FIFA World Cup 2022 | Can Messi, Neymar end Europe’s hegemony?

Neymar’s Brazil and Lionel Messi’s Argentina arrive in Doha with plenty of firepower and settled squads, triggering dreams of a Cup triumph that has eluded them for long.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Football — for the first time in its history — has put a mid-winter pause to its lucrative club/league schedules to squeeze in the World Cup. The 29-day showcase is going ahead in Qatar despite protests from European clubs and leagues, which for long had dictated the fortunes and calendar of global football.

The world governing body FIFA’s 2010 vote to award Qatar the 2022 tournament and the resolve to back its decision undeterred by a decade of rising universal disapproval shows the Arabian Gulf’s growing influence on the game. Qatar Sports Investment, chaired by Naseer Al-Khelaifi, recently acquired a 22 % stake in Portuguese club SC Braga and has owned Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain since 2011. Al-Khelaifi is also the chairman and CEO of beIN Media that holds broadcast rights for the World Cup, EURO, Champions League, Premier League, and Ligue 1.

The Saudi Arabian sovereign fund, too, has dabbled in football with its acquisition of Newcastle United, while the Abu Dhabi-backed City Football Group owns 11 clubs worldwide – including Manchester City and Mumbai City FC.

But with the World Cup about to kickstart with the opening match on November 20 at the Al Bayt Stadium between the host and Ecuador, which received a Court of Arbitration in Sports reprieve to participate despite fielding an ineligible player during the qualifiers, there’s still uncertainty over Qatar’s ability to withstand the pressure of having myriad visitors from across the globe, who are likely to dwarf the local population (many of them immigrants) by at least two-and-a-half times.

However, this World Cup — the last to have 32 teams in the fray — has enough stars to tide over any misgivings once the football starts.

The two South American footballing superpowers — Brazil and Argentina — arrive in Doha with plenty of firepower and settled squads, triggering dreams of a Cup triumph that has eluded them for long. Lionel Messi, whose mere presence has improved every club he has played for, has inexplicably failed to exert the same influence in a La Albiceleste shirt. But with the Copa America, in 2021, finally crammed into his overspilling trophy cabinet, Argentina is bracing to see the competition swept aside by a surreal final hurrah from the 35-year-old magician.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in action during the Portugal training session at Al Shahaniya SC Training Site on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in action during the Portugal training session at Al Shahaniya SC Training Site on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Ronaldo’s quest

For Cristiano Ronaldo — the relentless ‘Djoker’ to Messi’s ‘Federeresque’ class — the World Cup offers the paradisiac platform to volley — not verbal — away the perceived ill treatments suffered at Manchester United. His Portugal teammates, quite a few from United and its city rival, will be eager to fuel the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s rage to lift the ultimate crown.

Europe has heavyweight presence — despite the absence of Euro champion Italy — in Germany, defending champion France — strengthened by the realignment of the strike force of Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe — Spain, and England to continue its 16-year hegemony over the Cup.

Belgium and Croatia — two surprise semifinalists in 2018 — will again summon their ageing ‘Golden Generation’ of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic to supplicate another dream rush.

Denmark, on an inspirational run since Christian Eriksen’s comeback after his brush with death in Euro 2020, can cause upsets, while the tag of the bookmakers’ favourite sits rightly with a Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Vinicius Junior-encrusted Brazil.

Asia and Africa’s hopes of creating ripples rest on Japan, coached by Hajime Moriyasu, and Cup of Nations winner Senegal, despite the last-minute injury withdrawal of Sadio Mane.

This World Cup in winter — clubs will be paid £8500 a day by FIFA for releasing players for the midseason madness — has all the ingredients to be another best-seller. Qatar — with its bet spread wide; the State-owned Qatar Sports Investment fund employs Messi, Mbappe and Neymar in PSG and players from multiple other World Cup-playing nations — hopes to be the big winner in this game of geopolitical power.

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