The gap between World Cups always seems too long, and the wait for winter has made it longer still. During the England Women’s Team’s historic victory in the summer, Qatar still seemed far away. The Premier League’s return in August, kept Football at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but the end-of-year showpiece still seemed a little way off. With most teams having played their last matches before the tournament, the 22nd FIFA World Cup is finally very much on the horizon.
497 days after England played their first Senior Men’s Final in 55 years, sixty-four games in just under a month will begin with the host, Qatar, facing Ecuador.
Just over four years ago, in Russia, England was left to fly the flag as the only home nation to qualify. This time they have company — very close company — with Wales joining them in Group B.
See our other England articles here
More than England — more than any other team — Brazil’s Footballing history is inextricably linked with the World Cup. The only nation to have qualified for every tournament, their badge is the only one with five stars above it. The World Cup wouldn’t be the same without a montage of Brazilian magic, and each tournament sees a fresh chapter in the story of the Jogo Bonito written by its foremost exponents.
Brazil’s World Cup love affair hasn’t always run smoothly. In 1950, their surprise loss to Uruguay was Brazilian Football’s darkest day. That was until 8th July 2014, when the Mineirão Stadium scoreboard stunned the world: Brazil 1 Germany 7. Since then, Coach Tite has done much to rebuild Brazil’s confidence. In a role with limited job expectancy — Brazil had 14 different Managers between 1964 and 1970 — the former Corinthians Coach has lasted 6 years, boasting a win percentage of 75%. A Copa América triumph in 2019 and reaching the Final two years later have helped him become Brazil’s longest-serving Manager.
Almost every World Cup sees the Seleção at, or close to, the head of the Outright Winner market. 4/1 favourites four years ago, Brazil are narrow 9/2 market leaders in 2022, in a tournament where a case could be made for several of the “usual suspects”.
The road to qualification was long, but never hazardous, with Brazil topping the CONMEBOL section, completing 17 matches unbeaten, with a South American Qualification record, 45 points.
In contrast to the Seleção’s 2002 triumph, when most of their squad plied their trade in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, only a few now play in Brazil, with a dozen calling England home. Brazil is blessed with a choice of world-class Goalkeepers, Alisson or Ederson, and can call on PSG’s Marquinhos and Neymar, and Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior.
Although the famous canarinho shirt has been commandeered by the country’s President as a political symbol, this hasn’t diminished this Football-mad nation’s love affair with their team. Immediately after the draw, the Brazilian TV channel, Globo, mapped out the tournament, predicting victory for the Samba Boys (though it was nice to see them tip England to reach the Final). En route, they predicted a Brazilian win over their bitter rivals, Argentina, in the Semi-Final. But before that, Brazil will likely have to negotiate a Quarter-Final tie with either Spain or Germany, meaning progress towards a sixth title will be difficult.
France’s triumph in the last World Cup in Russia was commemorated by turning the Eiffel Tower red, white, and blue, as they added a second World Cup to their two European Championships.
Between their 1998 and 2018 victories, Les Bleus experienced some tumultuous times. After a shock Group Stage exit as favourites in 2002, stars including Zinedine Zidane came out of retirement to transform a seemingly doomed 2006 World Cup qualification campaign, only for Zizou to be sent off in the Final. Four years on, there was talk of a players’ strike, as France crashed out at the Group Stage. The peaks and troughs of the French national team resemble a mountain stage in the Tour de France.
Personnel-wise much has changed since France ended Croatia’s improbable run, in the 2018 Final. Then, Raphaël Varane was the defensive lynchpin for Real Madrid and France, Antoine Griezmann scored four goals and would later be on his way to Barcelona, and, after a starring role, Paul Pogba was expected to deliver more of the same at Old Trafford. Karim Benzema was in the international wilderness.
Four years on, Varane is struggling to establish himself at Old Trafford; Pogba’s unhappy second stint at United has ended, and Griezmann’s stay at Camp Nou lasted only two years. Benzema has collected his fifth Champions League winner’s medal and has been a fixture in France’s starting line-up. Sadly for France, Benzema and Pogba, along with likely fellow first-choice players N’Golo Kanté and Presnel Kimpembe, have been ruled out of the tournament.
Disparagingly called “the water-carrier” by Eric Cantona, as a player, but one of only three men to win the World Cup as a player and a Manager, Coach Didier Deschamps can boast an even longer tenure than his Brazilian counterpart, with ten years in the role. For all the changes to the starting eleven, he has remained the one constant — plus ça change…
At Euro 2020, France only really turned up for 18 minutes. After a humdrum first phase, they wiped out an early deficit with three quick goals against Switzerland. Pogba’s posturing celebration of the third goal reflected a team confident they had done enough. But, like a recalcitrant racehorse downing tools after hitting the front, and being collared on the line, France went out on Penalties.
Seeking to become the first back-to-back winners since Brazil in 1962, squad depth is not an issue — France possesses so many Centre-Backs they could let Aymeric Laporte escape across the Pyrenees to Spain. Up front Les Bleus still have Kylian Mbappé. Before the 2018 tournament, he was spoken of as a prodigious talent, and he didn’t disappoint, finishing with four goals and becoming the second teenager — after Pelé — to score in a World Cup Final.
France comfortably topped their qualification group, though Ukraine twice held them to a draw. In Qatar, as four years ago, Denmark will likely provide the sternest test in the Group Stage. After that, topping the section could potentially lead to a path with a strong European flavour, against Poland, England, and one of Belgium, Spain, Germany, or Portugal. As that night against Switzerland proved, though, Les Bleus would do well not to get too far ahead of themselves.
On the first page of the big book of Football clichés, it reads: “never write off the Germans.” With the rich history of Die Mannschaft, publishing their obituary is foolish, as a record of four World Cup wins, with four Runners-Up finishes, and three European Championship titles with a further three Finals reached, attests.
Though the context couldn’t have been more different, following a first-ever World Cup Group Stage exit in Russia, German newspaper Bild ran the same headline, “without words!”, that they had used to sum up the previous tournament’s thrashing of Brazil. When former Coach Joachim Löw, refused to make wholesale changes afterwards, the German Press agreed: noting, “you don’t throw away World Champions”. But the Euros brought only a last-16 exit. There has been no mistaking the Schadenfreude being felt by Germany’s traditional rivals. However, had Thomas Müller’s shot gone the other side of the post when through on goal in their last-16 match, Germany’s — and England’s — Euros could have been very different.
Since then, Germany has a new coach, and Hansi Flick has a Bundesliga, German Cup, and Champions League treble on his CV, and began with a 13-game unbeaten run as national Coach. Greater than the sum of their parts, as former Coach Berti Vogts once said, “the team is the star” — evidenced by 13 different players getting their names on the scoresheet during Flick’s reign. They possess an experienced core, with the defensive skills of Antonio Rüdiger, outstanding Defensive Midfielder Joshua Kimmich, and the original Sweeper-Keeper, Manuel Neuer.
There is optimism that a new group of young players, spearheaded by Jamal Musiala,
Germany’s youngest international since 1954, will herald a return to glory. Born in Stuttgart, Musiala represented England from Under-15 to Under-21 age groups, and Gareth Southgate must have felt after the youngster’s Man of the Match performance against England, in June, that he is the one that got away.
A facile qualification campaign saw Germany become the first team, aside from the hosts, to qualify for Qatar. They posted nine wins and one loss, the joint-highest points tally among European nations, with 36 goals scored and only four conceded.
Largely written off after two, by their standards, poor performances in World Cup ‘98 and Euro 2000, and a chastening 5-1 home defeat by England, in 2001, Germany reached the Final of the 2002 World Cup. That’s the thing about clichés, there’s usually more than a grain of truth to them.
Germany’s second group match, against Spain, on Sunday 27th November will be the headline act of the Group Phase. The seedings for the draw, and the diktat that not more than two European sides could be placed in the same group, made a “Group of Death” unlikely. Certainly, none of the eight sections has teams to match some of the toughest of the past — the deadliest pitted superpowers Argentina, Brazil, and Italy together, admittedly in a Second-Round Group, in 1982. But having two of Football’s giants in the same section makes Group E one to watch.
It’s just over 10 years since the last epic chapter of Spain’s great Football trilogy. You wait 44 years for a major trophy, and then three come along at once. Success in Euro 2012 put the final exclamation mark on a period of success, that began with the long-awaited trophy, at Euro 2008, and then saw Spain defy an opening-game loss to land their only World Cup title in 2010.
La Roja had the best piece of form in the book, prior to the Euros, a 6-0 demolition of Germany, with a seventh ruled out for a debatable offside. In the tournament, they proved to be draw specialists, with honours even in two of their three group matches, followed by three knockout games that required either Extra-Time or Penalties, culminating in elimination by Italy, on spot-kicks.
Having faced them at the Euros, Spain was again confronted by Sweden in qualifying, and La Roja secured a twelfth consecutive World Cup appearance, topping the section, despite losing 2-1 in Solna. It was another of their Euro 2020 victims, Switzerland, who recently handed Spain their first competitive home defeat in nearly four years. Nevertheless, winners of their Nations League group, Luis Enrique’s side will arrive in Qatar in good form.
While most international Managers are bemoaning the fact that their players play too much Football, Spain’s Coach has the opposite problem. Neither Jordi Alba nor César Azpilicueta, Enrique’s Full-Backs of choice, are first-team regulars for their clubs, while Thiago Alcântara has had a stop-start season at Liverpool.
The current starting eleven isn’t going to make anyone forget Xaxi, Iniesta, Piqué et al in a hurry, and one survivor of that team, Sergio Ramos, also hasn’t played much Football lately, through injury. Towards the end of those halcyon days between 2008 and 2012, Spain’s lack of a number 9 wouldn’t have concerned anyone. They played with a false 9 anyway, and it allowed them to shoehorn another technically gifted player into their star-studded line-up. Now the position is a source of much discussion, with Messrs Torres, Asencio, and Sarabia struggling for game-time at club level, and Álvaro Morata, still in contention.
The flip side is that many of Spain’s players may arrive in Qatar fresher than their rivals, and at least they have the exciting Pedri in Midfield, with Sergio Busquets and/or Manchester City’s Rodri to screen in front of the back four. There is also enviable depth to the squad. Spanish newspaper Marca selected a team from those players left out against Switzerland, which included David de Gea, Chelsea’s Cucurella, former Arsenal man Bellerin, Ramos, Thiago, PSG’s Midfielder Fabián, and Barcelona’s starlet Ansu Fati.
While Spain’s three 21st Century triumphs seem a long time ago, the days when Spain was dubbed Football’s great underachievers are an even more distant memory. Which category this current crop falls into may hinge on the events of 27th November.
If Brazil and the World Cup go together, then Argentina and controversy are natural bedfellows. Their first World Cup triumph included a group game shrouded in controversy when, needing to beat Peru 4-0 to qualify, they scored six, and their South American neighbours appeared to be “judicious with their effort” during the Second Half. Twelve years later, Argentina finished the ill-tempered 1990 World Cup Final against West Germany with just nine players.
Viveza criolla is a term associated with Argentinian Football and could be loosely translated as native cunning. This is the justification which made Maradona’s “Hand of God”; the drugging of Brazil’s Branco with a water bottle containing “Holy Water” allegedly laced with a tranquiliser in 1990, and Diego Simeone’s baiting of David Beckham eight years later, acceptable. Essentially, the end justifies the means, and the 1978 and 1986 World Cups ended triumphantly.
Four years ago, Argentina’s campaign was a shambles. The players confronted Manager Jorge Sampaoli after losing to Croatia and had stopped listening to their out-of-touch Coach — who selected an incredible 59 players in his first 13 squads — long before defeat to France sent them home.
Former West Ham Wing-Back Lionel Scaloni was Sampaoli’s replacement. Normally, it wouldn’t be an Argentinian qualification campaign without a crisis, but not this time —apart from the bizarre cancellation of their match against Brazil, five minutes in, after Brazilian Health Officials ran onto the pitch after discovering that four Argentine players had broken COVID protocols. The match was never replayed, and so far ahead of their South American rivals were they, that both qualified having played a game fewer, with Argentina trailing Brazil by six points.
After ten consecutive failures, La Albiceleste finally laid the ghost of Copa América disappointments, triumphing in the 2021 renewal. None of the World Cup market leaders can match Argentina’s current unbeaten run which stretches for 34 games. Italy was unbeaten in 27 games prior to the Euros and won the title. Argentina will hope to follow suit, and Italy was one of their victims in a comprehensive 3-0 win in the Finalissima.
Seven times a Ballon d’Or winner, Lionel Messi is 35. His detractors say he is yet to take over a tournament in the way another famous Argentine number 10 did, but his supporters point to his being named Player of The Tournament in the 2014 World Cup (controversially), and the 2021 Copa América. A supporting cast of Ángel Di María, Paulo Dybala, and Julián Álvarez means he won’t have to do it alone. There is a strong Premier League feel to Argentina’s defensive unit, with Tottenham’s Cristian Romero and Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez contenders to partner Nicolas Otámendi at Centre-Back, with Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martínez between the sticks.
It could all lead to a mouth-watering Semi-Final with Brazil in the heat of Qatar. If that makes you salivate, be careful which water bottle you use to quench your thirst.
Blocking Argentina’s path to that game are possible Quarter-Final opponents, the Netherlands — their opposition in the 1978 Final. There are few sights in Football like the orange-clad army of Dutch supporters — though the late Graham Taylor didn’t agree. Yet to win Football’s greatest prize, we have no hesitation in including the Netherlands among the modern day-Football superpowers, having been World Cup Runners-Up three times, and been crowned 1988 European Champions.
The fans have also nailed their colours to the mast when it comes to the Oranje’s formation. Since the Total Football of the Seventies, it has been largely the same. When former Coach Frank de Boer dared to change formation prior to the Euros, fans paid for a plane to fly over the training ground, with a banner attached that simply read: “Frank. Just 4-3-3!”
This is not the first rodeo for de Boer’s successor, Louis van Gaal. His first two spells as Dutch Manager couldn’t have been more contrasting. His first stint saw a failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup — their first absence in 16 years. It was an altogether happier experience in 2014, thrashing Spain 5-1 in the group, and finishing third. Not a man to be dictated to, van Gaal is also likely to continue to jettison the fêted 4-3-3.
At the Euros, Betzone saw support for the Dutch from some well-informed customers in the Top Goalscoring Team market. Although that bet went astray, you could see the logic, as the Netherlands netted eight times in the Group Stage, and played with attacking Wing-Backs, who had little interest in defending. This free-scoring trend continued in qualifying, with the Dutch netting 33 times, a total surpassed only by England and Germany, among UEFA nations.
Despite finding themselves in Pot 2 prior to the Finals draw, the ballot has improved their prospects. Although group opponents Senegal arrive as champions of Africa, this is Qatar’s first World Cup, and Ecuador don’t travel well. Topping the section would likely mean a winnable Last-16 tie against the US, Wales, or Iran. It gets harder thereafter, but winning Group A should see the Dutch progress well into the tournament. We at Betzone reacted by trimming the Oranje, post-draw, from 14/1 to 10/1.
Defensively, Virgil van Dijk’s return, after missing the Euros, completes a strong central defensive unit, alongside Matthijs de Ligt and Manchester City’s Nathan Aké. At the other end, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay will provide the creativity.
Winning their Nations League group ahead of local rivals, Belgium has buoyed the team. Those clad in orange shirts are seeking more of the same on a global stage, to finally add that missing star to their badge.
The World Cup of the modern era has been dominated by seven Football superpowers: the six teams we have already mentioned, along with Italy who, despite being European Champions, perished in the playoffs.
In the 12 tournaments from 1970 to 2014, between them Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, France, Spain, and the Netherlands provided both the Finalists at every World Cup, bookended by 1966 and all that for England, and Croatia’s amazing run to the Final, in Russia.
The European Championship has seen surprising winners, from Denmark in 1992 — when they didn’t qualify but replaced Yugoslavia, who were excluded after war broke out — to 150/1 outsiders Greece, who took parking the bus to new heights during their 2004 triumph.
In contrast, the World Cup has adhered to the status quo. Nations outside of these superpowers must be considered pretenders, rather than contenders, but that won’t stop backers of Belgium, the latest team to be saddled with the millstone of “The Golden Generation”
The phrase still brings a shudder. Denmark’s Golden Generation, world beaters in trouncing Uruguay in 1986, was then battered 5-1 by Spain. None of that group was part of their aforementioned success in 1992. Likewise, Colombia, with Valderrama, Asprilla and co had high hopes in 1994, after trouncing Argentina 5-0 in qualifying, However, their tournament ended in turmoil, and ultimately tragedy, with elimination at the Group Stage followed by the untimely death of captain Andres Escobar. Portugal’s Golden Generation of Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al were trophyless — Cristiano Ronaldo, who followed on their coattails, had been substituted when his teammates secured an Extra-Time win in Euro 2016. The less said about England (2002-2010), the better (great players should be able to find a way to play together, right?)
Against this background, Belgium’s Golden Generation has one last chance. By the start of the next Euros, Kevin De Bruyne will be 32, Eden Hazard, 33, and Messrs Vertonghen, Alderweireld, and Witsel will surely have retired. This group’s four previous tournaments have brought one Semi-Final appearance and three Quarter-Final exits.
Of the other nations, a case could be made for Portugal. European Champions six years ago, they were the ultimate one-man team in Russia, when their plan was simple: get the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo and make sure the rest of you don’t get in his way. Now they possess a fine, ensemble cast, while CR7 is almost a ceremonial pick, a sacred cow that cannot be sacrificed. They have Defenders João Cancelo and Rúben Dias, who made the 2020-21 PFA Team of The Year, and their Manchester City teammate, Midfielder Bernardo Silva, who joined Cancelo in the 2021-22 PFA Dream Team.
There will be support in the betting markets for other teams, including European Championship Semi-Finalists Denmark, for whom you might borrow a tagline from one of their country’s famous exports: the best of the teams we haven’t already mentioned? Probably. While the winner has come from a select list of teams, World Cups have seen lower-profile nations reach the Semi-Finals, including South Korea, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
At Betzone, England made us sweat after we were top price about the Three Lions for the Euros. At the time of writing, Gareth Southgate’s men are 8/1 to end 56 years of hurt.
Across the Severn Bridge, Wales will be scratching a 64-year itch of their own, returning to the biggest stage for the first time since 1958. Then, they had a talisman in John Charles — once voted the greatest foreign player ever to play in Serie A. Now, Gareth Bale assumes star billing. Competing in the last two European Championships provided valuable big tournament experience, and in 2016, England needed a 91st-minute Daniel Sturridge goal to deny their neighbours a famous point.
Ability-wise, you could throw a big horse blanket over Wales, the United States, and Iran. England is the shortest of any of the Group favourites, and Wales may benefit from playing the Three Lions last, if England opens with two wins, and Southgate rotates his squad.
Of course, betting on the World Cup goes beyond the Outright Winner market. At Betzone, we’ll have a huge array of daily specials, as well as old favourites like the Tournament Top Goalscorer market. Its name has changed — from The Golden Shoe to The Golden Boot — but the identikit winner looks much the same. A proven marksman, playing for a team with the potential to fill their (Golden) boots against weaker opposition in the Group Phase. Although it’s tempting to side with the stars of the superpower nations, identifying a player from a losing Semi-Finalist can bear fruit — the 3rd/4th Playoff match is traditionally high-scoring, averaging four goals per game going back to 1982. Six of the past eight Golden Boot winners, including Harry Kane, in 2018, suffered Semi-Final heartbreak. In the same way that the Premier League’s Top Goalscorer has come from that year’s champions just once in the past ten seasons, from 1986 onwards, only Ronaldo, in 2002, added a winner’s medal with Brazil to the tournament’s Golden Boot.
A couple of the World’s leading strikers are absent from the competition. Mo Salah will have to make the most of a rare, prolonged winter break from the Premier League, after his Egyptian side lost to Sadio Manè’s Senegal, while defenders can rest easy knowing Erling Haaland won’t be making them look foolish, as Norway failed to qualify.
Enough of who won’t be there. The cream of the world’s footballing talent will be participating to give Football bettors an early Christmas present, beginning on 20th November. At Betzone HQ, we’re delighted that the long wait is almost over.