World Cup 2022 briefing: squads take shape as Qatar kick-off looms
The main event
Let’s start with news from Brazil, where the five-times champions were among the first nations to confirm their final 26-player squad for Qatar. The big surprise was the inclusion of Dani Alves, who will be 40 next spring and, should he play, will become the third-oldest outfield player at a World Cup (Only Argentina’s Ángel Labruna and Cameroon’s Roger Milla were older). It was expected the wily full-back would wind down his career at Universidad Nacional in Liga MX but his inclusion on the flight to Doha suggests he will be winding it right back up again. Well, if he’s fit.
Alves suffered a knee injury on 1 October and hasn’t played since. Not that this bothers the head coach, Tite, who waxed lyrical about the veteran’s skills and attitude this week. “He adds technical and tactical aspects that are impressive, to be an organiser, an articulator,” he said. “Sure he is not a 60-to-70-metres player any more, but he has other virtues … mental and physical aspects too.” Perhaps a role as a vibes man awaits. There were few other surprises in the Neymar-led squad besides the omission of Roberto Firmino, who can be forgiven for feeling a little miffed having scored eight times for Liverpool this season while still working his selfless socks off.
On to a couple of talismans now. There has been concern in the Senegal camp over the fitness of Sadio Mané, the hero who hauled his nation past Egypt in a playoff for Qatar, but he has been named in their squad. The forward limped off during Bayern Munich’s 6-1 win over Werder Bremen, with the club initially playing down the severity of an injury to his right fibula, before L’Équipe weighed in to suggest he might be facing a lengthy layoff that would rule him out of the Group A opener against Netherlands. Nevertheless, fears of surgery have now been allayed. “I prefer to keep him in the squad because he is such an important part of us,” said the Senegal coach, Aliou Cissé.
Perennial dark horses Switzerland will have one of the most experienced squads after Murat Yakin named Granit Xhaka, appearing in his third tournament, along with centre-back Fabian Schär and Xherdan Shaqiri, who is looking forward to his fourth World Cup. Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji is also included as well as Monaco’s Breel Embolo, who will lead the frontline, and the talented uncapped 20-year-old Young Boys midfielder Fabian Rieder. So pleased with the deep Swiss pool he had to pick from, Yakin said: “We were spoiled for choice.” That’s a confident outlook. Another old campaigner, Luka Modric, will captain Croatia in his fourth finals in a squad that hasn’t changed much over the years, with Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Dejan Lovren all included for another dose of national service.
Not many would give Australia a fighting chance of reaching the latter rounds after Graham Arnold took stock of injuries and finally named an eclectic mix of players that he called the “boxing kangaroos”. Seventeen of the 26 will be playing in their first World Cup and Garang Kuol’s inclusion is reminiscent of Theo Walcott’s with England in 2006. Kuol, who will join Newcastle United in the Premier League this January, is yet to start a senior league match but is being taken as an “impact player” in Group D. If the 18-year-old lives up to his punchy billing perhaps the Socceroos will have a chance of giving one of France, Denmark or Tunisia a black eye. The gloves are off. GB
Maddison makes cut for England
An England squad announcement requires a wildcard to be worth its salt. This year’s model is James Maddison, who also happens to have been one of the Premier League’s best players this season, even amid Leicester’s early struggles. He seems set for the same status enjoyed by Jack Grealish at Euro 2020, when Gareth Southgate faced repeated calls from fans and media to blood someone different and exciting. Maddison and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher, called up ahead of Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho and James Ward-Prowse, were the surprise choices in a squad full of attacking players, including Newcastle’s Callum Wilson as reserve striker to Harry Kane. That rather flew in the face of those who personify Southgate as a negative manager. For Maddison to play a part he has considerable talent ahead of him, not least from Jude Bellingham, 19 and looking like a guaranteed starter. JB
Page puts faith in Bale and Allen, fit or not
Rob Page conceded that two of his key players have question marks hanging over their fitness as he announced his Wales squad. The nation’s superstar captain, Gareth Bale, is yet to complete 90 minutes since his move to Major League Soccer in June, though he did come from the bench to score an extra-time equaliser to help LAFC win their first MLS title earlier this month. “Has he played as many minutes as we’d like? Probably not,” said Page. “He’s proved time and time again when he puts the Welsh jersey on, irrespective of how many minutes he’s played at domestic level, he’s always produced.” Swansea’s Joe Allen is the other player who Page was happy to take a risk on when it came to his fitness. Page sees the 32-year-old Swansea midfielder as key to making his philosophy work on the pitch. “If he’s fit, he’s playing. He’s massive for how I play and the success we’ve had… he knows the game inside out and that’s invaluable.” GB
Benzema to be France’s talisman
At 34, Karim Benzema last month became the oldest first-time winner of the Ballon d’Or since Stanley Matthews in 1956. He has waited 12 years to play at his second World Cup, the last being the 2010 tournament lit up by Les Bleus having the mère of all rows, as players staged a revolution against horoscope-enthusiast coach Raymond Domenech before crashing out in the group stage. Benzema only returned to the French team in time for Euro 2020, having been exiled in a blackmail case involving teammate Mathieu Valbuena where the Real Madrid forward was found guilty by a court. In a French squad shorn of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, the engine of their 2018 triumph, Benzema has belatedly become his country’s standard bearer with Kylian Mbappé, though his own fitness is in doubt. Benzema last started a club game on 19 October, having struggled with muscle problems. JB
Beyond the football
It was a big week for Sepp Blatter as the former Fifa president admitted handing the World Cup to Qatar in the first place was a “mistake” and a “bad choice”. The 86-year-old told Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger the decision was a result of secret political pressure, a claim he has made before. “It’s too small a country,” he said. “Football and the World Cup are too big for that.” Khalid Salman, a former Qatar international footballer and Qatar World Cup ambassador, caused outrage when he described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”. Rasha Younes of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch said Salman’s comments were “harmful and unacceptable”. Meanwhile, England’s largest LGBTQ+ supporters’ group, Three Lions Pride, criticised David Beckham for becoming a paid ambassador for Qatar 2022, calling the former midfielder’s decision “incredibly disappointing”. And the human rights group Equidem has released a report calling for compensation for migrant workers, who it says faced nationality-based discrimination, illegal recruitment practices and, in some cases, unpaid wages. GB
Early own goal
This World Cup’s association with concerns over human rights does not make for much of a sales deck for potential advertisers. But it was seen as an opportunity for BrewDog, the publicity-conscious brewery, when they launched an “anti-advertising campaign”. In announcing that all profits from sales of their Lost Lager brand would be directed to causes “fighting human rights abuses”, they declared: “This isn’t a World Cup. It’s a World F*Cup. Football’s been dragged through the mud before a single ball’s been kicked.” It wasn’t long before pictures of BrewDog products on sale in Qatar were circulating. World Cup games will also be shown in their outlets. “We don’t sell direct to Qatar, but we do have a relationship with a distributor that sells into multiple Middle Eastern markets,” doubled down a riposte. “Apple sells iPhones in Qatar – that doesn’t mean it endorses human rights abuses.” Marketing Week reported that Unite Hospitality called this “yet another disingenuous advertising campaign designed to distract customers from the fact BrewDog is one of the worst employers in the brewing industry when it comes to doing the right thing by its workers”. JB
As part of a unique collaboration between some of the world’s best media outlets, a series of team guides are bringing a local flavour and expertise to our coverage of this World Cup. You can find them all here, but here’s a taster from Tomasz Wlodarczyk’s Poland preview:
Usually there is a lot of discussion about learning from past failures but this time the general consensus among the public seems to be: “Deeds, not words.” As always a lot rests on Robert Lewandowski, a striker who can score against any defence, and this time he is surrounded by players in form: Sebastian Szymanski is blossoming at Feyenoord while Piotr Zielinski is having a fantastic season as part of a lethal Napoli machine. Maybe qualifying for the knockout stage is a wish that can finally come true.
And finally …
As warm-ups before a first bow at the World Cup go, Facundo Tello made a global splash last Sunday, when issuing 10 [ten] red cards during Argentina’s Champions Trophy final. Seven went the way of Boca Juniors players while three were waved at Racing Club. A player from each team had already been given their marching orders after a full-time melee with the score at 1-1. But the real drama came in extra-time. Following Carlos Alcaraz’s 118th-minute header for Racing and a provocative celebration in front of Boca fans, all hell broke loose. Tello saw his only course of action as reducing the game to 12 players, starting with Alcaraz and going from there. No stranger to multiple red cards back in Argentina, this will not be his first trip to Qatar, having officiated at the 2019 Arab Cup, a test event for the big one.
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