The 2022 World Cup begins this month, and the fact that the Qatar tournament has been pushed into the (northern hemisphere) winter means that this is the longest the planet has waited to witness one since 1950. The 2018 edition in Russia saw France become world champions for the second time and was the fourth edition in a row won by a European nation, extending the longest ever run of victories by a single confederation. The dominant clubs and players of club football reside in Europe, but could 2022 be a chance for the rest of the world to remind everyone why football truly is the global game? Perhaps, and here are some other things we think might or might not happen in this year’s edition – our 10 predictions for the 2022 World Cup.
1. There Will Be Fewer Penalties Than There Were in 2018
Here in late 2022 we are well acquainted with VAR and almost everyone has adopted a position from which they will not be shifted. But four and a half years ago the world was a different place, and no more so than in how much VAR affected the initial stages of the 2018 World Cup. Defenders who had hitherto enjoyed an unofficial green light to manhandle opponents in the box were suddenly hit by a wave of justice that threatened to derail the entire tournament. Just the group stage alone saw 24 penalties, which was more than any previous tournament had seen in total, and it seemed like the spot-kick fever would never stop… until it did. The knockout stages saw just five more penalties as teams and defenders smartened up and adjusted their behaviour. No-one is saying that there won’t be any VAR drama in the 2022 World Cup but the penalty high water mark of 2018 will surely never be breached.
2. Group Position Is Massively Important
Qatar are the only World Cup debutants in the 2022 edition and most expect them to struggle to get out of Group A, not least our famous supercomputer, which makes them 36.2% favourites to come bottom. The only previous World Cup host nation to fail to progress past the group stage were South Africa in 2010, and Qatar’s form coming into the finals doesn’t suggest they can outperform Bafana Bafana 12 years on. More importantly for the tournament is the trend that since the introduction of the round of 16 at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, the subsequent winner of each edition has always finished top of its group at the tournament. That’s right, no second-place side (or third, back in the 24 team-era) has ever gone on to win the World Cup that same year. Worth bearing in mind as you fill in your brackets and predictions for the 2022 edition.
3. For England, It’s the Quarter-Finals at Best
Four years ago England matched their best ever result in an overseas World Cup by finishing in fourth place, despite somehow managing to lose to Belgium twice in the same tournament. For Italia 90 read Russia 2018. World Cup progress that leads to raw optimism that congeals into disappointment. England – thanks to Graham Taylor’s dire qualification campaign – didn’t even get to play at the 1994 World Cup so 2022 represents an improvement there, but let’s be honest here, England have never got past the quarter-finals in a World Cup held outside of Europe. The last eight in Mexico 1970 and 1986, along with Japan/Korea in 2002 is the best the Three Lions have performed outside their home continent, and, heading into the 2022 edition in dire form, we can’t see that record improving in December. Even 2010, which was an actual winter World Cup, given it was pretty chilly in South Africa at that time of year, didn’t coax any decent performances from England. And England’s 2022 group containing Wales, Iran and the USA has similar vibes to the 2010 line-up of Slovenia, Algeria and the USA once more. England scraped second place in that group and had to face Germany in the second round. Come second in Qatar and they are likely to play the Netherlands in the second round, many peoples’ dark (orange) horse.
4. Harry Kane Will Become England’s Top Tournament Scorer
So England won’t be world champions in 2022, but Harry Kane will end the year as the nation’s top-scoring player in international tournaments. It was one of the quirks of Wayne Rooney’s career that he was cursed to be a generational talent who, other than his brief teenage starburst at Euro 2004, always flattered to deceive once the jamboree started. He only added three more tournament goals to the four he scored in Portugal in 2004, but that’s still the fourth-highest total, behind Kane, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. Once it was Nat Lofthouse on three goals, then briefly it was Bobby Charlton on four before he was overtaken by Geoff Hurst on six. Lineker matched Hurst’s total by winning the 1986 Golden Boot before overtaking him with his strike in the dismal game between England and the Republic of Ireland in 1990, before adding three more in Italy to end his tournament career with 10 goals (Lineker played in Euro 92 but is more remembered for being subbed off by Graham Taylor than any on-pitch output).
Kane has followed the Lineker path by winning a World Cup Golden Boot by scoring six goals, then scoring four more in a subsequent tournament. But while Lineker had to wait until the subsequent World Cup to add more, Kane did in Euro 2020 what Lineker could not in Euro 88: score. All of which means that – barring injury – captain Kane will score at least once in Qatar and be installed as his country’s greatest ever tournament goalscorer. It’s not a trophy but it is a significant marker.
5. Messi and/or Ronaldo to Score a Knockout Goal
Between them Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have mopped up pretty much everything there is to achieve in football goalscoring terms. Yes, Messi has still never scored a goal in the opening two minutes of a game in his entire career, but between them they have well over 1,500 career goals. There’s not a single format of football that can foil them… except there is: the World Cup knockout stage. Neither man has scored beyond the group stages so far in their careers and 2022 surely represents the last opportunity for them to do it. Can they emulate the likes of Matt Upson, Harry Maguire and Emile Heskey by scoring a goal in the latter stages of a World Cup?
6. The Golden Boot Winner Will Score Exactly Six Goals
Six goals seems to be the glass ceiling in the Golden Boot race. Since Mario Kempes top-scored with six in the 1978 World Cup, that has been the leading total in seven of the subsequent 10 editions. Ronaldo bagged eight for Brazil in 2002 but that only ushered in an era of five-goal Golden Boot winners in 2006 and 2010, via Miroslav Klose and Thomas Müller respectively. Normal service has since been resumed, though, with James Rodriguez and Harry Kane winning the Golden Boot in 2014 and 2018 respectively thanks to six goals. Even in 1994, when the award was shared, six was the maximum number of goals scored, despite five of Oleg Salenko’s total coming in one game against Cameroon (the last time he ever played an international). Modern players are becoming more clinical, reaching the statutory six-goal total via fewer shots, but with a maximum of seven games in the current format, breaking that six-goal mark seems unlikely once again. We have come a long way from Eusebio having 66 shots in 1966 and can be confident that most teams in 2022 that won’t match him (in 2018 only seven did).
7. The Game Hasn’t Gone
Football constantly evolves and there’s no better place to observe this than during World Cups. Just Fontaine, the man, scored 13 goals in 1958 but only came third with France. Spain, the team, scored eight goals in 2010 and won the entire thing. There are innumerable social media accounts devoted to looking back to a time when football was supposedly better, but what exactly does that mean? Witness a series of classic goals from vintage games and it can look like, yes, all football in the olden days was incredible. Look at their shorts, and see how the clattered man just gets up from a vicious tackle even though he’s bleeding. How pure, how authentic.
But take the time to actually watch an entire game from another era and it’s far less engaging than a game from 2022. Defenders being empowered to maim opponents and litter games with stoppages was just not much fun. Take, for instance, the game between Mexico and Paraguay at the 1986 World Cup. In little over 40 minutes of ball-in-play time, there were an astonishing 78 fouls. The referee (the Englishman George Courtney) was the busiest man on the pitch. Is that a good thing? No it is not. What makes it worse was that Mexico and Paraguay finished first and second respectively in the group. This sort of casual brutality worked and the fact that it doesn’t any longer is something that should be remembered more often. The most fouled player in a single World Cup (1966-2018) was Diego Maradona in 1986, followed by Diego Maradona in 1990 and then Diego Maradona in 1982. Sure, wear your retro Napoli merchandise with pride, but also stop to imagine how good he could have been in a world where skill was protected.
8. England’s Key Man Will Be… Kieran Trippier
As much as some people might want him to, Gareth Southgate is not going to undergo a stylistic reboot between now and England’s opening game on November 21. It’ll be the same fare that took England to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and the Euro 2020 final. The country’s most creative player across those two tournaments, as revealed in the tweet above, is Kieran Trippier, who also chipped in with the team’s only goal in the 2018 semi-final. Four years later and Trippier is arguably the most important name in the Newcastle United starting XI, the tactical and creative nous picked up in several seasons in Spain with Atletico Madrid providing Eddie Howe’s high-performing side with some intellectual heft on the right-hand flank. And if you think Trippier is all free-kicks and corners then be aware that at the 2018 World Cup only Jesse Lingard was involved in as many open-play attacking sequences as Trippier. One of those players has the chance – injury permitting – to do it all again in Qatar.
9. A South American Team Will Win the 2022 World Cup
It’s 20 years since Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil won the World Cup. It’s 36 years since Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina won the World Cup. It’s 72 years since Juan López’s Uruguay won the World Cup. That’s how long fans of the big three South American footballing nations have had to wait since their nation became champions of the world. Thanks to Spain winning in South Africa in 2010 and Germany winning in Brazil in 2014, Europe is on an unprecedented run of four World Cup wins in a row. Believe it or not, until 2014, all of Europe’s World Cup wins had been achieved inside their own contingent but, looking back, perhaps the 2002 World Cup (the last edition won by a non-European nation) was the last breath of a footballing world where mystery lurked in every squad. Where once the World Cup was a once-every-four-years chance to see some of the greatest names in football appear on your television screen, by the late 2010s you could witness major Brazilian stars toiling in rain-sodden English League Cup ties.
But the flip side to that reduction in ephemeral glamour is that the likes of Brazil and Argentina have squads honed in the intensity factories of western Europe. Everyone knows that the most common nationality of players in UEFA Champions League history is Brazilian and both they and Argentina head into the 2022 World Cup with incredibly strong squads. The Opta supercomputer currently has Brazil as favourites and Argentina second, with reigning world champions France in third. It’s essentially a pick-your-favourite-element-of-PSG’s-attack exercise but if the French squad suffers one of its periodic declines in morale and teamwork, then a South American giant is ready to step in and take the glory. Besides, no-one retains the World Cup these days.
10. For Someone, 2022 Will Be as Good as It Gets
You should never end on a sour note so think of this as a ballad for fallen heroes, for those who shone at World Cups and were set to star in future editions but then never did. The archetype here is England’s Paul Gascoigne, who, as he wept in Turin in July 1990, had already made his final appearance in a World Cup finals game. Booked in the 99th minute against West Germany, 23-year-old Gazza had 21 minutes of World Cup football left, though none of us knew at the time.
Or what about Oleg Salenko who was 24 when he scored five and assisted one in his final World Cup appearance in 1994?
Or Just Fontaine who was 24 when he scored four goals in his final World Cup appearance in 1958?
Or Tomas Brolin who was 24 when he assisted twice and scored in his final World Cup appearance in 1994?
Or Andre Schürrle who assisted a World Cup winning goal aged 23 in his final appearance in 2014?
Or Tostão who played in the legendary 1970 World Cup final aged 23 in his final appearance?
Or Jack Wilshere who was only 22 in his final World Cup appearance in 2014?
Or Des Walker who was 24 in his final appearance in 1990.
Or David Platt who was 24 in his final appearance in 1990.
Or Adriano who was 24 in his final appearance in 2006.
Or Jean-Pierre Papin who was 22 in his final appearance in 1986.
I could go on. Every nation has its regrets. Every player has his story. The moral of the tale? Savour every moment.