The World Cup draw has set the field, even though the invitation list for this year’s tournament in Qatar isn’t yet complete. Yet even as the teams now know who, and when, they will play, there are still plenty of questions about how things will play out in soccer’s first Winter World Cup. Here’s a primer on the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
When is the World Cup?
The tournament opens with four matches on Nov. 21 (three days before Thanksgiving in the United States), the start of a soccer-stuffed 12 days of four games a day. Over the month that follows, all the games will take place in a tight circle of eight stadiums in and around Qatar’s capital, Doha, making it the most compact World Cup in history.
The final is Dec. 18 – a week before Christmas.
Who are the favorites?
Brazil, France, England and Spain are the top four choices of oddsmakers, followed by another pedigreed group: Argentina, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The usual suspects qualified early, so many of them, in fact, that our soccer columnist, Rory Smith, wrote in November that “the likelihood is that the winner is already there.”
Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, after all, and seven are in the field again. (Sorry, Italy. See you next time. Maybe.)
Who Will the United States Play?
The Americans qualified again after missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia. They landed in an intriguing group that includes England, Iran and Wales, which won a thrilling playoff against Ukraine in June.
The United States has a modern World Cup experience against two of its opponents. It tied England in South Africa in 2010 on the way to winning their first-round group, but lost to Iran in 1998 in a match filled with political intrigue. Wales has only been to the World Cup once, in 1958; the United States missed that one.
They will hit the ground running too: The United States will face the European playoff winner on Nov. 21, the tournament’s first day, and then play England four days later, on Black Friday. A match against Iran on Nov. 29 will close the group stage.
What’s after that? The Americans’ group will be paired with the teams that advance from Group A – a section that includes Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands – in the round of 16.
Wait, don’t they play the World Cup in July?
They always had, until Qatar got it.
Qatar, like the other bidders, initially proposed holding the tournament in its normal summer window, and brushed aside any suggestion it could not do so with the help of cooling technology that did not, at the time, exist. As The Times wrote on the day of the vote in 2010:
“Qatar’s bid overcame concerns about heat that can reach 120 degrees there in the summer. Officials say they will build air-conditioned stadiums, spending $ 4 billion to upgrade three arenas and build nine new ones in a compact area connected by a subway system. ”
It took more than four years, but in 2015 FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, eventually concluded that a summer World Cup in 120-degree temperatures might bring unneeded problems (like, say, fans and players dying) and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively cooler months of November and December.
What about the league games that normally take place then?
Oh, the leagues grumbled. A lot. But they lost.
The switch to winter will disrupt not only league competitions in Europe and elsewhere, but also the lucrative UEFA Champions League, and it will require starting seasons earlier or finishing them later, or both.
A winter World Cup would also leave those professionals who do not go to Qatar – less than 800 of the world’s players take part – with a midseason break that could extend to two months, once pretournament camps and friendlies and post-Cup rest is factored in .
Fox Sports, which paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the United States broadcast rights, will have to wedge in a month of soccer games around another fall sport that tends to demand attention that time of year. Maybe you’ve heard of the NFL?
How many teams get in?
A total of 32. They were split into eight groups of four in the draw, which notably did not include anything that appeared to be the traditional Group of Death. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.
Two places remain unclaimed, and will come from two intercontinental playoffs in June: Costa Rica will face New Zealand, the Oceania survivor, in one game, and Peru, the fifth-place team from South America, will face an Asian team, either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.
Are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo going?
Yes and yes.
Argentina, and Messi, qualified in November. But Portugal, and Ronaldo, needed to sweat out a European playoff after botching its guaranteed route to the finals in the group stage.
Who won’t be there?
Erling Haaland, for one. (Norway didn’t qualify.) Mohamed Salah. (Egypt lost to Senegal on penalty kicks for the second time in a month.)
Oh, and Italy. But then that’s not new for them. The Italians missed the 2018 tournament, too. Whoops.
When will the games take place?
Qatar is in the same time zone as Moscow. So whatever strategy you used to wake up early (or stay up late) for the games in 2018 will work this time, too. But it will mean kickoffs as early as 4 am Eastern, and no later than 2 pm Eastern.