Your 2022 FIFA World Cup Primer: Human Rights, Star Players and Every Team’s Chances

We break down the biggest storylines every fan needs to know before matches begin on Sunday

November 17, 2022 6:37 am
An aerial view of Khalifa International Stadium at sunrise on June 22, 2022 in Doha, Qatar, one of eight stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup
Khalifa International Stadium is one of eight venues (seven newly constructed) that will host World Cup games.
David Ramos/Getty

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off Sunday in Qatar with the host nation facing Ecuador in the first match. 

If you’re scratching your head, wondering why the tournament is starting in November instead of June, you’re not alone. This is the first time the men’s World Cup isn’t being held in the summer months, and that’s just one of a number of anomalies that will make this 22nd edition of the world’s biggest sporting spectacle perhaps the strangest to date. 

There are far more storylines pacing through this tournament than the average soccer fan can be expected to know, but the following are five of the most significant, from the human rights issues stemming from Qatar to the potential swan song for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Plus, we’ve included a general preview of each group stage to give you an idea of what to expect as the 32 teams begin competing in the Middle East on November 20.

Where does your team stand as the 2022 World Cup is set to begin? Let’s dig in.

Players of Germany wear t-shirts which spell out "Human Rights" prior to the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar qualifying match between Germany and Iceland on March 25, 2021 in Duisburg, Germany.
The German team raises awareness around human rights conditions in Qatar before a World Cup qualifier in March 2021.
Tobias Schwarz/Pool/Getty

Human Rights Will Be a Theme Throughout, But You Won’t Hear It on the American Broadcast 

In the years since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010, the general corruption within FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, which led to that decision has come under increased scrutiny. That’s in addition to the awful state of daily life in the country for the majority of non-male, non-native Qataris. 

In short, Qatari laws treat women as lower-class citizens, and the migrant workers responsible for building all of the new infrastructure required for hosting a World Cup have endured even worse. As Amnesty International has laid out, these workers have experienced “exploitation and abuse” and been “exposed to forced labour, unpaid wages and excessive working hours.”

It’s shocking, but ultimately not surprising, that Qatar was even awarded a World Cup in the first place. FIFA claims to stand for human rights and equality, but with so much intrinsic corruption throughout the organization, the necessary votes were essentially bought for these hosting rights (as they were for Russia’s World Cup in 2018). Additionally, to avoid scorching summer temperatures, the decision was made many years ago to move this year’s tournament to the cooler fall months.

There’s endless reading and listening about the myriad geopolitical issues of this World Cup in particular, but if you want some additional listening, we recommend the World Corrupt podcast series (hosted by Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers and Tommy Vietor of Pod Save the World) as an excellent summary of how we got to this point. 

Repeating a curious decision from 2018, Fox will not highlight or discuss any of these issues during its upcoming broadcasts of the World Cup, and will not even recognize the controversies during the tournament. However, everyone will be paying attention to potential protests from certain players and countries, whether through an armband, message on the shirt or otherwise. Some countries have already made symbolic gestures, including the United States, who are using a rainbow crest at their training facility as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.  

Chris Richards of Crystal Palace and Kyle Walker of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Crystal Palace at Etihad Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Manchester, United Kingdom.
Chris Richards (left) is just one of the USMNT players out with an injury this year.
Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty

How Will the Players Perform?

In traditional World Cup years, players had at least a couple of weeks off between the end of a regular season and the start of the global tournament. This offered time to heal injuries, sync up with their teammates and mentally prepare for the most important competition of their careers.

This time, most players will be coming straight into the World Cup with no break (save for a few from Major League Soccer), more than a few injuries and no real rest time. Injuries in the last few weeks have sidelined a number of notable names, including France’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, Germany’s Timo Werner and Mexico’s Raul Jimenez. For the United States, defenders Miles Robinson and Chris Richards are also out, due to ongoing injuries. There are a host of others racing for health ahead of the start of the World Cup such as Senegal’s Sadio Mané and South Korea’s Son Heung-min.

Aside from specific players staying home, it’s largely unclear how this year’s timing will affect the quality of the tournament. Will we see tired legs prevail in later stages? Or will the sheer adrenaline of competing in the World Cup make this the spectacle it typically is? 

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid walk off pitch during La Liga match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at Santiago Bernabeu stadium on December 23, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.
All eyes will be on Ronaldo and Messi in what is potentially their last World Cup.
Power Sport Images/Getty

Messi and Ronaldo, One More Time 

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have entertained soccer fans around the world for the better part of the last 20 years as two of the greatest to ever play the game. The duo have a glittering array of every possible trophy at the club level along with individual honors. 

Both are on the better side of 30 now (Messi at 35 and Ronaldo at 37), yet still have something to prove at the international level. Messi has won one major trophy with Argentina and Ronaldo the same with Portugal, but neither has won a World Cup. This is likely the last time we will see both of them together on the grand stage, and you can bet both are going to put everything they have into a last shot at this elusive trophy. 

Four England fans holding beer and wearing face paint at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The 2022 edition in Qatar will look much different.
There won’t be beer-soaked celebrations in the stadiums as in years past.
Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty

What Will the Fan Environment Be Like?

Attending a World Cup is like scoring an invite to the world’s biggest party. Soccer fans from all over the world unite in a celebration of the sport, fueled by joy, a semblance of equality and, of course, alcohol. While this will still be a celebration, it will be one without freely-available booze, and one where some fans may not feel safe.

Alcohol will only be available in “select areas” around the eight stadiums, not within stadium bowls themselves. As of Monday, Qatar and major FIFA sponsor Budweiser were still undecided about where to set up beer stands. Outside of imbibing, fans of all kinds could be punished for one of many reasons, such as showing simple affection in public, especially LGBTQ fans in a nation where homosexuality is forbidden. This event will be a stern test of the ability of Qatar’s conservative society to welcome an influx of fans from a range of open and free countries. 

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Beyond that, all attending fans will be required to download and use a specific app billed as a way to stop COVID outbreaks, but can essentially control a user’s entire phone. It’s a stunning level of submission for fans, and opens up a host of privacy and security concerns. 

Jordan Henderson captain of Liverpool lifting the EFL Carabao Cup trophy at the end of the Carabao Cup Final match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium on February 27, 2022 in London, England.
This year’s EFL Carabao Cup starts just two days after the World Cup final.
Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty

How Does This Affect the Remainder of the Domestic Seasons and Cup Campaigns?

What happens after this World Cup will be uncharted waters for the global soccer community.

The world’s best players will re-enter domestic leagues and cup competitions with no rest, and a select few will certainly lack focus either on the heels of winning the tournament, or coming up short. Most leagues and competitions resume just a few days after the tournament concludes.

In one example, England’s Carabao Cup (that is, the League Cup) competition resumes one day after the World Cup final with two of the world’s best teams in Manchester City and Liverpool facing each other in a knockout game.  

This doesn’t even take into account injuries endured during the World Cup, which will literally change the trajectory of certain teams’ potential for the rest of their campaigns. 

An aerial view of Al Janoub stadium at sunrise on June 21, 2022 in Al Wakrah, Qatar. Al Janoub stadium is a host venue of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 starting in November.
Al Janoub by Zaha Hadid Architects is one of seven new stadiums built for the World Cup.
David Ramos/Getty

What to Watch for in Each World Cup Group 

Group A: It’s All About the Race for Second Place

Teams: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

This year’s Dutch team is a far cry from the 2010 squad who powered themselves to the final, falling just short against one of the greatest all-time teams in Spain, but there’s plenty to like about the 2022 edition of the Oranje. They have a strong starting 11, and shouldn’t be too troubled by any other country in their group. Second place has earned more intrigue following Bayern Munich forward Sadio Mané’s recent injury and potential unavailability until Senegal’s last group-stage match. Qatar simply doesn’t have the talent to match up, and progressing out of this group for them would be wildly exceeding expectations.

Group B: The USMNT Is Loaded With Potential 

Teams: England, IR Iran, USA, Wales

The American men are back after the debacle of not qualifying in 2018. They return with the youngest team in the tournament, and perhaps the most talented bunch ever to wear the red, white and blue, led by Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic. However, the star-studded England squad will be the favorite to win this group and a front runner to win the whole tournament (if it can get past an ongoing trend of underperforming when it counts most). Wales arrives at the World Cup with a hardy bunch led by an aging world superstar in Gareth Bale and Iran is facing significant external concerns (in the form of the country’s ongoing protests) that will undoubtedly impact its performance on the pitch.

Read our full preview of the U.S. Men’s National Team and its group here

Group C: Beyond Messi’s Last Hurrah, Mexico and Poland Can Compete

Teams: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

Another legendary player likely playing in his last World Cup is Poland striker Robert Lewandowski. He has the power to get the country to a second-place finish, but Mexico will pose all sorts of challenges as another contender to advance. Did we mention how loaded the Argentines are even without Messi? They have a scary and youthful attacking corps running in front of a very experienced defensive line. 

Group D: A French Team to Top 2018?

Teams: France, Denmark, Tunisia, Australia

In a World Cup with several potential favorites, France is right up there. Eleven players from the Cup-winning 2018 squad return, headlined by Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé, who is a top-five player in the mix with Messi and Ronaldo. However, the can’t-miss story of this group is Christian Eriksen’s triumphant return to the world soccer stage following a near-fatal cardiac arrest incident at last summer’s European Championships. The mere fact that he’s on the pitch competing is reason enough to tune in to each Denmark match.

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Group E: A Spanish Renaissance? 

Teams: Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica

Although Spain hasn’t won a major trophy since that World Cup in 2010, don’t sleep on La Furia Roja this time around. This is a Spanish squad with a new identity, fresh faces and a sneaky-good balance of youth and experience. The Germans, perennially competitive, return with another strong group, including Bayern Munich winger Leroy Sané’s first appearance at the World Cup. Japan and Costa Rica have enough talent to play spoiler, but getting past the likes of the two European giants will prove a mighty tough task. 

Group F: Now or Never for the Belgians

Teams: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

This group features the second- (Croatia) and third-place (Belgium) finishers from 2018, and you’d expect the pair to easily advance out of this group. Belgium finds itself with most of its “golden generation” still intact for one last rodeo, featuring the likes of Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. This is a group poised to improve and it would be a surprise to no one if they found themselves in the final.

Group G: Top-Ranked Brazil Arrives With Major Pressure

Teams: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon 

Playing for Brazil comes with incredible pressure. The team is likely the most intensely-watched and analyzed bunch (maybe with the exception of England) and has the grandest of expectations at each tournament. They’ll be eager to improve on their last two dismal showings, and with the embarrassment of top players at their disposal, they should challenge once again. The rest of the group is a mix of vague potential with potentially a few surprises. 

Group H: The Uruguayan Dark Horse

Teams: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, Korea Republic

If there is one country poised to make some noise as a dark horse in this World Cup, it’s Uruguay. This is a team led by perennial villain Luis Suárez (who may be on his way to MLS) who faces Ghana again after a ridiculous handball incident in the 2010 edition of this tournament. Beyond Suárez, there are a number of strong supporting cast members, including Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez and Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde, who is having a banner season in Spain. Ghana has made life difficult for various teams in the last few tournaments, including the U.S., but getting past the likes of Suárez and Ronaldo will probably prove too much.

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