Destiny is in your hands. Play the Opta Million World Cup Bracket Challenge – predict your bracket correctly and you could win $1 million. To give you an idea of how you could fill out your Opta Million bracket, Gary Al-Smith takes us through his own predictions about what he expects will happen at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
World Cup Bracket Challenge: The Group Stage
- Lionel Messi shows his influence for Argentina early on.
- Senegal and Ghana impress to advance to the knockout stages.
- Denmark pip France to top Group D.
- England: uninspiring, but effective.
With the World Cup kicking off barely a week after most leagues break, it will be easy for in-form players to bring their streaks to Qatar. It’s been said that this tournament will be unlike any other, due to its scheduling, and that’s why certain surprises should be expected.
Before then, some insight into Qatar will help. Having been there three times in 2022, I’ve seen the various stages of work and, in particular, taken time to appreciate how players could respond to key factors like temperature. As widely reported, air-conditioned stadia will be deployed, with the cooling tech ensuring protection against potential soaring temperatures.
Training times will be such that almost all teams will not feel too warm while most areas of Doha are also air-conditioned. All these could contribute towards creating a level playing field.
Much has been made of the recent pattern that’s seen reigning champions falter in subsequent editions. To be fair, it’s not been without merit, as France have seemed très content to implode a la 2010 under Raymond Domenech. The constant Kylian Mbappé headlines, injuries to N’Golo Kanté and Rafael Varane, plus Paul Pogba’s distractions may have lent weight to this. But Didier Deschamps will buck the trend, and Les Bleus will scale the group stage hurdle. The ‘World Cup curse’, so called, can wait another four years. Denmark – who blasted through the qualifying with nine straight wins – should take top spot in Group D.
Things should begin with a frenzy, as many key players carry on with their club form. Top of that list will be Lionel Messi, whose atypical numbers from last season were, on hindsight, probably a result of the chaotic move from Catalonia to Paris. He’s truly back, and his close-to-30 goal contributions already this season suggest we can be expectant.
This will be Messi’s World Cup.
And there are reasons: his mental state has never been this good as Argentina captain – after winning the Copa América last year, he declared that he had “peace of mind”. Also, there’s no Gonzalo Higuain to criminally miss chance after chance laid on a plate. Despite injury to Gio Celso, Los Albicelestes have enough to win all three Group C matches which, you may have heard, sold out in record time. Mexico will take the runner-up slot.
Another heavyweight to power through to the round of 16 is Brazil. They are just too good for their Group G mates at the moment. Tite’s insistence on teamwork, and Neymar’s willingness in recent months to give a pass to a better placed mate – rather than go it all alone – suggests the goals (Brazil will be ruthless) will be spread. Cameroon, a team currently in transition, are unlikely to advance – even with Eric Choupo-Moting’s sudden burst of form at Bayern; Switzerland will go through.
Ghana will serve an early shock as they finish Group H ahead of Portugal. A shrewd compactness from the Black Stars, and an unflattering Cristiano Ronaldo-led Seleção will make this happen. Luis Suarez will play his last ever World Cup match on 2 December. Son Heung-min, fresh from surgery to resolve four separate eye fractures sustained for Spurs against Marseille in the Champions League, will play some part for South Korea. It will not be enough, however, as the Asian giants finish bottom of the group.
Group B – with England, Iran, the USA and Wales – is a geopolitically charged prospect. The buildup to England vs. Iran, England vs. Wales, USA vs. England and, in particular, USA vs. Iran will be International Relations 101. England, coming to Qatar winless in six games, should do enough to top the group. Iran, with players using their profiles to highlight women’s rights back home, will serve an emotional rollercoaster and finish second.
Round of 16
- Teranga Lions > Three Lions.
- Germany scrape past Belgium on penalties.
- Iran’s dogged football comes unstuck.
- It’s back-to-back exits for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.
It gets interesting here, as Ronaldo dramatically bows out of another World Cup. Despite scoring his first ever knockout goal in tournament history after seven tries. For now, he and coach Fernando Santos will be bundled off by Brazil, with Neymar becoming his country’s all-time top scorer as he passes Pele’s 77 goals. As Cristiano leaves the field, he mouths to the cameras: “I’ll be back.”
Senegal, who were cruelly eliminated from Russia 2018 on yellow card accumulation at the first hurdle – play a superbly tactical game against an England side yet to find its Euro 2020 rhythm, despite topping Group B. Gareth Southgate resigns.
And then, Messi announces himself to Qatar, properly. Influential through playmaking in the group stages, France encounter an unplayable version of the Argentina number 10, as he tears Deschamps’ team apart to avenge the 3-4 loss at the same stage in 2018.
Iran, spent from all the global attention and lacking in real attacking impetus, are schooled in classic Louis van Gaal tactics, as he aims to reprise his exciting 2014 semi-final team.
Belgium, not having the same side that beat Brazil and England on the way to third place in 2018, will play outstanding football against Germany – only to be axed on penalties by the four-time champions. The lights fade on a trophy-less Kevin de Bruyne and his golden generation.
- Senegal make history, reaching the semis.
- Brazil stop hardy Spain.
- Germany, unfancied, keep going.
No Robin van Persie flying headers can save the day this time for Oranje. Despite having one of the most cohesive units at the tournament, the Netherlands crash at the last eight for the second time since 1994. The depth of Argentina proves too much, as the South Americans chase a first trophy since 1986. Virgil van Dijk ends his first major tournament with his declining reputation revived.
With back-to-back failures in 2018 (group stage) and Euro 2020 (last 16) haunting them, Germany face Ghana for a third time in World Cup history. This match will have plenty subplots, not least because Otto Addo, born to Ghanaian parents, owes his life and career to Germany. The Black Stars coach exits the tournament, having massively overachieved with a youthful squad.
Brazil need penalties to beat a stubborn Spain, who have reached this far with some of the tournament’s best football under Luis Enrique. Don’t discount the possibility of a red card, or two. Vinicius would, by now, have had a say in how this team plays and is one of their tournament top scorers.
The big story, though, is Sadio Mané. Ten years after netting his first goal for the Teranga Lions, Senegal’s all-time top scorer inspires his side to qualify an African team into the semis for the first time, via a polished performance against Denmark. Christian Eriksen and his men equal the country’s best performance, after reaching the quarters in 1998.
- A South American festival of football in Doha.
- Germany stop the Senegalese fairytale.
Germany are in a major tournament without Joachim Löw at the helm for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. Bayern Munich treble-winning manager Hansi Flick has, so far, endeared himself to fans with excellent game management. Once more, inspired substitutions are responsible for gutting Senegal’s dream of making even more tournament history as the first team from the continent to reach a final. By this time, fans of the West African nation have become celebrities themselves, with their colourful, non-stop singing.
Argentina vs Brazil. The world stops for the final before the final, a match made in heaven. Messi vs. Neymar. There have been four Superclásicos at the World Cup before now. Brazil have won two to Argentina’s one (plus a 0-0 draw in 1978). The game smashes all existing World Cup viewing records for a single game, crashes Twitter, and with both coaches going with attacking lineups, this is an instant classic. Late drama clinches it for Argentina, who advance to their sixth World Cup final (level with Italy, only behind Brazil’s seven and Germany’s eight).
- Argentina leave it late to give Messi his parting gift.
A key German player does not feature due to suspension, but it does not stop Die Mannschaft from pushing old foes, Argentina, all the way. The game goes to penalties, and Messi scores the winning goal that takes the World Cup back to South America for the first time since 2002.
La Copa in 2021. The World Cup in 2022.
Lionel’s work is done, and he retires from international football with his football legacy complete.