With a year to go, almost half the field for the 2022 World Cup is set. Thirteen countries have already booked their places for the tournament, which opens in Qatar next Nov. 21: some with ease, cruising through qualifying, and some with a touch more drama.
Quite what the tournament, riddled with scandal and concern from the day Qatar was announced as the host, will be like cannot yet be known. The identities of the teams who will contest it, though, are remarkably familiar.
Most — if not quite all — of the traditional contenders are already there: a 10-country-strong European contingent led by France, the defending champion, and Belgium, officially the world’s best team, as well as the likes of Spain and England and Germany. They have been joined by the two great powerhouses of South America, Brazil and Argentina.
Only two major names are still missing: Italy and Portugal, both of whom must go through the strain of playoffs to claim one of Europe’s final three spaces. Elsewhere, though nothing has been officially decided, the picture is becoming clearer.
Three of Asia’s slots will go to Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, for example; the fourth is between Australia and Japan. In North America, Canada — unexpectedly — leads the way at the moment, ahead of a stalling Mexico and a developing United States. In South America, Ecuador has a foot in the finals, though as many as five other teams remain in contention for the last guaranteed slot.
Only in Africa — where five home-and-away playoffs will decide who makes it to Qatar — and Oceania, which has had its entire qualification process delayed again and again because of the coronavirus pandemic, does clarity remain elusive. There are still 12 months to wait, 19 more spots to be claimed. The likelihood is, though, that the winner is already there.
Here’s a look at who is in:
How it qualified It has been easy to lose sight of it, in the swirl of controversy that has dogged the tournament ever since it was awarded to this tiny Gulf state in 2010, but the automatic entry granted to the competition’s host nation has given Qatar a direct route into a competition it has rarely come close to reaching on merit.
What can we expect in 2022? Recent results have not been encouraging: Coach Félix Sánchez’s team has over the last few months been beaten comprehensively by Serbia, Portugal and Ireland. Qatar is unlikely to survive the group stage, but do not expect it to be embarrassed: Sánchez is a smart, capable coach, and his team — bolstered by several nationalized Qataris — is organized and technically proficient.
How it qualified Germany might have been the first team to earn a place in Qatar, but by its standards, its progress was full of jeopardy and tension. In March, under its former coach Joachim Löw, Germany actually lost a game in qualifying. It won all nine of the others, and made it with a whole set of fixtures to spare.
What can we expect in 2022? The timing of the tournament may be against Germany. 2022 may come a little too late for some of the country’s stalwarts — Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Ilkay Gündogan — but just too early for the exciting generation, led by Kai Havertz, Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala, that will eventually replace them.
How it qualified Fresh from an impressive, emotional run to the semifinals of the European Championship, Kasper Hjulmand’s team made short work of a kind group, winning its first nine games and qualifying with a month to go.
What can we expect in 2022? Denmark’s impressive qualifying record — not only for this tournament, but established over the last six years or so — and its performance at Euro 2020 augur well for Qatar: Hjulmand will be aiming for a place in the knockout rounds at the very least. The only question mark is if the team can compensate for the absence of Christian Eriksen’s creative spark should he be unable to play.
How it qualified Tite’s team has sailed through South America’s arduous qualifying process, winning 11 of its 13 games so far. It has yet to concede a goal at home — a statistic aided by the fact that its meeting with Argentina was called off after officials from the country’s health ministry stormed the field to arrest some of the visiting Argentine players — and has only dropped points on the road in Argentina and Colombia.
What can we expect in 2022? We have been here before: Brazil looking irresistible in qualifying, only to stutter when the finals arrive. Tite has crafted a resolute, well-drilled side more than capable of winning the tournament — wresting it away from Europe for the first time since 2002 — but the suspicion is still that too much of the creative burden rests on Neymar.
How it qualified In a word: curiously. The defending champion’s place in Qatar never looked in any real doubt, but it was more a purgatory than a parade. Ukraine and Bosnia both left Paris with a point — indeed, the French did not beat second-place Ukraine home or away — and the abiding impression is that France could be so much more.
What can we expect in 2022? There is every reason to believe that France could retain the trophy, becoming the first team since Brazil, in 1962, to do it: The country’s depth of talent is such that its reserves would probably make the semifinals. And in Kylian Mbappé, it has a player who could use the tournament as a springboard to true greatness. But, just as in 2018, there is absolutely no guarantee it will be thrilling to watch.
How it qualified The world’s No. 1-ranked team — a status Belgium has held for three years or so — did not, really, need to break a sweat, scoring an impressive 25 goals in its eight qualifying games, although a third of those came in a single outing against Belarus.
What can we expect in 2022? This feels like a mantra that has held for at least the last three tournaments: Now really is the time for this Belgian generation to win something. Its array of attacking talent is bettered only by France and England, and the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are now in their prime years. If there is a note of caution, it is that the country’s defensive ranks have thinned a little in recent years; this team does not seem as well-balanced as the 2016 or 2018 editions.
How it qualified Croatia left it extremely late, sealing a place in Qatar only thanks to an Fyodor Kudryashev own goal with 10 minutes to play in the country’s final match, what turned out to be a 1-0 win against Russia on a sodden field in Split. Topping a finely balanced group, though, one that included Slovakia and Slovenia, warrants praise.
What can we expect in 2022? Next winter will, presumably, serve as a final hurrah for the generation of players that took Croatia to the final in Russia in 2018: Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Domagoj Vida and the rest may not have another tournament in them. There are signs that another generation will follow, and Croatia will most certainly not go quietly, but a repeat of Russia does not seem likely.
How it qualified With plenty of the ball, but not a vast amount to show for it. Spain’s automatic place in the field was in doubt until the final round of qualifiers, when Sweden’s sudden collapse eased the tension. Few teams are as technically adroit as Luis Enrique’s side, but qualifying proved once again that Spain’s toothlessness in front of goal is now endemic.
What can we expect in 2022? Everything depends on whether Spain can find a reliable goalscorer: for all that Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were hailed as the embodiments of the team that lifted the trophy in 2010, the presence of David Villa was the antidote to what might otherwise have been a sterile sort of domination. In Pedri and Gavi, Spain has two of the brightest prospects in world soccer to replace Xavi and Iniesta. Now it needs to hope that Ansu Fati can be its Villa.
How it qualified In silence, in Lisbon. For 90 minutes on the final matchday, it seemed as if Serbia would be taking up a fairly customary place in the playoffs: Portugal needed only a point to qualify. But then Aleksandar Mitrovic headed in Dusan Tadic’s cross, the Serbian bench emptied, and Portugal found itself staring at the grass as it opened up beneath its feet.
What can we expect in 2022? Serbia should be a threat. It has a team drawn largely from Europe’s major leagues: a defense built on Matija Nastasic and Nikola Malenkovic, a midfield adorned by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and the evergreen Tadic, and, in Dusan Vlahovic, one of the brightest young forwards in the world. History, though, suggests Serbia will not live up to expectations.
How it qualified England is, under Gareth Southgate, seriously good at qualifying for tournaments. Draws with Hungary, at home, in a game marred by crowd trouble, and Poland, away, were the only blots on its ledger this time. It has now lost only one game on the way to a major finals in 12 years.
What can we expect in 2022? More important, England’s record at those finals is on the upswing. Southgate took the team to a semifinal in 2018 — with the aid, admittedly, of a kind draw — and then to within a penalty shootout of winning the European Championship on home soil in the summer of 2021. With a settled spine and an ever-improving cadre of young players, England should be considered a genuine contender.
How it qualified Belgium tends to draw focus as Europe’s diminutive powerhouse, but the Swiss transformation into tournament mainstays is no less admirable. Murat Yakin led the team to the top spot in its group, above the recently-anointed European champion, Italy, in his first few months in the job. The Swiss did not lose a game and conceded only two goals in the process.
What can we expect in 2022? The answer to this is, effectively, certain: Switzerland will qualify in second place from its group and then be eliminated — probably on penalties, probably after a goal-less draw — in the round of 16. That should not be read as a dismissal. That a country as small as Switzerland can perform so reliably makes it, in many ways, an example to others.
How it qualified Remarkably, Euro 2020 was the first major tournament the Dutch had reached since making the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup: the Netherlands missed both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. Its progress to Qatar was not exactly imperious — a defeat in its final game against Norway would have meant elimination — but that Louis van Gaal’s team coped with the pressure, and the ghosts of failures past, bodes well.
What can we expect in 2022? There are reasons to believe the Netherlands, safely qualified, might be something of a force in Qatar. Its record in World Cups is extremely good: a final in 2010, semifinals in 1998 and 2014. The last of those, of course, came under the aegis of van Gaal, now restored to his post. In Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, it has the core of an extremely good team. And in Ryan Gravenberch, the latest 19-year-old Ajax wunderkind, it may have a star ready to take flight.
How it qualified The quest to ensure Lionel Messi gets one final shot at the World Cup should, really, have been fraught and stressful and full of internecine squabbles. It is a shame, in a way, that it was anything but: After a slow start, Argentina did not lost a game on the way to punching its ticket.
What can we expect in 2022? A lot of garment-rending over Messi, probably, given that it will be the last time a player many regard as the greatest of all time will grace the World Cup stage. The question will be how well Lionel Scaloni can craft a team to accentuate Messi’s gifts — impacted or not by age — and if Argentina’s rather cobbled-together defense can live up to its impossible richness in attack.