Qatar | Elo: 49 | FIFA: 50

History: On December 2nd,  2010, The International Federation of Football(FIFA) declared that Qatar would host the Middle-East’s first Coupe du Monde. The decision sparked outrage, a bevy of accusations, and a steady stream of controversy, obscuring one of the more remarkable on-field turn-arounds in international football.  When Al Enabbi were awarded the crown jewel of sport, The Maroon were ranked 114th(FIFA) having managed just 1 win across 8 games in the final round of AFC – The Asian Football Confederation – World Cup Qualification. Less than a decade later, Qatar were the champions of Asia, ranked 55th after a shock title run featuring wins over heavyweights UAE, South Korea, and Japan. In 10 Asian Cups before the 2019 edition, Qatar had managed a paltry 6 wins, garnering 27 points from 32 outings. In 2019, they won all 7 fixtures, scoring 19, and conceding once. 

A British protectorate until 1971, Qatar was a relatively late-comer to international soccer, opening its football program with a 2-1 loss to fellow ex-protectorate Bahrain. Qatar would gain independence a year later, making The Maroon eligible for World Cup Qualification in 1974. Qatar withdrew in 74 but would debut 4 years later in the 78 tournament with a 2-0 win against… Bahrain; they lost their next 3 matches – including a 3-0 defeat to the Bahrainis – and finished last. They’d fall well short in 82; but managed to beat Bahrain a 2nd time in Bahrain’s only qualification match. It was the 81 U20 World Cup where Qatar made its first real mark reaching the final after wins against England and Brazil with a team developed by Qatar’s storied Aspire Academy. 8 years later that generation reached its zenith coming within a point of the 1990 World Cup. They came close again in 98 and picked up their first piece of silverware in the 92 Arabian Gulf Cup where they finished 2 points clear of 2nd place… Bahrain.

Amid a deepening pool of Asian teams, and a limited talent pool, Qatar returned to mediocrity in the 2000’s. With political incentives for Qatari soccer to improve, The Qatar Football Association took a more unconventional approach to team building. Aspire Academy started tracking young players across the world as Qatar’s government broke its own citizenship laws to naturalize the most talented kids they could find. Aspire Academy would end up tracking millions of players.  For a country with a population that barely passed 1 million, this meant artificially multiplying the talent base several times over. Though not without controversy, this approach proved remarkably effective with Aspire Academy’s work laying the seeds for unprecedented highs. 

This November we’ll see the culmination of one of football’s most ambitious projects. Qatar are good now. They’ll have a chance to show how good. Was 2019 a peak? Or was it the precursor for something greater?

The world is watching. For better or worse, Qatar is in its eye.

 

Expected Finish: 2nd

 

Why?

Hosts do well. All but one host nation in this near century-spanning tournament has successfully reached round two.  Of the 7 hosts who had never advanced past round one, only one fell at the first hurdle. That casualty was South Africa – ranked 63(Elo) – who missed out, via tiebreaker, in a group with reigning finalists France, eventual semi-finalists Uruguay, and perennial progressors El Tri. According to Elo and FIFA, Qatar is significantly better than South Africa was. They also face, arguably, the easiest set of opponents in the tourney.

Qatar’s players have also played together, alot. Not only do all 26 call-ups play in the same league, but this roster is virtually identical to the one we saw in the 2019 Asian Cup, the 2021 Copa America, and the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Beyond that, all of these players developed together in the Aspire Football Academy meaning most of them have been learning how to play with each other for more than a decade. Simply put, It’s possible the players of The Maroon will have the best chemistry of any national team that has ever participated in a World Cup Finals.

Qatar demonstrated proof of concept with their performance in the 2019 Asian Cup. Winning is one thing, perfection is another. Qatar were the first team to win every game at the Asian Cup since 1974, where Iran won 4 games to clinch a 6 team tournament headlined by relative minnows Kuwait and China. Qatar won 7 out of 7 games to clinch a 16 team tournament featuring maybe the deepest pool of quality teams to ever grace the continent. In other words, the last time Qatar played in the Middle East, they put together, arguably, the most impressive continental performance in Asian history.  For comparison, perceived favorites Senegal received much acclaim for an AFCON – African Cup of Nations – win where they played much weaker opponents and fared significantly worse.

Many-a pundit view The Maroon as minnows. I disagree. 

 

Why not?

The 2019 Asian Cup was a while ago. More recent showings aren’t as promising. In the 2019 Copa America they finished last in a group with Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay. The latter two failed to qualify; Paraguay didn’t even come close. South America is tough, but Ecuador managed.

Their most recent set of competitive games came in the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup hosted – and won – by the USMNT(United States Men’s National team). At first glance, they did ok; reaching the semi-final and losing to the eventual champion  – in unlucky fashion – at their opponent’s backyard. Context paints a different picture. Qatar  was one of a handful of sides to send a full-strength team to North America. They beat Honduras and Grenada – two teams who fell well short of world cup qualification – convincingly, tied a Panamanian team depleted by injury, and were an offside-call away from blowing a 3-goal lead to non-qualifier El Salvador. In the semi-final they faced a team of American reserves, succumbing to an attack spearheaded by Matthew Hoppe; currently playing left-bench with championship side Middlesborough.

Qatar look good when their opponents sit-back and give Qatar space. They look less good when the opposition pushes their lines and presses Qatar’s playmakers. This was the story of their matches against El Salvador and the US where they were dominant in  the first half  and got overrun in the second. They’re particularly vulnerable in transition and their three group-mates all have an abundance of pace. 

There’s also a deficit in player quality. Qatar ranks 32 of 32 in both of our talent measures; away from home, they’ve looked the part.

 

The good news is these games are at home. While there is certainly a case against The Maroon, I’m banking on history.

 

Key Players

2019 Asian footballer of the year, Club World Cup bronze medalist, and arguably the greatest player in the history of the Qatar Stars league, Akram Afif is Qatar’s best player(ever). A phenomenal playmaker, neat on the ball, and a threat to score from just about anywhere, Afif will need to perform for Qatar’s offense to click. Afif has appeared 9 times in La Liga for Sporting Gijon making him the only player in the pool with top league experience.

Almoez Ali is one of the few players, ever, to be the top scorer of two continental competitions; in two separate continents. He won the golden boot – and was named best player – at the 2019 Asian Cup with a record-breaking 9 tallies. 2 years later, at the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Almoez scored 4 times in 5 games to be top scorer again. Ali was also named to the IFFHS AFC Men’s Team of the Decade to go along with an undisputed case as Qatar’s lead talisman. With 42 goals in 85 appearances, the Al Duhail striker will need to produce for Qatar to advance. Ali’s also a decent bet for goal of the tournament.

 

Netherlands | Elo: 4 | FIFA: 8

History: Behold The Oranje. With three appearances in the final, and no appearances at the winner’s podium, the Dutch are uncontested as the World Cup’s greatest bridesmaid. They are one of six national teams to reach the final three separate times. They are one of seven national teams to reach five semi-finals; but they are not one of the eight teams to hoist the Jules Rimet. What they’ve done is actually harder than just winning it all, even if it’s less satisfying.

Recent heart-breaks have been particularly potent. In 2010, entering South Africa as a dark horse, The Flying Dutchmenliterally at times – huffed and fouled their way to a perfect finals run – including a come-back win against No.1 ranked Brazil – before succumbing in overtime to No.2 ranked Spain. 2014 started sweetly, with a flying dutchman putting La Roja to the sword. The dish turned sour in the semis in a shoot-out loss to the Argentines. 2018 ended before it began. Needing a top two finish in a qualification group with two eventual quarterfinalists, The Oranje could only manage third. Their female counterparts had an inspired run to the 2019 World Cup final where they… lost to an American juggernaut.

Before the Dutch were bridesmaids, they were minnows, combining for 2 appearances – and 0 points – for the first 40 years of the Wereldbeker. Then, upon a Cruyff-faced wave, the Dutch entered 74 as the favorite. They lost… in the final. They entered 78 without Cruyff and reached the final once more; then lost to Argentina.  While The Oranje’s style of play – the quintessential example of positional football – left a legacy so strong that the 74 and 78 Dutch sides are still regarded as one of the greatest teams ever, winners they were not. I would be remiss not to mention that the Dutch managed a singular European triumph in 88, but that’s really not the same.

Once more the Dutchmen will swim against a tide, and once more they will dare to escape it. Will the soccer gods finally smile down on Johan’s children?

 

Expected Finish: 1st

 

Why?

They are the most talented team, ranking top 10 in both TMV and WCDCS. They have been the best team, ranking top 10 in Elo and FIFA. They are undefeated in 15, have won their last six group games in their competition, and have a stronger track record at this tournament than the other three teams combined.

Why wouldn’t you pick them?

 

Why not?

Qualification was not easy. A loss to Turkey along with ties against Norway, Scotland, and Montenegro put the Netherlands in a precarious position in their final qualification match. Needing to not lose, the Dutch comfortably beat Haaland-less Norway, thereby booking their ticket to Qatar. That might be less impressive than Ecuador booking qualification from South America with games to spare.

The Netherlands also can’t say they’re continental champions, having lost to the Czech Republic in the Round of 16 at the 2021 European Championship. Perhaps they’ll falter before the champions of Asia and Africa.

While the Dutch aren’t allergic to build-up, they’re often direct. Transition offense is typically less effective when opposing defenses leave less space behind.  Both Senegal and Ecuador leave extra players back when they attack. This makes both unusually difficult to break down. Ecuador in particular has a knack for peeling off points from more talented teams.

The Dutch are clear favorites, but they are not invincible.

 

Key Players

Barcelona starlet Frenkie de Jong may be the Netherland’s most essential piece for successfully surviving this phase of the competition. Facing two sides that usually give little, the Netherlands will rely on de Jong being a reliable metronome in the middle of the pitch. Gifted with the ball, and a strong orchestrator under pressure, Netherlands may well rely on Frenkie’s progression and ball-security to successfully navigate the group stage.

Matthijs De Ligt is world class. An attacking midfielder in his youth, De Ligt is the center-back equivalent of a 5-tool player. He’s a great passer, is strong and fast. Is excellent positionally, and is a threat in the air. In 2018 De Ligt won the golden boy awarded to Europe’s most impressive young player. In 2022, the 23 year old already has a strong claim as The Oranjes best player. If there is to be total triumph in Qatar, Matthijs will have to deliver.

 

Senegal | Elo: 43 | FIFA: 16 |

History: Enter the African Champion. In 2002, the Lions of Teranga conjured magic. As France fell, Senegal soared, becoming the second African team to reach the quarter-finals. In 2022, Senegal carries the hopes of a continent. The world still waits for an African semi-finalist. To many, Senegal is the continent’s best hope

Senegal won independence from France in 1960. The Senegalese Football Federation(FSF) formed later that year. In 1963 Senegal joined the Confederation for African Football(CAF), before debuting at the African Cup of Nations in 1965. With a win, a draw, and a loss, Senegal finished 4th. In 1968, they repeated that trick to finish 5th. They entered World Cup Qualification in 1970; their debut came in a two-legged playoff against Morocco where a 1-goal win for each country turned a two-legged tie into a three-legged tie. Morocco won game three. In 1974 Senegal ran into Morocco again, and again, the lions fell. 

Senegal wouldn’t progress past the first round of qualification until the format changed in 1994. After winning their group in round one, they were drawn with Zambia and… Morocco. Morocco finished first to qualify. Senegal finished last. In 1998 they went back to falling at the first hurdle, losing a two-legged playoff to Togo. They returned to the second round in 2002, via a narrow win against Benin, only to be grouped with CAF heavy weights Algeria, Egypt, and… Morocco. To qualify for the World Cup Finals, the Lions of Teranga would need to win their group. And so they did. With a record of 4 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss, Senegal finished with 15 points, scraping by their long-time tormentors on goal-difference. The rest is history. 

Alas, 2002 was a flash. Senegal failed to qualify for the next three tournaments, only returning to the Coupe du Monde in 2018, on the crest of a golden generation headlined by Sadio Mane. In Russia, they would miss out by the slimmest of margins, becoming the first team to be eliminated from the group stage on yellow card accumulation. In 2019, the lions reached their first AFCON final, only to lose on penalties. In the 2021 AFCON, Senegal faced another finals shootout. This time they won; Sadio Mane scored the winning kick. Senegal won another shoot-out to qualify for Qatar, making consecutive world cups for the first time in their history. Sadio Mane, once again, scored the winning kick.

And so enters the African champion, on the wings of a generation more talented than any that came before, carrying the weight of a continent.

Will they rise? Or will they crumble?

 

Expected Finish: 3rd

 

Why?

Senegal have talent, experience, and a favorable group. What they don’t have, is results. A win against Poland in 2018 has largely buoyed their FIFA ranking, but when we turn to the more reactive measure of Elo, we see they’ve dropped to 43rd. Yes Senegal are the champions of Africa, but only two African champions have ever progressed from the group-stage.

If we look at how Senegal became the champions of Africa, the Lions of Teranga don’t look so good. In a group with Malawi(140th), Zimbabwe(130th), and Guinea(110th), Senegal’s only goal was a 97th minute penalty. For reference, let’s take a look at Canada(29), a team that finished first in qualification from a region where winning continentally actually translates abroad. When Canada faced comparably ranked Suriname(127th), they won by four. When Suriname faced lower ranked Bermuda(160th), they won by six. Bermuda’s ranking may undersell them. Nakhi Wells is probably a better player than anyone on Malawi or Zimbabwe.

Egypt(53rd) is the best team Senegal have faced in a meaningful match over the last two years. In three games against this colossus, Senegal won(1-0), tied(0-0), and lost(1-0). If this was a three-legged tie, it would have gone to penalties. Of course, there aren’t shoot-outs in the group stage. If Senegal can’t score, they will not win.

To make matters worse, Sadio Mane is injured. For a team that barely scores with one of the best attackers on the planet, missing Mane may prove difficult.

Even without Mane, Senegal are still, theoretically, good enough. But as many-a African side can attest, theory doesn’t get you out of the groups.

 

Why not?

Senegal have talent, experience, and a favorable group. The Lions of Teranga rank top 16 in both TMV and WCDCS. This is also effectively the same team that played in the last World Cup, the last two AFCON’s, and the last two World Cup qualifying cycles. 

Even without Mane, Senegal has a number of players at the best clubs of Europe. They should be as ready for this stage as anyone. Mane also isn’t entirely ruled out for the tournament.

Senegal has the pieces to succeed. But the puzzle hasn’t quite come together.

 

Key Players

Formerly named the best defender in Italy, and a 4-time participant on the Serie A team of the year, Kalidou Koulibaly is the centerpiece for one of the world cup’s more resolute defenses. With a rare combination of strength, agility, and skill, the Chelsea center-back is obviously very good. What may not be so obvious is Koulibaly’s value in attack. Senegal’s offense is largely based on playing long passes to runners. A big reason why Senegal are so hard to score on is that the lions often avoid throwing up numbers when they attack. This means that most of Senegal’s ball-progression stems from accurate deep-lying passes. Senegal’s best deep-lying passer is… Kalidou Koulibaly. Koulibaly will need to perform for both Senegal’s defense and offense to click.

Sadio Mane is a world-class attacker. One of the key pieces for a historically great Liverpool side, Mane’s injury is a big blow. While the floor won’t necessarily fall out, Mane’s health will determine Senegal’s ceiling. Assuming it all comes together, the lions have enough to survive their group without Mane. Anything else is a big ask. If Senegal is to break through and become the first African representative in a World Cup semi-final, they’ll probably need Mane to make a quick return.

 

Ecuador | Elo: 44 | FIFA: 18 |

History: On May 30th, 1925, the Federación Deportiva Nacional del Ecuador, was founded. Shortly after, La Tricolor were granted an automatic invitation to the first World Cup. Ecuador declined. On June 2nd, 2002,  La Tri got their first taste of World Cup football, more than 70 years later, in a 2-0 loss to Italy. 

Drinking from the well seems to have made La Tri greedy. 2022 will mark their 4th successful qualification in 6 attempts. Considering they play the world’s most difficult qualifiers, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. 

More remarkable is the fact they’ve won, at least once, at each finals they’ve participated in. In 2002, they won twice, progressing to the round of 16 with emphatic victories over Costa Rica and Poland. England ended their run in the knockouts, but the tournament was indisputably a success.

Ecuadors journey to the finals was arduous. 62 marked La Tri’s maiden campaign. Put in a home and home playoff against Argentina, Ecuador were lost by a combined scoreline of 11-3 after a trashing in Guayaquil, and a massacre at Buenos Aires. 66 went significantly better. With two wins against Colombia, Ecuador finished level on points with Chile. A one-off playoff on neutral ground would decide qualification. Ecuador lost 2-1. They wouldn’t win another qualifier until 1982 picking up a paltry 4 points from 12 matches. 98 marked the first time they’d strung together 2 wins in a single campaign as they finished only 4 points off the last qualification spot. That qualification spot was occupied by… Chile. 94 was particularly pathetic. Coming off a best ever 4th place finish in the 93 Copa America, Ecuador won one of 8 qualifiers.

2002 went differently. Having won 11 times in their first 55 qualification matches, La Tri won 9 of 18 to finish 2nd and cruise to their first finals. Their path to Qatar was similar with Ecuador winning 7 of their first 14 to help book an early ticket to Doha.

With the 4th youngest team in the tournament, a cadre of promising prospects, and a general sense that La Tri-color are more than the sum of their parts, there is plenty to be excited about…

…but is there enough to win?

 

Expected Finish: 4th

 

Why?

Ecuador’s track record in qualification is impressive, particularly at home where they won 5 times while losing only once. What they’ve managed away from home is more concerning. In qualification they only managed 2 wins away from La Casa Blanca. Both came against teams that failed to reach the World Cup. They haven’t fared much better on neutral ground, picking up no wins in 5 matches at the most recent Copa America.

While Ecuador has historically been characterized as a team that plays fun, attacking soccer, their current iteration is slower and more defensive-minded. It worked well enough at home, but will it translate here against a slate of teams that specialize in transition?

While there are promising youngsters, La Tri has a deficit in actualized talent, ranking among the bottom half of participants TMV and WCDCS. Have favorable conditions at home papered over the cracks? Ecuador may just not be that good; and unlike Qatar, they can’t count on experience, familiarity, or the comforts of home carrying them through.

Facing a host, and two teams with considerably better players, La Tricolor might be out of their depth.

 

Why not?

Ecuador ranks 18th in Elo, reflecting that they have had, by a margin, the second best form in the group. They didn’t play the best possible lineups in the Copa America and doing badly away is a world-wide phenomenon. 

They are strong on set-pieces, have gotten several competitive results against some of the best teams in the world, and have a cadre of promising youth ready to outlast older opposition in what will be one of the hottest world cups on record.

South American teams usually advance, Irregardless of how they qualify. Ecuador have held their own against the best teams in the most difficult conditions.

This wouldn’t be the first time someone dismissed Ecuador as a team that can only win at home. They were wrong then. Maybe I’m wrong now.

Group A is one of those rare World Cup groups where you can make a strong case for all four teams advancing. I don’t think they will, but I’d love to see Ecuador prove me wrong.

 

Key Players

The star man on a Brighton side that has wildly overperformed expectations, Moises Caicedo is Ecuador’s best player. A do-it-all midfielder who can create, progress, and defend at a high level, Ecuador will need Moises at his best to advance.

Piero Hincapie is one of the better defenders in the Bundesliga. Strong on the ball, and excellent positionally, Hincapie is the anchor of La Tri’s defense. On a team that can struggle for goals, Hincapie will be vital for keeping the other team off the score-sheet.

 

Predicted Group Standings

1

Netherlands

2

Qatar

3

Senegal

4

Ecuador

 

For more info on the methodology click here.

Group Previews:

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H