BY JONAH BYAKUTAAGA
It wasn’t deliberate to pen my thoughts after the opening fixture, rather a coincidence, that won’t be affected by the Qatari’s opening loss, punctuated by Sunday league defending especially from the man behind the sticks Al Sheeb, a name we won’t be seeing too much of in the coming days.
An unprecedented World Cup
A first of its kind played during the European winter, bang in the middle of the regular European football league seasons. Exactly eight days ago we watched Manchester United steal a last-minute win at Craven Cottage and now here we are cheering nations instead of clubs.
Injuries and missing star men
Karim Benzema’s ageing thigh took more gloss off the biggest global event as the world cup will be denied the world’s best player, well according to the Ballon D’Or voters, denting France’s ever diminishing chances of defending a trophy they won in Russia four years back, and their attempts to emulate the Italians in 1938 and the Pele inspired Brazilians in 1962, the only two occasions a country has defended the Jules Rimet trophy. Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante’s absences alone had made the mountain taller.
Sadio Mane’s leg injury was too much for Fatma Samoura’s “witch doctors” to heal in record time and together with Timo Werner will spend the world cup in Germany rehabilitating. The list is endless but imagine a world cup in June with players having 3 weeks to recover from the hustle and bustle of a regular season compared to the 7 days break they just had.
A Middle East world cup
I won’t go on about the timing because to be fair 32 degrees in November-December is a good bargain considering the Qataris could have had the tournament in June at 55 degrees.
The air conditioning in the stadium and water breaks will create an artificial balance but that is the price of selling a global event to the highest bidder, well as alleged. Human rights abuses have been highlighted, but those throwing the stones do actually live in glass houses so I will ignore that for now.
This to the Qataris is equivalent to the crime rate concern of South Africa 2010, while the Brazilians protested in some cases violently against hosting the world cup in 2016 as a poverty-stricken population demanded the government invest in social welfare instead of stadia.
Mexico 2026 (part of a joint North America world cup winning bid) is already being questioned because of fans violence. So hosting an event of such magnitude does come with challenges and Qatar should be given a break.
To the football and favourites
Brazil scoring 40 and conceding only 5 across 17 undefeated qualifying games screams champions and I have fallen into the trap. Hard to see how any team keeps Neymar Jr, Real Madrid pair Vinicious Jr and Rodrygo, Arsenal pair Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli, Richarlison, Raphina et al quiet over the next few weeks.
Argentina will run a close second majorly because they fall in the same half of the draw and could well clash in the semi-finals, a battle the Samba boys will dance through.
The Dark horses
Portugal finally shook the nearly men tag with their Euro 2016 victory. The pressure is now off and Cristiano Ronaldo will want to dump the ghosts of Old Trafford and end his world cup
career on the highest of highs. Serbia or Switzerland in the round of 16, Belgium in the quarter finals and France or England in the semi-finals is a fairly manageable task if it all goes to plan.
England’s performances in the glorified friendly matches of the Euro Nations League have helped lower the level of expectations of a success starved nation. This seemed to work well for them in Russia 2018 and Euro 2020 as they finished fourth and second respectively. Southgate will have to decide on a back four or a back three with both scenarios featuring a widely uninspiring Harry Maguire.
Southgate is loyal that is the reason England will not be favorites. Out of form Raheem Sterling and Harry Maguire will probably start as will the erratic Jordan Pickford. Pick the players on form like Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden and England could peep in from the outside, only concerned by injury hit France in the last eight and a fired-up Ronaldo in the last four should they top their groups.
I will conclude with our brothers on the continent. Senegal losing Mane means they drop
from potentially a last eight, to just making it marginally out of the group. Cameroon will not have enough to outgun the Swiss or Serbians in the battle to join Group G winners Brazil in the next round while Morocco’s entertaining brand of football will not be enough to outwit the experienced Croatians in a battle to escort Belgium out of the group F. The much-forgotten Tunisians will go about their tour of Qatar quietly and will look to avoid finishing below Australia at the bottom of Group D. Ghana I believe will do us proud but sadly will not have enough to eject the Brazilians should they finish 2 nd in Group H.
This isn’t the star-studded Stephen Appiah led cast of 2010, but this is a modest exciting unit that has quietly recruited players of Ghanaian decent like Newcastle’s Inaki Williams & Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey to add to Arsenal’s Thomas Partey and Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus in the midfield, Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu and Leicester City’s Daniel Amartey in defense and the experienced Ayew brothers Andre and Jordan. South Korea and the ageing Uruguay will test them but I expect they will still advance alongside Portugal. So, Senegal and Ghana in the round of 16 will be where it ends for African dreams.
The actual dream
Lionel Messi’s Argentina against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal for not only the world cup crown but that of the greatest player of all time perhaps. Possible but unlikely.