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Messi, or not Messi, that is the Question. World Cup 2022

In what might prove to be the final World Cup for some of football’s greatest ever players, can they get their hands on the sport’s most sought-after trophy, in the stoppage time of their glittering careers?

The upcoming World Cup in Qatar has been a talking point since the Qataris were awarded the competition way back in December 2010. Since then, the tournament’s legitimacy has been shrouded in accusations of bribery and corruption. Questions have also rightly been asked about the appalling Human Rights record in Qatar, as well as their intolerance of homosexuality. The moving of the World Cup to the winter period, so as to avoid the country’s 45-degree heat in the summer, has also been unpopular with players and fans alike. Injuries have already begun to plague the tournament due to the heavy playing schedule for players; the decision to have the World Cup in the winter means that several people will miss matches due to work schedules. Children will also miss out on an event that is meant to inspire a love of football due to school timetabling. For example, England’s opening match against Iran will air at 13.00 on a Monday.

Despite the disgruntlement of players and fans, the tournament persists and will kick off with Qatar vs Ecuador on the 20th of November. What is in store for the coming weeks? Well, as unpredictable as ever, this World Cup, despite the controversy, will surely bring its usual entertainment which will see favourites fall and underdogs rise and which almost always sees the birth of a new superstar. But who will these teams and players be and who will stand with the Cup raised above their heads come December 18th?

It is clear to see why Brazil are current favourites… In a tournament where the heat and schedule will undoubtedly see injuries become rife, squad depth will be crucial. Brazil possess talent in every area of the pitch, from Allison and Ederson in goal, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva at the back, Casermiro and Fabinho in midfield, all the way up to Neymar and Vinicius Jr in attack. Brazil has arguably the best squad in the tournament, and it is hard to look past them. Interestingly if both Brazil and Argentina win their group, the two favourites for the tournament will meet in the semi-finals, in what could be the only thing that stops Brazil.

While there has been plenty of clamour surrounding Brazil and their chances, there is another team in their group that I believe are capable of causing a few upsets and reaching the later stages of the tournament, Serbia. While the name Aleksandar Mitrovic will strike fear into the hearts of any defender that faces him, Serbia also has further depth in their strike force with Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic and Fiorentina’s Luka Jovic. Key players Mitrovic and Vlahovic have missed their last few club matches due to injury, but need to be back striking if Serbia are to be a force in the tournament. The talent up front will also be equally well supported with Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Filip Kostic in midfield. Keep an eye out for Serbia at the tournament; if fit, expect Mitrovic to be up there for the golden boot.

From one team with lacklustre defensive options to another, England has always seemed to struggle with balance in their squad. Either they have an abundance of defensive talent, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell, Ledley King etc and a lack of attacking depth, or as it would appear this tournament, the opposite. While it doesn’t help that Gareth Southgate has decided to omit, in my opinion, England’s best centre-back, Fikayo Tomori from the squad, England were already struggling for a World Class defender, which is always crucial in winning the cup. The talents of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and the ever-present goal scoring threat of Harry Kane should see England pass through the Group Stages, but a lack of defensive strength will most likely be their undoing and an exit in the sixteenth round or quarter is my prediction.

The two names on everybody’s lips heading into any World Cup have always been the same, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It appears that this will be the last World Cup for these two undeniable greats and both are yet to taste the sweet nectar of world glory. But what chance do they have? The answer for both is a very good one. If we start with Messi, Argentina head into this World Cup undefeated in their last 35 matches and are undoubtedly the form team heading to Qatar. Arguably the best Argentina squad that Messi has ever been a part of, he will be hoping they can go further than he did in 2014. The Argentines have added seriously good centre-backs, Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez, to a squad already rife with attacking talent and possess a goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, whose heroics helped them to Copa America glory in 2021. It seems that Argentina have filled all the gaps that seemed to be lacking in the last renditions of the World Cup and they will be my overall pick for the tournament. Whilst it seems written in the stars for Messi to finally get his hands on the World Cup, the footballing Gods are often cruel. We will simply have to wait and see…

But what about Portugal and Ronaldo? Much like Argentina, Portugal has very good squad depth and one of those players may even outshine Ronaldo as one of the stars of the World Cup. That player is Rafael Leao. The 23 year old winger for AC Milan was one of football’s breakthrough prospects last year when his goals and assists helped Milan lift their first Series A title since 2011. I expect Portugal to have a decent run in the tournament but believe they will ultimately come up short, perhaps due to factors outside of football. When you watch Argentina play, it is clear they are playing for Messi, they want to win more for him than anyone else and seem to have the mentality that this will be their year. In contrast, it seems that there could be a slight rift in the Portugal squad, especially since Ronaldo’s controversial interview where he was extremely critical of Manchester United. It remains to be seen how this affects his United teammate Bruno Fernandes who himself is a key player for Portugal.

Much like Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands will be hoping to get their hands on their maiden World Cup trophy when they take to the pitch in Qatar. Unfortunately for both, it appears as if their golden generations are behind them. Belgium’s squad still has immense talent, and they have the potential to progress far into the tournament, but with prime players like Eden Hazard a thing of the past, it seems that the team will rely on the creative genius of Kevin De Bruyne if they are to succeed. As for the Netherlands… while individual players within their squad possess immense talent, the likes of Frankie De Jong and Cody Gakpo, their overall squad lacks the ability of those in previous World Cups. Both teams probably lack the depth to triumph in Qatar.

As for the Champions of the last three World Cups, it remains to be seen if France (2018) can overcome the World Cup curse by becoming the first reigning champions to make it out of the group stages since Brazil in 2006. The likelihood is that they will, especially seeing as they possess one of the strongest sides in the tournament. With Mbappe and this year’s Ballon D’or winner Karim Benzema leading the line, France will pose a threat to anyone. Despite the breakthrough of William Saliba, the injury to Rafael Varane could see France left a little short at the back, which could be their undoing.

In terms of other previous champions, Spain (2010) and Germany (2014) are not the international forces they once were and, in addition to this, find themselves in the same group. Group E is arguably the hardest in the tournament, with Japan and Costa Rica playing support roles to the other two international giants. It is possible that both Spain and Germany could become distracted by each other, leaving a gap for Japan and Costa Rica to potentially steal a place in the knockout stages. While they both possess young talent within their squad, most notably Pedri for Spain and Musiala for Germany, I don’t believe either country has the overall squad depth or experience necessary to lift the World Cup.

Overall, if players can remain injury-free and squads at their healthiest, there is no reason to suggest that this rendition of the World Cup will lack excitement. Will Messi or Ronaldo round off their incredible careers with the biggest prize in football? Or is it simply not meant to be? Perhaps the two greatest players of our generation end up retiring without a World Cup? It stands to be a memorable few weeks in Qatar…


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