OK, listen up, chuckleheads. Here’s the deal: It’s World Cup time! Take it from me: I’ve been reading over some of the marketing materials FIFA is distributing to its media partners, and wow, yes, it turns out that this very Sunday, the completely apolitical, unproblematic, legitimate, and morally uplifting spectacle of the 22nd men’s World Cup will be kicking off in Qatar, a country where everything is quite simply fine.
Are you ready for this? I’m not ready for this. I’ve spent most of this year making a podcast about the history of the World Cup, which means that for months, I’ve been deeply immersed in the stories of every World Cup except this one. At first, this seemed like a smart decision. Who wouldn’t prefer to hang out with Ronaldo in 2002 than the [consults FIFA marketing materials] honest, well-meaning, and socially progressive organizers of this year’s [turns page] 100-percent innocent tournament?
But now, with the opening kickoff imminent, I’m forced to question the wisdom of my choice. I have so much catching up to do! Who’s good this year? Who’s bad? What are the big story lines? I need a crash course before Sunday. Otherwise, I’m going to end up writing a 2,500-word column arguing that the tournament is Erling Haaland’s chance to break out on the international stage, when in fact it’s Erling Haaland’s chance to spend a month playing God of War: Ragnarok, where he can hang out with several other Norse deities who failed to qualify for the World Cup.
I was worried about this, but then it hit me: Maybe you too could use a crash course. Maybe you’re a casual fan who mainly catches soccer fever at World Cup time. (Please wear a mask.) Or maybe you’re a passionate supporter who’s been avoiding the tournament for [consults FIFA marketing materials again] absolutely no reason whatsoever, and you need a quick refresher.
Either way, let’s face this challenge together. Come along with me, and between the two of us, and also possibly Google, we will get up to speed in plenty of time for the start of the most-watched sporting event in the world.
Let’s do this … Q&A-style.
So real talk—how bad do we have to feel about watching this World Cup?
What do you mean? FIFA says we should all just stick to sports!
OK, but seriously. How bad?
Seriously? It’s complicated, but I think pretty bad. There is a vast amount of reporting covering the corruption of the FIFA executive committee, which allowed Qatar to buy the World Cup; the human rights abuses inflicted on thousands of migrant workers during Qatar’s preparation for the tournament, which in many cases resulted in their deaths; the country’s punitive treatment of its LGBTQ population; and its blatant use of the world’s most popular sports tournament to launder its own international image. None of this is a joke. All of this is grim.
It’s also true that this is the first World Cup ever held in the Middle East, which is a good thing for a competition that purports to be the whole world’s championship. Defenders of Qatar argue that critical coverage of the World Cup has been driven mostly by American and European racism, but that’s a clumsy attempt to muddle the issue. The fact that some people are racist doesn’t make it OK to exploit and kill migrant workers. I’d recommend at least reading David Goldblatt’s excellent piece on the tournament in the London Review of Books before deciding whether you’re comfortable watching at all.
Me? I’ll be watching, but I don’t feel great about it. I’ll be watching because I love soccer and because I want to believe that there’s something in the game itself that transcends the sport’s misuses. I want to believe soccer’s power to bring us joy and connection is deeper than the manipulation of the game by profiteers and autocrats. I want to believe that, and sometimes I do. Other times I tell myself that my sentimentality about sports won’t bring the dead back to life. I’ll be watching, but I’ll also be trying to remain conscious of the compromise I’m making and of the human cost of this tournament. The World Cup is supposed to be fun. This one should also hurt.
So like … who’s going to win the World Cup? Do we still care?
Great question! And I guess I do still care, for some reason? One of the fun things about this pre-tournament moment is that anyone could still win it.
How many teams are playing in this thing, anyway?
Thirty-two teams. This is the last World Cup with 32, though. Starting in 2026, when the tournament will take place in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the field will expand to 48 countries. If things go well, it will presumably expand to seven thousand countries by around 2042.
Which 32 countries are we talking about?
- Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, and Netherlands in Group A.
- England, Iran, USA, and Wales in Group B.
- Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Poland in Group C.
- France, Australia, Denmark, and Tunisia in Group D.
- Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, and Japan in Group E.
- Belgium, Canada, Morocco, and Croatia in Group F.
- Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, and Cameroon in Group G.
- Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea in Group H.
Oh right, groups! Do any of these groups count as one of those Groups of Death you’re always hearing about?
I don’t know—I’m not seeing absolute ice-cold terminal horror in any of these groups, but Group G is looking at least medium-deathy. My colleague Musa Okwonga has compared Serbia, arguably the weakest team in Group G, to a supercluster of several million sardines about to be devoured by a ravenous swarm of predators.
Here’s a general rule of thumb with the World Cup: You never want to be in the group that makes people think about nature shows. This may be a better concept than the Group of Death: the Group of Nature Documentaries! If people look at your group and hear David Attenborough rhapsodizing about the circle of life, you have most likely been given an unfavorable draw.
OK, organizing teams by group is kinda boring. Can we instead rank all 32 countries by the quality of their team’s nickname?
Excuse me, but I’m a professional. Of course we’re going to rank all 32 countries by the quality of their team’s nickname. Frankly, it would be irresponsible not to.
I know! So the thing to remember about soccer nicknames is that they tend to be either eye-wateringly cool (Nigeria, the Super Eagles) or eye-wateringly dull (France, the Blues; Italy, the Blues; Estonia, the Blueshirts). Sometimes they’re so boring they actually become cool by accident (Germany, the Team, but in aggressive-sounding German).
Here’s what we’re working with in 2022 (translating from the original languages into English).
Tier 9: Nicknames Besides Germany’s That Are Essentially Just “The Team,” Like Did You Have a Three-Second Deadline to Come Up With This, or What?
32. Brazil—the Selection
31. Iran—the National Team
30. Switzerland—the Nati, short for the Nationals (clever)
29. Portugal—the Selection of the Quinas (the Quinas is a symbol of Portugal, so basically just “the team of Portugal,” yawn)
Tier 8: Did You Seriously Just Count Up the Colors in Your Flag and Call It a Nickname?
28. Ecuador—the Tricolor
27. Mexico—the Tricolor
Tier 7: Single Colors (Boring Colors Edition)
26. France—the Blues
25. Serbia—the Blue
24. Qatar—the Crimsons
Tier 6: Just Barely Interesting
23. Costa Rica—Los Ticos (a slang term for people who live in Costa Rica; kind of like calling Indiana “the Hoosiers”)
22. Uruguay—the Charrúas (named after an Indigenous people)
21. Poland—the White and Reds
20. Argentina—the White and Sky Blues
19. Netherlands—the Orange
18. Canada—the Canucks
17. Belgium—the Red Devils
Tier 5: [Judge in a Courtroom Drama Nodding Slowly] I’ll Allow It
16. England—the Three Lions
15. USA—the Stars and Stripes
14. Germany—the Team (incredibly boring in German, but massive bonus points because “Die Mannschaft” sounds like a porn star nickname in English)
13. Wales—the Dragons
Tier 4: Very, Very Solid Nicknames
12. Japan—Samurai Blues
11. Australia—the Socceroos
10. South Korea—the Asian Tigers (also the Taeguk Warriors)
9. Denmark—Danish Dynamite (should always be written with at least two exclamation marks: Danish Dynamite!!)
8. Spain—the Red Fury
Tier 3: The Legitimately Incredible Tier
7. Morocco—the Lions of Atlas
6. Tunisia—the Eagles of Carthage
5. Saudi Arabia—the Green Falcons
4. Senegal—the Lions of Teranga (Teranga is a Wolof word used to evoke warmth, friendliness, respect, and hospitality; this is my personal favorite of all team nicknames in the World Cup)
Tier 2: The Fiery Boys Tier
3. Croatia—the Fiery Boys
Tier 1: Pantheon Status
2. Ghana—the Black Stars
1. Cameroon—the Indomitable Lions
So Cameroon wins the World Cup of Nicknames.
The Indomitable Lions may own the GOAT nickname in all of sports, period. Which is ironic, because I feel like an indomitable lion would eat a goat.
Can we talk about some other teams to look out for?
Sure! Among the 32 teams who’ll be taking part in the tournament, some good bets/fun stories include:
Who are they? The defending champions. A squad bristling with razor-sharp attackers like Kylian Mbappé and Karim Benzema. An early favorite to win the tournament.
What’s wrong with them? Hmm … I assume a lot of their players hate each other. French squads tend to be driven by internal animosity, for complex French reasons that I never fully understand. This year, for instance, the brother of star midfielder Paul Pogba has alleged that Pogba hired a witch doctor to place a curse on Mbappé. I don’t even want to know, man. Perhaps more seriously, the squad is dealing with injuries to a couple of key players, including Pogba (don’t trifle with dark magic), N’Golo Kanté, and upstart striker Christopher Nkunku. Finally, who knows how Mbappé’s vexed relationship with the Qatari owners of his club team, Paris Saint-Germain, will play out over the tournament.
Outlook: Anything other than winning will be a disappointment, but the no. 1 reason to root for them is that Mbappé’s fragile sense of self-confidence probably can’t withstand a loss. The poor kid needs an ego boost! (sarcasm font)
Who are they? The top-ranked team in the world. Another side that’s spoiled for attacking talent, with Neymar (still somehow just 30, though it seems like he’s been Brazil’s best player since 1985), Raphinha (electric for Leeds over the past two seasons), and Richarlison (always fun to see Tottenham players at the World Cup). Another early favorite. A team desperate to win its first World Cup since Ronaldo brought home the trophy in 2002.
What’s wrong with them? Honestly, not a lot. Brazil’s biggest adversary will probably be GIFs of Neymar acting like he’s been hit with a cruise missile any time a defender breathes on him heavily. They’re good.
Outlook: Win the title or bust (and please win the title, because if Neymar even hears the word “bust” he’s going to drop like he just broke both ankles).
Who are they? The South American champions. Home of Lionel Messi, one of the world’s biggest stars and a leading GOAT candidate. (An indomitable lion would not eat Messi, out of respect.) Desperate to win what will likely be Messi’s last World Cup after falling short in the 2014 final. Undefeated in 36 games coming into the tournament.
What’s wrong with them? The Copa America win in 2021, which saw Argentina beat Brazil at Brazil’s own national stadium, did a lot to ease the pressure on Messi to deliver at the international level. Still, my guy can’t show up at a World Cup without bringing The Discourse along with him. How distracting will it be?
Outlook: Win an achievable title or leave a void on the resume of one of the best players of all time. But no pressure!
Who are they? A team that’s probably not going to win the World Cup (no offense, Bruno Fernandes; thank you for all the Fantasy Premier League points you brought me in 2021). At least in the group stage, Portugal will mostly be fun as a proxy venue for discussing Cristiano Ronaldo’s disastrous relationship with his club team, Manchester United, and his various attempts to poison that relationship even further in an effort to secure a transfer.
Attempts such as? Giving an interview to the moist British tabloid oaf Piers Morgan in which Ronaldo attacked the owners of United, singled out the manager of United as someone he does not respect, and almost sounded a little bit critical of revered ex-United manager Alex Ferguson.
How bad is Cristiano Ronaldo’s relationship with Manchester United at this point? It is truly just so bad. Ronaldo returned to the club last year in a triumphant prodigal son–type scenario, but he’s 37 and they want him to come off the bench. He’s not built for it. There is nothing he will not do to force a transfer at this point. He may show up at Old Trafford dressed head-to-toe in Liverpool gear. He may leave a horse head in Erik ten Hag’s bed. He may run for prime minister of the U.K. and force Parliament to pass a law sending him to Napoli. Assuming he resigned immediately afterward, he would immediately go down in history as the greatest British prime minister of the last decade.
What does this have to do with the World Cup? Nothing, it’s just funny.
OK, but what about the United States?
I think it’s great that the USMNT added rainbow colors to the badge to express its support for the LGBTQ community. Beyond that, I think we should probably be looking at this World Cup as a learning experience for the squad, especially since we missed the tournament completely in 2018.
You don’t think we’re going to win?
We lost 2-0 to Japan and drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia in our warmup games, which feels like something Cristiano Ronaldo would do if he were trying to sever ties with the concept of winning the World Cup. We might get out of our group. We might not. We play England on Black Friday.
So who’s actually going to win the World Cup?
None of the teams I’ve talked about so far! It’s England. England is definitely going to win the World Cup. England is the closest thing to a lock I’ve ever seen in 15 years of covering soccer.
I’m not just trying to jinx them.
That sounds like the sort of thing you would say if you were just trying to jinx them.
England will win the 2022 World Cup. They can’t fail. Write it down. It’s coming home. I want expectations around this English team to be sky-high. English fans, listen to me: You can invest all your hopes in this team. It’s safe. They won’t let you down. You will not be disappointed.
What makes you so sure?
Well, for one thing, my favorite soccer magazine, Insurance Journal, did a story about them. According to the good old I.J., Lloyd’s of London, the British underwriting company, has correctly predicted the winners of the past two World Cups. Lloyd’s has done this by using a model that ranks the teams based on the insurable value of their players. This year, the model picked England.
So you’re picking based on … who has the most insurance?
No, I’m picking based on who has the most insurable value. That’s totally different!
Also … look, I’ve been covering the World Cup for a long time. I’ve picked World Cup games based on the predictions of psychic octopi more than once. (RIP Paul, gone but not forgotten.) Insurance feels downright scientific by comparison.
But England has so much more going for it than an excellent collision policy. For instance, did you know that England’s star striker and captain, Harry Kane, has the least intimidating beard of any player in Qatar this year? It’s true. Harry Kane is a magnificent striker. He also looks like a Great British Baking Show contestant who’s just made a flan meant to represent his seaside holiday in Croatia. He looks like he teaches third grade in the town of Whitford-upon-Strandsby and has a dog called Streudel. He looks like someone whose gingersnaps Prue Leith once called “neat as a pin.”
Pride in the shirt pic.twitter.com/5kryBLCiLN— Harry Kane (@HKane) November 15, 2022
You simply cannot discount the psychologically grounding effects of a team captain whose beard looks so utterly unthreatening. Can you even imagine how well Jude Bellingham is going to sleep every night knowing that a piping-hot slice of Harry Kane’s custard shortbread is only a phone call away?
England may win every game 6-0.
So you’re picking based on an insurance trade periodical and some weird Great British Baking Show fanfic.
Yeah. But only until we get a new octopus.
In the meantime, friends, it’s time to turn our eyes once again toward the Union Jack. It’s time for the king to don his biggest military coat, with the widest sash and the most gold fringe on the shoulders. It’s time for David Beckham to smile like he didn’t just take nearly $200 million to serve as a PR frontman for Qatar. It’s time for England to reclaim its hallowed place at the top of the game.
This is happening. And we will all feel [consults FIFA marketing materials one last time] happy, proud, and satisfied by the conclusion of this, the best and [turns final page] least depressing World Cup ever.