The main event
The first World Cup in Asia was one for underdogs, with both South Korea and Turkey just one game away from the 2002 final. An early start at the end of May, which avoided the July rains but also left little time for star players to rest after tough European seasons, was cited as the reason for the problems of some traditional powers. History could be repeating itself as the second World Cup in Asia has also been postponed, albeit a bit backwards rather than forwards, due to climatic reasons, and while the mid-season action means the biggest names haven’t played as many will play, they will have almost no time to prepare.
The Premier League paused last Sunday, exactly a week before the big event kicked off. The other major European competitions have had similar schedules and their players will move straight from club to World Cup action.
That’s not the case for everyone. Just like 2002, the timing of 2022 could give outsiders a clue. Football-wise, England’s opening Group B opponents Iran appear to have a healthy combination, with half the squad playing at a good European level and the other half playing in the Middle East. Their domestic league ended on October 28 after 11 games. Being already based in the region and having more than two weeks of preparation time could make all the difference against England. That’s thanks to Carlos Queiroz, who told the Iranian FA that it’s best to finish early. “He decided to sacrifice playing time for more training,” Shaygan Banisaeid, an Iranian pundit and youth coach who has worked with a number of clubs in England’s two top divisions, told the Guardian. “Of course that wouldn’t be possible [Gareth] Southgate, who would have wished for longer preparation.”
At least Southgate knows his players are in good hands with their clubs. The Iran manager wants to keep his as close as possible. “Queiroz was concerned about the physical condition of the players playing domestically because he doesn’t trust the level of the league, the intensity of training in their clubs, the poor training facilities and poor recovery practices in Iran,” added Banisaid. “These players are currently training with him so that he can prepare physically for the World Cup.”
However, Queiroz wants more. “We have a lack of preparation time at the moment, but I want to thank all the people who have helped us have our players in training,” he said in October. “We want to close the gap between Team Melli and the big teams in the world.” The 2-0 defeat behind closed doors against Tunisia on Wednesday, in which 22 players get some playing time, should not be interpreted too much. Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun was not among them as he recovers from his injury. There were rumors, denied by Queiroz, that he was under pressure to drop the striker, who has spoken out in support of protests back home in Iran, from the squad.
For a coach with the tactical acumen of the former Real Madrid manager, three weeks with his players could make a difference, but it’s nothing compared to some. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have squads that are purely domestic based and while this raises concerns about international presence and experience, it offers some advantages. The Saudis started their World Cup break on October 16 after just eight games of the season, and 32 players traveled to nearby Abu Dhabi for a three-week, five-game training camp. Hervé Renard has had enough playing time to recover some of his injured players and by the time they open the game against Argentina, Saudi Arabia will have played eight games in two months.
And then there’s familiarity with the terms. It goes without saying that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not need to acclimate. South Korea and Japan play there regularly, with the former having played six games in the region in the last 12 months alone, and then there are various club and youth competitions regularly staged in the Middle East. How much of a difference that makes remains to be seen, but every little bit helps.
“This is Iran’s golden generation and probably the best team ever,” said Banisaeid. “There are many well-known names from 2018 who are now more mature, experienced and in the prime of their careers and will do their best to achieve the dream of qualifying for the next round. They were just a point off last time. Iran will not be an easy three points for England or the US.” JD
Offside Referee boss Pierlugi Collina assumes that decisions will be made faster and more accurately due to new plans developed by Fifa. The “semi-automatic offside technology” will decide even the tightest offside decisions faster than under the previous system and will broadcast a 3D animated representation of the incident for fans in the stadium and on TV. “[It] gives us the opportunity to be faster and more accurate,” Collina told reporters on Friday. Twelve cameras in each stadium track 29 points on each player’s body, and a sensor inside the ball sends data 500 times per second to the VAR operating room for highly accurate passing assessments. Reuters
Great Danes Kasper Hjulmand believes the wave of emotional support that helped propel his Denmark side to the Euro 2020 semi-finals is still there and hopes to capitalize on it in Qatar. Denmark recovered from the shock when midfielder Christian Eriksen went into cardiac arrest in the opening game to reach the last four euros, willed by sympathetic support and a determined spirit. “I definitely think it’s still here,” Hjulmand said. “I think we’re in a good position, but you can’t just play and play with emotions. I think the quality of football is there and we’re ready.” Reuters
The last Dance? Poland’s talisman Robert Lewandowski says he is preparing for the tournament as if it might be his last, but added that if necessary he would still be physically fit in 2026 – aged 38. “I don’t know,” he told reporters in Doha. “I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no.” Reuters
The mood in Germany
Normally, the Germans proudly hoist their country’s flag at the World Cup and enthusiastically support their team. Not this time. Anyone strolling around Berlin this week will have trouble noticing any signs of World Cup fever. No flags, no signs, no public viewing events, no indication that the football-mad country’s bid for its fifth World Cup begins on Tuesday with a game against Japan. Qatar’s human rights record and treatment of migrant workers spoiled the party for many.
“We don’t want to enjoy a World Cup like this,” said Bernd Beyer from the “Boycott Qatar 2022” initiative. “The fans don’t identify with it and say they don’t want anything to do with it.” During the Bundesliga and second division games over the past few weekends, there have been widespread protests against the tournament. Fans held up banners condemning the human rights situation in Qatar and recent statements by World Cup Ambassador Khalid Salman denouncing homosexuality.
The lack of enthusiasm also had commercial implications. Retailers have previously benefited from the hype surrounding major tournaments with team-based deals for Germany. Ex-coach Joachim Löw and his players could be seen everywhere offering various goods and services. According to the Association of German Sports Retailers, the sale of fan articles is down this time compared to previous World Cup years. Associated Press
In no particular order…
Security guards at World Cup Park claim they are only being paid 35p an hour.
Supporters paid by Qatar to attend the World Cup have their daily allowances removed.
Qatar bans beer from World Cup stadiums after 11th hour U-turn
Fan village still under construction 48 hours before the start of the tournament.
Gay Qataris were physically abused and then recruited as agents, says an activist.
As part of a unique collaboration between some of the world’s best media, a range of team guides bring local flavor and expertise to our coverage of this World Cup. You can find them all here, but here’s a sneak peak at Luis Eduardo Inzaurralde’s Uruguay preview:
Can Uruguay really become world champions for the third time? Anything is possible and individual performances suggest that most of the squad is in good form and that makes the manager dream big.
The Central Bank of Ecuador struck a commemorative coin to mark its participation in Qatar. As a tribute to the national team’s fourth appearance at the World Cup finals, around 1,500 units of the commemorative coin were made available in the cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.
“I wish every success to our beloved tricolor, made up of players who represent the resilience and spirit of Ecuador,” said Guillermo Avellan of the Central Bank of Ecuador. Each coin is silver and has a retail value of $63. Reuters