 2006 tournament. I remember Ireland’s first ever appearance at the finals, Italia ’90. We managed to reach the quarterfinals, without winning a single game, where we went out to a Toto Schillaci goal at the Stadio Olimpico. The country still celebrated though as if we’d won the trophy itself. Anytime I see footage of our penalty shoot-out win over Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania, with the commentator’s famous line “a nation holds its breath” (famous in Ireland anyway), well it still brings a tear to the eye.
USA 1994, Ireland beating Italy in our opening game at Giants Stadium, Baggio’s penalty miss in the final. Di Biagio’s penalty miss in 1998 against France, who went on to win the cup on their home turf, Beckham’s red card against Argentina, and England losing, again, on penalties. 2002, Ireland were back, but without Roy Keane, drawing with Germany, and then losing on a penalty shoot-out to Spain, where we managed to miss three, and of course Italy going out to South Korea. The list could go on, but of course my memories probably won’t even register with anybody else, that’s the beauty of the World Cup, of football, we all see things from our own perspective.
What then, are your greatest memories of World Cups down through the years? Favourite World Cup? Again, I’ll give you mine, and no, it’s not Italia ’90 when my country reached the finals for the first time ever, as great as that was, and it’s not Italy’s win in 2006. Instead, it’s my very first World Cup which has stayed with me all these years. Showing my age, my favourite World Cup tournament is Mexico ’86.
There are many reasons for this, and it’s not like I can recall every moment from the tournament all these years later. I was ten years old, and I can’t remember ever watching in 1982 when Italy won in Spain. I was six years old, and though I’m sure it was on the television in the background somewhere, I really didn’t start to watch football until a year later. I soon discovered its magic and its escapism and fell in love. So, by ’86 it was the perfect time for me to immerse myself in the glory of a World Cup, a feast of football. This was of course back in the dark ages, most of the football I consumed was either through radio or newspapers. It may be hard for some of you to even grasp just how difficult the world we lived in back then was, we couldn’t stream matches, catch up on YouTube highlights, follow the twitter feed.
What little football that was televised was exclusively English league with the odd European club final thrown in. Now, here was a whole month’s worth of international football live in our living room. It was June, so school was still ongoing, but the games took place in the heat of the Mexican sun so we could enjoy the action in the evening. We had our Panini sticker albums, football cards, wall charts, everything a kid (or adult) needs, and for some reason I can clearly recall the Canada team card. The team sticker or card was my favourite, at international level, these players, and teams which we knew next to nothing about. I’m not sure why the Canadian one stuck out, maybe I had no idea they even played football; I’d definitely never seen them before. The whole event was so exotic, international, with an air of mystery about it, and not just because of the secretive Soviets.
It’s also the time when I really fell in love with football, and with one player in particular. No, it wasn’t Peter Beardsley, or even Michel Platini, It’s the man who I still regard as the greatest to ever play the game, Diego Maradona. I remember being mesmerized by this little guy in the number 10 blue and white jersey. He could do things with the ball that nobody else could and the only way to stop him was to foul him, and there was plenty of that too. He would often get his revenge of course, and when he out-jumped Peter Shilton in the England goal, we didn’t care how he’d scored that goal. The other goal he scored in that game is the one people should remember anyway.
Both Poland and Italy were there of course, but back then I had no idea that those places would play such a big part of my adult life. So, I didn’t take much notice when they both went out in the last sixteen. Of course, it may seem very petty and small minded now, but back then we were told that we should cheer for whoever was playing against England, this despite the fact that we all watched English football and these same players played for our favourite clubs. As an innocent ten-year-old, I didn’t have much of an idea, or any interest, in the history between our countries, so I just took it to be another of my father’s decisions which we should just go along with.
Another sign of my childhood ignorance was the fact that I had never really heard of the Republic of Ireland team at that stage. Northern Ireland were at this World Cup, and I was told that they’d done really well at the previous competition, so I imagined they must be our team, it was Ireland after all. They didn’t do so well this time around, claiming just a single point in a draw with Algeria. It would be a couple of years later when I discovered the Republic of Ireland actually had a team when we qualified for Euro ’88. I would also discover that our team wasn’t so welcome in certain parts of Northern Ireland, and that many people up there actually hated our team with a passion, but these are things that, luckily, as a child you have no real awareness of.
I remember the Denmark team, Danish Dynamite, managed by Sepp Piontek, no relation to Krzysztof Piątek, but he definitely has Polish roots, as does Peter Schmeichel. Schmeichel wasn’t there, but they did have Michael Laudrup (his brother Brian played with Fiorentina), Preben Elkjær, who had won that historic Scudetto with Verona, Jan Molby of Liverpool and Jesper Olsen of Manchester United. They destroyed Uruguay 6-1, but sometimes you can peak too soon at these competitions, and they later lost 5-1 to Spain and Emilio Butragueño who scored four in that game.
Who can forget Rats scoring against Bats when the Soviet Union drew with France? The Soviets then went out to Belgium in a classic game, 4-3 with three goals scored in extra-time, and a Belanov hat-trick wasn’t enough. Belgium were one of those teams who started slowly, only scraping through as one of the best third placed teams in their group only to go on and finish fourth overall. Three of the quarter finals went to penalty shoot outs, Platini missing his spot kick, but France still beat Brazil, the Germans overcoming the hosts Mexico, and Spain going out to Belgium. Argentina were the only team to win their quarter final in 90 minutes, thanks to the magic of Maradona and the Hand of God.
Diego then did the same to Belgium, while the Germans knocked out France to reach the final. Even the third-place play-off proved to be an exciting affair, with France coming out on top against Belgium after extra-time in a game which gave us six goals. The final looked to be all over when Argentina took a 2-0 lead, but you can never write off the Germans. Just when it looked like they had managed to force the game into extra-time, Maradona sent Burruchaga through to beat Schumacher. Argentina, and Diego Maradona, had done it, a happy ending to my first and greatest ever World Cup.
36 years have passed since then, and I will still feel that excitement when the World Cup eventually gets underway. It all starts today with the draw, and we’ll learn how difficult it will be for our respective teams to go all the way. Even just getting past the group stage will be a small victory for many of us. You may know deep down that your country has no real prospect of winning the World Cup, but football allows us to dream, or at least hope that we stay in the competition for as long as possible. Aside from that, we want to see excitement, upsets, drama, penalty shoot outs, heroes and villains, David versus Goliath, the surprise packet, the shock exits, all the twists and turns that a month-long football festival can give us. For me, there may never be another Mexico ’86 and there may never be another Diego Maradona, but that won’t stop me being glued to the World Cup.
The draw kicks off at 7pm local time in Qatar, and you can check where to watch it live here. It should also be available to stream live from the FIFA website, and probably YouTube too. Wherever you’re watching from and whoever you’ll be cheering for, enjoy the beginning of another World Cup adventure.