A total of 832 players, more than ever before, will dream of what the next few weeks might bring.
Many of them have legitimate reason to hope: This year’s field is, perhaps, a little more open than usual, with the major European powers that have dominated for two decades threatened by Brazilian and Argentine revivals and menaced by a strong contingent from Africa. It is too soon, of course, to know how it will go, but it is possible to get some sense of what Qatar 2022 will look like.
Pedigree: It is not just that Qatar had never qualified for a World Cup. Qatar had never really come close to qualifying for one. For all the work the country has done to ensure it has a team capable of at least competing, in theory there has never been a more overmatched host.
Ambition: Qatar should at least go into the competition in good spirits: It has won each of its last five games, though whether victories over Nicaragua, Guatemala and Albania are worthwhile preparation for meeting the Netherlands and Senegal is open for debate. Making it to the round of 16 would be a triumph. Not losing all three games would be a success, too.
Key Question: Félix Sánchez is a smart, capable coach who has crafted a stylish, technical team, but all of his players are based in Qatar and only a few, like Almoez Ali, have even fleeting experience of playing in Europe. Much hinges on whether his coaching can bridge that gap.
Pedigree: Ecuador has quietly established itself as something of a force in South American soccer in recent years, qualifying for four of this century’s six World Cups. With a pipeline of young talent starting to flood into Europe, Ecuador may supplant Colombia and Uruguay to become the continent’s third force behind Brazil and Argentina.
Ones To Watch: Midfielder Moisés Caicedo will be familiar to those who follow the English Premier League — his form for Brighton has seen him linked with moves to Liverpool and Chelsea — but defenders Angelo Preciado and Piero Hincapié are well regarded, too.
Key Question: Gustavo Alfaro, Ecuador’s Argentine coach, will believe his team can beat Senegal to second place and a spot in the last 16. But to do so he will have to identify a reliable source of goals from a roster whose talent in defense and midfield is not matched in attack.
Pedigree: Africa has not produced a quarterfinalist since Ghana’s encounter with Uruguay and Luis Suárez in 2010. Senegal — which made it that far in its World Cup debut in 2002 — has the quality to break that streak. Coach Aliou Cissé’s team arrives in Qatar not just as the continent’s champion, but its standard-bearer.
Ambition: Cissé’s squad is arguably as well balanced as any in the competition, the traditional favorites apart. Édouard Mendy is an elite goalkeeper, Kalidou Koulibaly has been one of the game’s finest defenders for a decade, there is an abundance of industry in the midfield, and the attack was to be led by Sadio Mané. The last 16 should really be the minimum.
Key Question: Much was hinging on the health of Mané. He was subbed out during Bayern Munich’s penultimate game ahead of the World Cup after taking what his coach described as “a blow to the head of his shin.” On Nov. 17, his national federation ruled him out of the World Cup.
Pedigree: As a rule, the Dutch tend to do pretty well when they get to international tournaments these days. Getting there has proved to be the hard part: After reaching the final in 2010 and the semifinals in 2014, the Netherlands was not even present in Russia four years ago. Coach Louis van Gaal’s team is trying to make up for lost time.
Ambition: Van Gaal was in charge in 2014, too, when his tactical acumen managed to take a far less well-equipped squad within a penalty shootout of reaching a second final in four years. This time, he has a defense built around Virgil van Dijk and a midfield orchestrated by Frenkie de Jong. And he is Louis van Gaal, so he will see no reason that he cannot win the whole thing.
Key Question: The players left behind — Sven Botman, Ryan Gravenberch, Arnaut Danjuma — indicate the quality of the Dutch squad. If there is a weakness, it is up front, where Memphis Depay remains the only proven scorer. It would be a good time for Cody Gakpo, the PSV Eindhoven sensation, to come good on his promise.
Ambition: England has been building to this tournament off the field for almost a decade: The Football Association set winning the 2022 World Cup as a target as long ago as 2013. That has long since been disregarded as policy, but in practice England should be a contender. It reached the semifinals in 2018 and made the final of the European Championship in 2021. Its time is coming.
The Surprise: Over the last year, manager Gareth Southgate has been accused of being too loyal — mainly to Harry Maguire — and not loyal enough, principally to Trent Alexander-Arnold. Both are on the team this time, but the real surprise was the inclusion of James Maddison, the Leicester City playmaker who has been studiously ignored for most of Southgate’s tenure.
Key Question: The suspicion, in England, is that Southgate is too cautious to make use of a talented generation of attacking players, and that England’s dreams will be undone by a lack of either ambition or self-confidence. He must weigh the rewards of cutting loose against the risk of exposing his team’s vulnerabilities.
Pedigree: Iran has missed only two World Cups since 1998, establishing itself as one of Asia’s four great powers. It has never made it past the group stage, winning only two of its 15 games, but this iteration has realistic ambitions of ending that hoodoo, thanks largely to its attacking pair of Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi.
The Coach: Well-traveled Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz returned earlier this year after the dismissal of Dragan Skocic, the Serbian who had masterminded Iran’s qualification. Queiroz oversaw Iran’s World Cup campaigns in 2014 and 2018. This time, he is confident he can get the country to the knockout stage.
Key Question: Iran’s preparations for the tournament have been overshadowed by the protests sweeping the country in the aftermath of the mid-September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, and a number of players have risked breaching team rules by posting statements of support for the dissidents. It is not clear, at this point, if everyone in Iran would regard success as something to celebrate.
Pedigree: After an untimely intermission, the United States is back. The humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament — after an unbroken streak stretching back to 1990 — means that coach Gregg Berhalter’s team has almost no experience of playing at a World Cup. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen.
Ambition: What the U.S. lacks in international experience, this generation of players makes up for in exposure to Europe’s major leagues (and, indeed, the Champions League). Christian Pulisic might be the golden boy, but the likes of Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna have all earned their spurs. A place in the last 16 should be feasible.
Key Question: The most obvious concern is who, exactly, will score. A more pressing inquiry might be whether Berhalter’s decision to give youth its day is prioritizing the future at the expense of the present. The U.S. will be among the youngest teams at the World Cup. The hope may be that pays dividends on home soil in 2026.
Pedigree: Wales has waited 64 years for this moment. The country had not qualified for a World Cup since 1958, but it has been on the rise for the better part of a decade, reaching the semifinals of the European Championship in 2016 and then returning to the tournament five years later.
The Last Hurrah: The two key figures in the Welsh renaissance, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, are both unquestionably in the autumn of their careers, seeing out their time at Los Angeles FC and Nice, respectively. Below them, there are green shoots, including the likes of Brennan Johnson and Neco Williams, but for now everything still hinges on the veterans.
Key Question: Bale’s decision to move to LAFC in MLS this summer was seen as an attempt to guarantee his fitness for the World Cup. It has not quite worked like that — he was absent far more than the club anticipated — but he did sub on and score a crucial equalizer in the MLS Cup final. Wales will hope Bale has a few more flashbulb moments left.
Pedigree: For the first time for a generation, Argentina goes into a World Cup (Lionel Messi) as the reigning South American champion (Lionel Messi). The coach, Lionel Scaloni, inherited the job as a safe pair of (Lionel Messi) hands, but has succeeded where so many others have (Lionel Messi) failed and crafted a cogent side from (Lionel Messi) Argentina’s rich pool of talent.
Ambition: Nobody has really mentioned it, and it is very much not on anyone’s minds, especially not in Argentina, but this will apparently be the last World Cup to feature a small man from Rosario. There is a general, unspoken sentiment that it would be nice for him to sign off with a win.
Key Question: There is no point beating around the bush on this one: The whole sporting storyline of this tournament — for everyone — is whether Messi will be able to win his first World Cup title, and Argentina’s third, at his last attempt.
Pedigree: Qualification might have been a breeze for coach Hervé Renard’s team, but Saudi Arabia’s reputation as one of Asia’s powerhouses is in flux. While it won its first game at a World Cup finals for 20 years in 2018, that came after missing out on both 2010 and 2014. The Saudis have not even made the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup since 2007.
Ambition: The canny, experienced and open-neck-shirted Renard is a smart appointment for a country that has to make the most of a squad drawn exclusively from its domestic league. The sense remains, though, that departing the tournament with a better record than Qatar is all that matters.
Key Question: There are only two teams in the tournament without a single player in a major European league: the host nation and Saudi Arabia. Received wisdom would make that an insurmountable obstacle to winning a game, let alone qualifying for the last 16. Saudi Arabia must disprove it.
Pedigree: For all the fretting over the United States’ path to Qatar, it was Mexico — ordinarily a shoo-in for the top spot in CONCACAF — that made heavy weather of qualification. Gerardo Martino’s team failed to beat either the U.S. or Canada, home or away, and those failures followed Mexico’s losing both the Nations League and the Gold Cup to its northern neighbor.
Ambition: Anything, really, that is not elimination in the round of 16. That has been Mexico’s fate in each of the past seven tournaments. Martino’s task is to ensure there is not an eighth. Ideally, he would do that by making the quarterfinals, not by being eliminated in the group stage.
Key Question: Much will ride on the outcome of Mexico’s meeting with Poland, a game that had the air of a straight shootout almost as soon as the draw was made. In Hirving Lozano, Edson Álvarez and Raúl Jimenez, Mexico has the talent. Its nerve will be tested.
Ambition: Poland will have set its sights on beating Mexico to second place in the group — or taking advantage of any jitters that set in among Argentina’s players — and getting to the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.
The Story: Robert Lewandowski is to Poland what Messi is to Argentina. No matter what order he eats his meals in, this will likely be his last World Cup, too. For the first time — thanks to the emergence of Piotr Zielinski and Nicola Zalewski — it is possible to believe he has a worthy supporting cast.
Key Question: Coach Czeslaw Michniewicz faces the same question that has dogged all of his predecessors over the past decade or so: Is there a way to fashion a team that allows Lewandowski to shine? Poland has the finest pure striker in the world. The issue has always been finding a way to let him show it.
Pedigree: France is the reigning champion and, for all the romance attached to Brazil and Argentina, the presumptive favorite. No team has retained the World Cup since 1962, but the sheer depth of talent available to Didier Deschamps gives France every reason to believe it can end that run.
The Missing: Deschamps has called up 11 of the players who won the World Cup in Russia, but not Paul Pogba or N’Golo Kanté, both of whom have been ruled out by injury. That leaves Deschamps with the unwanted challenge of crafting a whole new midfield on the fly.
Key Question: So rich are France’s playing resources that it has long seemed like the country could send two squads (at least) to the World Cup, and both would rank among the favorites. Pogba and Kanté absences provide a chance to see if that theory can survive contact with reality.
Pedigree: It’s a fifth World Cup in a row for the team that insists on calling itself the Socceroos, though Australia did it the hard way by winning two playoffs — against the United Arab Emirates and then Peru — after failing to qualify for one of the four automatic slots from Asia.
Ambition: Australia may now be a mainstay of the World Cup, but it has not actually won a game at the tournament since 2010. Changing that record is the bare minimum for coach Graham Arnold. Reaching the knockout rounds, given the group draw, is likely to be a step too far.
Key Question: Much of the focus, when Arnold named his squad, was on the omission of two of the country’s long-standing stalwarts, Trent Sainsbury and Tom Rogic. Far more intriguing, though, was the inclusion of Garang Kuol, an 18-year-old with one cap to his name and a move to Newcastle United looming. He has already been cast as Australia’s next star.
Pedigree: There will be a temptation to describe Denmark as a dark horse, but it does not quite fit. Kasper Hjulmand’s team reached the semifinals of the European Championship in 2021, qualified here imperiously, and has beaten France twice in the past five months. There is absolutely nothing dark about the Danes.
The Story: Christian Eriksen’s inclusion in the squad may be the most touching story of the whole World Cup. It has been only 18 months since Eriksen collapsed on the field during the European Championship. For months, it seemed unlikely — and largely unimportant — that he would play again. His return makes Denmark a sentimental favorite.
The stage is set for the biggest moment in football. It’s almost time for #Qatar2022! https://t.co/9v7tCD1Gle
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668879120000
Ambition: Denmark’s size, and its comparative lack of stars, means it will never be regarded as a true contender for the title, but it would be no surprise to see Hjulmand’s side make the quarterfinals, at the very least. That would match the country’s best World Cup performance.
Pedigree: Tunisia secured a place in its sixth World Cup in steady, rather than spectacular, fashion. The country conceded only two goals over six games during Africa’s second phase of qualifying and then slipped past Mali in a playoff thanks to a single goal over two legs. Do not expect the Eagles of Carthage to be a soft touch.
Ambition: Being in the same group as France and Denmark might seem to inhibit Tunisia’s aspirations, but coach Jalel Kadri has vowed to leave if his team is eliminated in the group stage. Not reaching the last 16, he said earlier this year, would be a “failure.”
Reality: On paper, Tunisia is likely the weakest of Africa’s five qualifiers, though the squad has been bolstered in the past few years by an influx of players with Tunisian heritage. Hannibal Mejbri, a combative and charismatic midfielder employed by Manchester United, is the most high-profile, but the inventive Anis Ben Slimane is an intriguing prospect, too.
World Cup moments are even more special when they are shared. Let’s create more memories together.… https://t.co/NNh1MP2mUj
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668870947000
Pedigree: Spain’s fall from grace was swift and brutal. The country produced certainly the most successful — and arguably the greatest — national team of all time between 2008 and 2012, winning three consecutive major tournaments, including its maiden World Cup in 2010. Since then, it has been a bitter disappointment, going out in the group stage in 2014 and in the last 16 in 2018.
The Story: Luis Enrique, the coach, has taken it upon himself to snap Spain out of its nostalgic reverie. Of that great generation, only Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba remain. The squad is distinctly youthful, and the team is likely to be built around Pedri and Gavi, Barcelona’s teen sensations, both young enough to be Busquets’ children.
Key Question: The freshness of Spain’s squad will make it a fascinating proposition, but much will depend on Enrique’s risk tolerance. Will he throw caution to the wind and unleash Ansu Fati, Nico Williams and Yeremy Pino? Or will the better known qualities of Álvaro Morata prove more appealing?
Pedigree: Nobody had to wait as long as Costa Rica to seal a place in Qatar — its playoff victory against New Zealand completed the field — but that does not mean it should be dismissed as a makeweight. This is a country that has reached the quarterfinals more recently than Spain, for example.
Which country has the best chant? 🎵#FIFAWorldCup | #Qatar2022 https://t.co/A7iVTBitgG
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668865082000
The Coach: Luis Fernando Suárez has already been to the World Cup twice, once with Ecuador and once with Honduras, and his willingness to blood a new generation of players helped invigorate a listless Costa Rica and win a spot in Qatar. A couple of old-timers, like Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz, remain, but this is now very much a team built by Suárez.
Key Question: The group stage draw means few expect Costa Rica to repeat its heroics of 2014, when it came within a penalty shootout of making the semifinals. Its group that year, after all, was far harder, at least on paper: England, Italy and Uruguay. If anything, Costa Rica should probably go further this time.
Pedigree: It is a curiosity of the draw that Germany should find itself in a group with Spain, given the parallels between the two. Like Spain, Germany followed up winning the World Cup, in 2014, with a scarring group stage exit four years later. Like Spain, Germany has responded by naming a squad shot through with young talent.
The Missing: Germany’s unassuming, popular coach, Hansi Flick, might, in his gloomier moments, reflect that his resources have been thinned by injury more than most. Losing Timo Werner, Marco Reus and Florian Wirtz is a blow, but it means a chance for the likes of Karim Adeyemi and Youssoufa Moukoko, the Borussia Dortmund striker who turns 18 this month.
Key Question: There is still a sense that Germany is trapped between two generations: the one represented by Thomas Müller, now well into his 30s, and the one represented by his heir for club and country, Jamal Musiala. Flick’s task is to build a team that can accentuate the best of both.
Mbappe’s moment of glory 🥇Almost time to start the journey all over again… 🏆#FIFAWorldCup | #Qatar2022
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668852493000
Ambition: Japan has qualified for every World Cup since 1998, generally alternating between elimination in the group phase and an exit in the round of 16. The coach, Hajime Moriyasu, has a sufficiently strong squad to see the latter as an achievable aim, though having to face Germany and Spain does not help.
Experience: The vast majority of Moriyasu’s squad now plays in Europe: There are only seven representatives of J League clubs among his selected 26, and two of them have only recently returned home. At least in theory, this may be the strongest, most experienced, team Japan has ever taken to a World Cup.
Key Question: If there is one flaw in Moriyasu’s squad, it is up front. Japan has no shortage of creative players — Takumi Minamino, Junya Ito, Takefusa Kubo, Daichi Kamada — but finding a reliable source of goals has been a problem for some time. It shows no sign of alleviating.
Pedigree: It would be easy to dismiss this generation of Belgian players as a disappointment; they have spent almost a decade, after all, being hailed as contenders to win a major trophy. They might not have won one, but they made the semifinals in 2018, and have spent most of the past four years ranked as the best team in the world. That’s not bad.
Preparation is key for players before stepping onto the field 🏃Let’s find out why players warming up helps them s… https://t.co/GTL0nLbODT
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668844801000
The Story: Belgium’s bright young prospects have, by now, grown gray and old. Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen are all now the high side of 30, and Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco are hurtling toward that line. This could be one tournament too many, or it could be a glorious last hurrah.
Key Question: For the first time in years, it does not feel as if Belgium enters the tournament under any particular pressure. Roberto Martínez’s team has not been mentioned as a possible winner. Hazard and Lukaku have been cast as yesterday’s men. Could that be a blessing?
Pedigree: Morocco has an encouraging balance: an obdurate defense flanked by two of the world’s best fullbacks, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui; a midfield graced by the scheming of Hakim Ziyech; and an attack spearheaded by Youssef En-Nesyri. Qualification was suitably straightforward, and expectations are high.
The Curse: Vahid Halilhodzic, a Bosnian and one of soccer’s great knights errant, oversaw Morocco’s qualification for the tournament, meaning he has now taken four teams to the World Cup in a long, distinguished and adventurous career. He has, though, actually coached only one team at a World Cup. Morocco maintained that pattern by firing him in August.
🧤 What makes goalkeepers special?Let’s have a closer look at how players in the most unique position on the pitch… https://t.co/yYkriOyG8H
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668801600000
Key Question: The rationale behind Halilhodzic’s dismissal was that he had ostracized two of Morocco’s stars, Ziyech and Mazraoui, for disciplinary reasons. Now he is gone and they are back. Both will be under pressure to prove that was the correct decision.
Pedigree: Canada’s relief and delight at qualifying for its first World Cup since 1986 should not be confused with contentment to travel to Qatar just to make up the numbers. John Herdman’s team sailed through a qualifying process that the U.S. and Mexico found particularly fraught.
The Stars: Two players stand out from the generation that ended Canada’s wait: Alphonso Davies, likely already the finest player the country has ever produced, and forward Jonathan David. The rest of the squad, though, should not be lightly dismissed: Stephen Eustaquio, Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin are all thriving in the Champions League.
Key Question: There was precious little romance in the group stage draw — Canada has every reason to feel a little harshly treated by fate — but if Herdman can find a way to unleash Davies and David, in particular, Canada may trouble all three of its illustrious opponents.
#FIFAWorldCup trivia with a dramatic ending! How many did you get right? https://t.co/NH921Gec86
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668799801000
Pedigree: For Croatia, reaching the semifinals in 1998, in its World Cup debut, was remarkable enough. Getting all the way to the final four years ago was one of the most astonishing performances in the tournament’s history. Croatia, as a rule, should not be discounted.
Ambition: Croatia earned its place in Qatar with relative ease, but its showing in last summer’s European Championship — where it was eliminated, in one of the most chaotic games in history, by Spain in the last 16 — indicates that a repeat of four years ago may be a step too far.
The Story: The core of the team that carried Zlatko Dalic’s team to the 2018 final remains in place, including the apparently ageless Luka Modric. As with several other teams, there is a feeling that Croatia’s stars have gathered in the hope of a golden, glorious sunset.
Pedigree: Brazil last won the World Cup 20 years ago, a drought the country generally regards as 16 or so years too long. Tite’s squad is a fearsome one, encompassing the two best goalkeepers in the world, a miserly defense, an intelligent and industrious midfield, and a slightly absurd forward line. There is no reason Brazil cannot win its seventh crown.
The #FIFAWorldCup vibes are IMMACULATE 🥳🇶🇦#Qatar2022 https://t.co/nh6FvQOxIb
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668783632000
The Star: The supporting cast of Vinicíus Junior, Raphinha and Gabriel Jésus is impressive, but Neymar shines even among Brazil’s enviable collection of gems. He has admitted that this may be his last World Cup, and he has given the impression at the club level in recent weeks that he is determined to make it count.
Key Question: Brazil’s form in recent years has been formidable, but — thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic — it has not faced a European team since March 2019, and it has not faced one of Europe’s major powers since losing to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. That is the one test it has not passed.
Pedigree: Serbia secured a place in Qatar in the most dramatic fashion imaginable — Aleksandar Mitrovic’s last-minute header condemning Portugal to defeat in Lisbon — but the emphasis on Portugal’s failure disguised what was an impressive qualifying campaign. Beating out Portugal, after all, is no mean feat.
The Star: Midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been one of the best players in Italy for five years, if not longer. The president of his team, Lazio, values him at $150 million and claims he is better than Paul Pogba. At 27, it is about time he lived up to that billing on a global stage.
Key Question: Serbia should, on paper, be a threat. Its team is drawn largely from Europe’s major leagues; Milinkovic-Savic is a reliable, creative presence; Dusan Vlahovic, Luka Jovic and Mitrovic provide an embarrassment of riches in attack. And yet that is the same before every tournament, and Serbia never quite manages to deliver on its promise. The question is: Why?
Pedigree: With minimal fuss, Switzerland has become an admirably common feature of both World Cups and European Championships. Murat Yakin’s team earned a place in its fifth straight World Cup by finishing on top of a qualifying group that included Italy, the European champion, and it did so without losing a game.
Ambition: Switzerland generally, and correctly, regards reaching the knockout rounds as a sort of par finish. Traditionally, it is then eliminated in the most boring game of the tournament: Its three round-of-16 games this century have produced only two goals (neither of them for Switzerland). It would be nice if, this time, it could go down in a blaze of glory.
Key Question: Switzerland has long been a kind of low-key Belgium: a small country punching well above its relative weight. Like Belgium, the group of players responsible for that success are now past their primes. This may prove to be a tournament too far.
Pedigree: Cameroon has, impressively, missed out on only one World Cup since 1990, but its presence in Qatar was a close-run thing. As late as the 124th minute of the second leg of its playoff against Algeria, Cameroon was going out, when Karl Toko Ekambi’s goal changed everything.
The Star: The career of Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting is impossibly curious. An also-ran at Stoke City, a middling sort of Premier League club a decade ago, he has since played for both Paris St.-Germain and Bayern Munich, where he appears to have turned into the natural heir to Robert Lewandowski.
Ambition: Under Rigobert Song, a totemic former player turned inspirational coach, Cameroon finished third at this year’s African Cup of Nations — only a penalty shootout defeat to Egypt cost it a final on home soil — and will believe it can leave Qatar as the best of the African contingent.
Ambition: Portugal will travel to Qatar believing — though possibly not verbalizing — that it can win the tournament. Lionel Messi, after all, is not the only player with a credible claim as the greatest of all time who will be taking the curtain after this World Cup, and if anything Cristiano Ronaldo has a better supporting cast.
Cristiano Ronaldo: The simmering furor over his treatment at Manchester United this season — where he has largely been reduced to playing in the Europa League, rather than the Premier League — may have a silver lining. Ronaldo, 37, will certainly not be going into his last World Cup worrying about fatigue.
Key Question: There is no prospect of Fernando Santos, Portugal’s gruff, obdurate coach, even thinking about trying to build a team that does not center on Ronaldo, which means he must confront the issue that has foxed three Manchester United coaches: how to accentuate his benefits while masking his drawbacks.
Pedigree: Qualification was a little stressful for Ghana: It required three coaches, a controversial penalty kick and a fraught playoff victory over Nigeria to carry the Black Stars — so close to being semifinalists in 2010, but absent entirely in 2018 — to Qatar.
The Story: Otto Addo, the last of those three coaches, has seen his resources bolstered by a steady supply of newly registered, dual national recruits, including Tariq Lamptey, a Brighton right back, and Iñaki Williams, the Athletic Bilbao forward whose brother, Nico, has been included in Spain’s squad.
Key Question: The extent to which Addo succeeds in blending together those new faces with the established figures in his squad — the likes of Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan — as well as an exciting crop of emerging youngsters will define how Ghana fares in what is, admittedly, a tough group.
Pedigree: For the better part of a decade, Uruguay has been South America’s third force: Indeed, its performance over the last three World Cups has not been vastly different to Brazil’s. This tournament proved one too many for the mastermind of that rise, though, with the avuncular, beloved Óscar Washington Tabárez dismissed halfway through qualification.
The Stars: A dozen years on from his first encounter with Ghana, Luis Suárez is still there. So, too, are the likes of Edínson Cavani and Diego Godín. The veterans are joined, though, by the standard-bearers of a new generation: Liverpool’s electric, unformed Darwin Nuñez; Barcelona’s Ronald Araújo; and, most of all, the irrepressible Federico Valverde.
Key Question: Tabarez’s replacement, Diego Alonso, guided Uruguay to Qatar without much fuss. How he fares will be determined by the extent to which he is prepared to trust the future, rather than relying on the past.
Pedigree: England, France, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands have all missed the World Cup more recently than South Korea, which has now made every finals since 1982, even if qualification this time around was a little less smooth than normal.
The Star: Barely two weeks before its opening game, South Korea confronted its nightmare: the sight of Son Heung-min, the Tottenham forward and the country’s lone superstar, being removed from a Champions League game with a fractured cheekbone. Son has assured fans he will be ready to play. The lingering fear is that he may not quite be at his thrilling best.
Key Question: South Korea might have contributed one of the most memorable moments in Russia four years ago — eliminating Germany — but its result was still a disappointment. The question this year will be the same as it was then: Does Son have enough of a supporting cast to shine?