As with every edition, the 2022 World Cup has some incredibly high stakes for a number of players and countries. Legacies on the line, expectations to be fulfilled, and underdogs waiting to pounce are just some of the biggest stories as we head into Qatar later this year.
The 2022 World Cup is just around the corner, and group chats galore are rife with predictions about every imaginable category.
While that remains standard procedure, we decided to mix things up by bringing forth the five storylines we are most excited to see unfold in Qatar.
Will Lionel Messi Win His Elusive World Cup?
Lionel Messi announced that the Qatar World Cup is set to be his final attempt at going for gold at football’s grandest stage.
Since the Argentinian phenom started to venture into the conversation about being the greatest player to grace the beautiful game, the one glaring absence in his trophy case was a World Cup triumph. To many, this prevents him from being football’s undisputed GOAT.
The same detractors continue to champion Diego Maradona or Pele as the only two players worthy of having the seat at the summit of the sport.
While the aforementioned argument is the ultimate litmus test to assess any football fan’s understanding of the game, it remains undeniable that all eyes will be on whether Messi can put such mindless arguments to bed once and for all.
Unlike in previous editions of the tournament, the 35-year-old has an ensemble that is a cohesive mix of high-profile names and up-and-comers who punch above their weight class.
But while the Albiceleste have always had the luxury of talent, the proof has never truly been in the pudding. However, Messi and Co. are coming off of a fantastic run at the 2021 Copa America, where they gave Argentina its first title since 1993.
With a ridiculous four goals and five assists to his name at the holy grail of South American football, Lionel Messi was the joint-top scorer and assister at the tournament. Playing out of his skin from day one, the Argentina captain was rightly voted as the Player of the Tournament.
Unlike the 2014 World Cup where the Paris Saint-Germain forward could only take home the personal accolade of the Golden Ball home, the 2021 Copa America saw his teammates standing tall whenever called upon to ensure their all-encompassing head honcho’s genius did not go to waste.
In the semifinal, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved a staggering three spot-kicks in the penalty shootout to send Argentina to the final.
The same principle applies to Angel di Maria, who had ice in his veins after capitalizing on a Renan Lodi mishap at the back to dink the ball past Ederson and score the all-important winner in the final against Brazil.
In the 2022 Finalissima as well, Messi’s Man of the Match performance against Italy was supported by an incredible team display, which gave Lionel Scaloni’s side the convincing 3-0 edge on the day.
As football’s grandest stage looms closer, Messi’s supporting cast gives him the best chance he has ever had to leave his last dance on a high.
Will Neymar Turn His Legacy Around?
To keep a spade a spade, there is a shout for Neymar being the most disrespected footballer of all time.
For far too long, an endless list of his critics have talked about the Paris Saint-Germain icon as a classic case of “what could have been,” almost implying that he sits on the same table as the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Adel Taraabt.
The indisputable reality of the Champions League winner’s story remains that despite his switch to the Parc des Princes perhaps being a sideways career move, he remains one of the most impactful players to ever grace the game.
The facts will tell you that Neymar has managed to emit a Ronaldinho-esque stardust, only he’s been able to do it for a significantly longer period of time than his fellow countryman. Those blinded by narratives refuse to see the light, however.
Keeping said tiresome agendas in mind, the upcoming World Cup has laid out the red carpet for Neymar to silence his doubters forever. And unlike the previous edition of the competition where all eyes were on the half-fit genius to do the business singlehandedly, this Brazil side find themselves entering the tournament as the odds-on favorites.
The names speak for themselves, with Vinicius Jr., for starters being one of the best wingers on the planet and coming fresh off an eighth-place finish in this year’s Ballon d’Or race.
Alisson is the closest thing to Manuel Neuer post-2020, as he reigns supreme as the best goalkeeper in the world, with an understudy of Ederson’s stature emphasizing the embarrassment of riches in the side.
Bruno Guimares is quite easily one of the most well-rounded midfielders in Europe, with the likes of Fabinho, Lucas Paqueta, and Casemiro to name a few assembling an enviable midfield department, while Gabriel Jesus is perhaps the best striker in the Premier League not named Erling Haaland or Harry Kane.
At 38 years young, the immortal Thiago Silva is still a force at center back.
Considering big hitters such as Raphinha, Eder Militao, and Rodrygo are yet to be mentioned further emphasizes the tools at Neymar’s disposal to be hailed as one of the greatest Brazilian players in history.
Considering the ex-Barcelona superstar is arguably the most in-form player in Europe and is head and shoulders above his incredibly gifted teammates just strengthens our case for why his legacy could take a turn for the better if he spearheads Brazil’s first World Cup win in two decades.
Are France at the End of Their Cycle or the Start of a New One?
There is a sense of hesitation in terms of heading towards any of the two possible extremes when it comes to predicting Les Bleus’ fate at the Qatar World Cup.
On one end of the spectrum, it is understandable why some feel uneasy at making the claim that France will become only the third nation to win back-to-back World Cups. After all, their disappointing showing at EURO 2020 still lives fresh in the memory of many.
Throughout the tournament, the French were anything but a sight for sore eyes. Despite having arguably the most well-stocked side in the world in every department, France were as disjointed and uninspiring as imaginable.
To top their unconvincing displays off, France were deservedly humbled in the round of 16 by a valiant Swiss side, as Kylian Mbappe’s missed penalty capped off a nightmarish end for the pre-tournament favorites.
Distasteful leaks after France’s exit about egos as high as skyscrapers, dressing room rifts, and petty disagreements painted the picture of a divided group.
In the latest edition of the Nations League as well, the French have three defeats, two draws and one win out of their six games. Not an ideal set of results.
On the contrast, it seems borderline silly to go as far as to say that France will be the biggest disappointment at the upcoming World Cup. While the age-old adage claims that football is not played on paper, the talent at Didier Deschamps’ disposal is enough to render any such clichés cliched.
It goes without saying that Karim Benzema, who won his first-ever Ballon d’Or, and Mbappe’s status as the leader of the new school stand out as two protagonists of this side.
However, much like Brazil, France have a ridiculous number of game changers in every area of the pitch.
Rattling off names such as Mike Maignan, Jules Kounde, Theo Hernandez, Aurelien Tchouameni, and Ousmane Dembele barely scratches the surface.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether the French make history in Qatar or live to regret the chance of cementing a legacy in international football akin to Italy in in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
Can the Dark Horses Live Up to Their Tags?
It goes without saying that a dark horse pick is subjective, which is why for the sake of this conversation, our choices are the Netherlands and Denmark.
Touching on the Oranje first, it would be a story for the ages to witness Louis van Gaal guide his nation to glory, especially after revealing in April this year that he was being treated for prostate cancer. Going by the tools within his reach, the former Barcelona boss, who has sprung a surprise with the Dutch at the World Cup in the past, could do the same in 2022.
The return of Virgil van Dijk is the biggest topic of conversation, as his absence after recovering from a long-term injury was sorely felt at the EUROs.
Despite the Liverpool vice-captain’s shaky start to the season, it would be reactionary to suggest that the 31-year-old is past his sell-by date, considering he was arguably the best center back in the world last season.
Partnered by one of Europe’s best up-and-coming defenders in Jurrien Timber and the ever-reliable Nathan Ake, the Netherlands have a mean defense heading into the tournament.
A midfield composed of the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Ryan Gravenberch, and Teun Koopeminers is a scary sight, while tactically malleable forwards such as Coady Gakpo, Memphis Depay, and Steven Bergwijn could cause backlines a headache.
Not to overstate the quality in the squad, but a seasoned van Gaal may be the tactician the Netherlands have lacked in recent years to make serious inroads at the World Cup.
Denmark has a compelling story on its side as well, with Christian Eriksen’s return to a major tournament being a crucial topic of conversation.
Straight off the bat, the footballing world should be grateful that the Manchester United midfielder is still performing at a high level and can continue to be the face of his nation’s World Cup charge once again.
Keeping that aside, it has to be a pleasant surprise for Kasper Hjulmand that Eriksen remains a class act on the pitch, shining under the bright lights for both Brentford and United.
While other names such as Joachim Andersen, Pierre Emile-Hojberg, Mikel Damsgaard, and Andreas Skov Olsen may not generate constant discourse, they remain excellent performers for both club and country.
The Danes’ run to the EURO 2020 semifinal, where they ran England as deep to extra time as they could, is proof that this side is built to pull off an upset. In their latest 2-0 victory against France in the Nations League, Hjulmand’s side impressed, not just in terms of the result, but their overall performance as well.
Almost matching Les Bleus in terms of their dominance on the ball, while being pressing monsters, it would be naïve to take this bunch lightly.
However, as exemplified by Turkey at the EUROs, all the pre-tournament hype would be a pain to hark back to, if either the Netherlands or Denmark flatter to deceive.
How Far Can Spain Go?
At EURO 2020, it was next to impossible not to applaud the fine job Luis Enrique had done with an unfancied Spain side. Considering the Spanish squad within his ranks was light years away from those in recent memory, to see “Lucho” mastermind this team to a semifinal while playing liquid football was a sight to behold.
Perhaps if Alvaro Morata did not fluff his lines from 12 yards, La Roja reach the final, take England to the cleaners, and this is no longer a storyline.
However, destiny had a plan in place for Roberto Mancini, his sublime suits, and the EUROs coming Rome, as Giorgio Chiellini reminded the world.
As the questions persist, there is certainly an argument to make for Spain having an outside shout of going all the way.
Enrique is one of the most tactically adept managers at the international level who has programmed his signature style of play into his players. The same cannot be said for fellow big hitters such as Portugal, England, and France for instance, who seem not to know their heads from their toes under the guidance of Fernando Santos, Gareth Southgate, and Deschamps respectively.
Considering midfields prove to be a crucial difference maker at major tournaments, a trio of Pedri, Gavi, and Sergio Busquets, who play in tandem at Barcelona, hand Spain an edge over their competitors.
While the likes of Rodri, Carlos Soler, and Fabian Ruiz could walk into a number of teams without breaking a sweat. However, the list of factors to support said argument run out rather quickly.
Aside from in the middle of the park, Spain have flaws galore in every other area of the pitch. Up front, Ansu Fati is perhaps the nation’s best forward, but his struggles with fitness put his prospects of traveling to Qatar later this year in jeopardy.
The other forward options simply fail to inspire any confidence, as Morata remains wasteful in front of goal, Pablo Sarabia is undeniably one-note, and Ferran Torres is currently perhaps at the lowest point of his career.
Despite the in-form Nico Williams’ cameos signaling that he may be ready for a start, the lack of an established explosive winger and clinical goalscorer is telling.
In defense, the elegant Aymeric Laporte lacks a center back partner of the same ilk to make the Spanish impregnable at the back. While Pau Torres and Eric Garcia are tailor made for a systemic standpoint, the pair have come unstuck in the past, as witnessed during the EUROs.
Jordi Alba remains a reliable performer in international football, but with a mere 206 league minutes to his name this season, it’s safe to say the aging left back is not best prepared heading into a World Cup.
However, this Spanish side showcased that they have it in the tank to punch above their weight at EURO 2020, which could tempt many into backing them to surprise later this year.
As the question lingers, it is this very conundrum that makes for one of the most intriguing talking points ahead of the tournament in November.