Given its timing and its setting, the 2022 World Cup promises to be an edition like no other.
Teams from around the globe have been busy putting together their final preparations for the tournament, with some looking in better shape than others ahead of the big kick-off on Sunday.
But who are the favourites to lift the trophy, who will be the surprise packages, and who are most likely to become also-rans?
GOAL has been ranking all the contenders throughout the build-up to the tournament, and here’s how they are shaping up ahead of the opening game…
Last time: 32nd
Saudi Arabia are back at their sixth World Cup since first qualifying in 1994, but they have it all to do to match their debut performance of reaching the last 16.
Though they topped their final qualifying group with a mean defensive record, they struggled for goals throughout, netting just 12 times in 10 matches.
They will likely need a forward to catch fire, too, given they will be coming up against Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski in the group stages.
Last time: 31st
Australia snuck through on penalties against Peru in their intercontinental play-off to reach the World Cup finals for the fifth successive time, though they face an uphill battle to equal their best result, which came when they reached the last 16 in 2006.
They will face France and Denmark in the group stages, and given the Socceroos won just four of 10 games in their qualifying group, it is clear that they are not as strong as they once were.
As such, little will be expected of them in Qatar.
Last time: 30th
Tunisia had kept nine straight clean sheets before Brazil put five past them back in September, and they will need their defence to step up once more if they are to make any impact in Qatar.
France and Denmark will fancy themselves to repeat what Brazil did to the North African outfit when they meet in the groups, with Australia making up the numbers in Group D.
Tunisia have never reached the knockout rounds in five previous World Cup appearances, and that pattern is unlikely to change in 2022.
Last time: 29th
Qatar were the Pot One side that every other team wanted to draw, but overlooking them would be foolish.
Finishing in the top two while facing the Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador will be far from easy, but the 2019 Asian Cup winners do seem to be able to raise their game when tournaments come around.
Host nations have been written off before only to produce some shock results, so do not rule out Qatar too quickly.
Last time: 28th
Having beaten New Zealand in their intercontinental play-off to qualify for the tournament, Costa Rica will be hopeful of repeating their 2014 heroics in Brazil, where they reached the quarter-finals.
Back then, they topped a group that included Italy, England and Uruguay, and they will need to similarly upset the odds this time around given they are in with Spain, Germany and an improving Japan.
A last-gasp win over Uzbekistan in their final pre-tournament friendly did not bode well for their prospects, but they do have enough quality to ask questions of superior sides if they perform well.
Last time: 27th
Aside from European champions Italy’s failure to reach the tournament, Canada were the story of World Cup qualification, topping the CONCACAF table to reach their first global tournament for 36 years.
As co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, that is the competition they believe they can make a real splash in, but they are not travelling to Qatar as mere tourists either.
Alphonso Davies is a player that Belgium, Croatia and Morocco will have to prepare thoroughly for, and a first-ever win at the World Cup should not be beyond them if the Bayern Munich star is firing on all cylinders.
Last time: 26th
Iran have only missed two World Cups since 1998, and will be there again this time after topping their group in the third round of Asian qualifying.
They won eight of their 10 games and conceded just four goals as they made relatively light work of claiming a spot in Qatar.
They backed that up by beating Uruguay and drawing with Senegal in their September’s pre-tournament friendlies, but their tournament could easily be overshadowed by political unrest back home that threatens to bleed into the country’s national team.
Last time: 23rd
Cameroon backed up their third-placed finish at the Africa Cup of Nations with a stunning, last-gasp win over Algeria in their World Cup play-off to secure a spot in Qatar.
Though they are not the star-studded team of previous generations, manager Rigobert Song seemed to have found a winning formula in the early months of 2022.
Recent defeats to Uzbekistan and South Korea, however, have cast doubt on whether they can truly challenge Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia for a last-16 spot.
Last time: 22nd
For the seventh straight World Cup, Japan have secured a place at the tournament, finishing second in their final group in Asian qualifying.
Their reward, if you can call it that, was being placed in Group E alongside Germany and Spain, as well as Costa Rica, but they have the attacking potency to cause a shock.
Their recent win over the United States perfectly illustrated that point, and while their draw is tough, do not write them off quite yet.
Last time: 21st
After their embarrassing group-stage exit at the Africa Cup of Nations, Ghana managed to pick themselves back up and edge out great rivals Nigeria in their World Cup play-off.
Now, they can prepare to face another team that they would love to beat in Uruguay, given the heartbreaking way in which the Black Stars were knocked out of the 2010 quarter-finals.
Since qualifying, they have added Inaki Williams and Tariq Lamptey to their ranks, and another run to the knockout stages is not beyond them.
Last time: 20th
Morocco might not be every fan’s first choice to sit down and watch during the World Cup, but they have the potential to be a surprise package in Qatar.
Only twice in their final six qualifying matches did they fail to score three goals, and they were unlucky to lose to Egypt in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations.
In Achraf Hakimi, they also arguably possess the most exciting young player in African football, and a group containing Belgium, Croatia and Canada is not as daunting as it might have been, even if Amine Harit’s injury on the eve of the tournament weakens them somewhat.
Last time: 24th
Having survived Chile’s claims that they should be thrown out of the tournament for playing an ineligible player throughout qualifying, Ecuador will be able to take their place in the opening game against Qatar on Sunday.
The youngest team in CONMEBOL qualifying, Ecuador are regarded as being a side on the up in South America, and while their best years are undoubtedly ahead of them, this tournament offers some of their players to announce themselves on a global stage.
Injuries to Senegal’s key player, Sadio Mane, further helps their cause, and a place in the knockout rounds is not beyond them.
Last time: 17th
Without a doubt the biggest star of the Asian game, it would have been a massive shame had the eye socket injury sustained by Son Heung-min in early November ruled him out of the tournament.
It remains to be seen how much the problem inhibits him, especially given the size of the mask he looks set to be sporting in Qatar, but any chance of South Korea progressing from the group rests on the Tottenham forward’s shoulders.
If he is fit to carry the burden, then a place in the knockout stages is a realistic goal.
Last time: 19th
Mexico play Argentina perhaps more than any other side outside of CONCACAF, and it rarely goes well for El Tri, so a second-placed finish in their group is likely the best they can hope for.
To secure that, they will likely have to stop Robert Lewandowski and Poland, while finding a way to score themselves after a qualification campaign that was short on goals.
Their hopes of doing just that were hit by winger Jesus Corona’s pre-tournament injury, while Raul Jimenez has not played since the end of August, leaving Gerard Martino’s side with issues up front to solve.
Last time: 18th
Returning to the tournament for the first time since 2014 and with a new generation of talented young players, many hope that Qatar 2022 will provide a springboard for the USMNT to truly challenge on home soil in four years’ time.
But despite picking up two pieces of silverware over the past 18 months, there are some concerns over coach Gregg Berhalter’s tactics, as well as the form of star man Christian Pulisic, as the team prepares to kick-off in Qatar.
So, while the U.S are not in the most intimidating group, the potential for this to be an underwhelming return to the global stage is most certainly there.
Last time: 25th
Wales secured their first appearance at the World Cup since 1958 with victory over Ukraine back in June, and harbour hopes of reaching the knockout rounds, as they have done at the last two European Championships.
Gareth Bale has played his best football on the international stage over the past few years, and will be keen to put on a show in what could be his final major tournament appearance.
A grudge match against England in the group stages has lifted excitement levels even further, even if this current team is not of the level of the 2016 Euros semi-finalists.
Last time: 15th
Serbia stunned European football when they nipped ahead of Portugal right in the final seconds of UEFA qualifying to book an automatic spot in Qatar, and they will be confident of generating more shocks over the next month.
In terms of the group stages, beating Brazil would be a greater achievement than even taking down Portugal, but in Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic, Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, they have the attacking weapons to at least test the Selecao.
In reality, though, they will be aiming to beat out Switzerland and Cameroon for second place in what looks a fairly open group below the top-seeded Selecao.
Last time: 11th
Expected to be the leading African team at the tournament having won the Cup of Nations at the start of 2022, Senegal’s chances were dealt a major blow when Sadio Mane went down injured in Bayern Munich’s penultimate game of the pre-World Cup schedule.
There were some slim hopes that he could still play a part in Qatar, but they were dashed on Thursday when he was finally ruled out of the tournament.
They do still have some top-level players, including Chelsea duo Kalidou Kouliably and Edouard Mendy, but expect the cloud of Mane’s absence to hang over them throughout the competition.
Last time: 14th
Perennial qualifiers for major tournaments, Switzerland have done it again, and this time pipped Italy to an automatic place in Qatar after topping their UEFA group.
They backed that up with Nations League wins over Spain and Portugal, which will stand them in good stead for when they face Brazil in Qatar.
The Swiss’ experience of reaching the knockout stages in major tournaments will make them the favourites to join Brazil in the last 16, but progression is unlikely to be straightforward, with Serbia and Cameroon also in their group.
Last time: 13th
Robert Lewandowski has arguably been the best player in the world over the past three years, so it would have felt wrong for him not to have the chance to prove himself on the game’s grandest stage.
He has shown few signs of slowing down since joining Barcelona over the summer, and all eyes will be on the striker as Poland look to put two successive group-stage exits at major tournaments behind them.
Watch out, too, for Piotr Zielinkski, who has been on fire for Napoli during their superb start to the season, and will be expected to be Lewandowski’s main provider.
Last time: 16th
In what looks the deepest pool of the eight, Uruguay could as easily top Group H as they could finish bottom of it.
They will certainly be tested by a Ghana side that will be out for revenge after Luis Suarez’s antics back in 2010, while Portugal and South Korea both have iconic forwards leading the way.
But if Suarez and Darwin Nunez can strike up an understanding up front while in-form midfielders Fede Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur pull the strings behind them, then two-time champions could be a dangerous proposition.
Last time: 10th
Cristiano Ronaldo’s bombshell interview with Piers Morgan on the eve of the tournament could go two ways for Portugal.
Either their talisman rides the wave of criticism and leads his country to the only trophy missing from his collection, or they implode in an inferno of in-fighting caused by Ronaldo’s ego.
Regardless, we’re getting the popcorn out whenever Portugal take to the field in Qatar.
Last time: 12th
Beaten finalists in 2018, expectations for Croatia in Qatar will be much lower, though they will still head into the tournament expecting to be competitive and potentially win at least one knockout game.
Luka Modric continues to perform at a very high level as he prepares for a fourth World Cup, and the Real Madrid man will lead a squad that is transitioning slowly away from the ‘Golden Generation’ that brought them so much success through the 2010s.
A run of four successive wins saw them qualify for the Nations League finals, and they will need to continue that form in Qatar, particularly with Germany or Spain likely to be waiting for them if they reach the last 16.
Last time: 8th
With their ‘Golden Generation’ either having moved on or entering the closing stages of their careers, Belgium find themselves in a transitional phase as they head to Qatar.
Kevin De Bruyne remains perhaps the best creative midfielder in the world, but he will need Romelu Lukaku to get himself back fit and firing before the group stages are over to ensure he has a reliable finisher to assist.
A prospective last-16 clash with either Spain or Germany looks pretty daunting, too, and so an early exit might be on the cards for Roberto Martinez’s team.
Last time: 9th
Set to be named as ‘dark horses’ by pretty much every pundit heading into the tournament, Denmark certainly have what it takes to repeat their Euro 2020 run to the semi-finals.
Christian Eriksen is back and in fine form, while manager Kasper Hjulmand has built a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
That they have beaten their Group C opponents France twice in recent months will give them even more confidence, and the Danes are a balanced, well-organised side few will want to face in the latter stages.
Last time: 7th
Unbeaten in 15 matches since Louis van Gaal returned to the helm in the aftermath of Euro 2020, the Netherlands will enter the World Cup as one of the competition’s form teams.
Their main strength lies in a defence that is so solid that Matthijs de Ligt cannot break into it, but they have attacking firepower too, as highlighted in their 4-1 away win over Belgium in June.
They should make it out of Group A in Qatar, and could be a dark horse to make a deep run through the knockout stages.
Last time: 6th
Gareth Southgate will lead the most talented Three Lions squad in over a decade in Qatar, but hard questions are now being asked as to whether he is the right manager to get the best out of them.
Indeed, a Nations League campaign that saw them go winless in six group matches has cast serious doubts over this team’s ability to go one better than their runners-up finish at Euro 2020.
Form can go out of the window at major tournaments and England still have the players to go all the way, but more underachievement on the biggest stage now looks a lot more likely than it did at the start of 2022.
Last time: 2nd
It has not been a happy 2022 for the defending champions, as France won just one of their six Nations League matches and narrowly avoided relegation from the competition.
Perhaps most worryingly, they were beaten twice by Denmark, whom they will meet again in the group-stages in Qatar.
Factor in injuries to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku, as well as question marks over Karim Benzema’s fitness and Kylian Mbappe’s attitude, and all is not well for Didier Deschamps’ much-fancied team.
Last time: 4th
Spain were the unlucky top seed who were drawn alongside Germany from Pot Two, setting up a titanic opening-round battle between two of the pre-tournament favourites.
La Roja should still make it through, but coming up against Hansi Flick’s side increases the possibility of them doing so as runners-up, which in turn could lead to a more difficult last-16 tie.
They did win their Nations League group in the build-up to the World Cup, and though there are questions over whether they have the attack to take advantage of their creative talents in midfield, Luis Enrique’s side are in decent shape going into Qatar 2022.
Last time: 5th
Germany may have won just two of their eight matches in 2022, but the signs are there that Hansi Flick is building a team to be feared in the coming years.
Jamal Musiala is blossoming into one of the finest young talents in European football, while they possess plenty of experience in the shape of Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer, Ilkay Gundogan and Joshua Kimmich.
Having been placed in the same group as Spain for the World Cup, the only thing holding them back could be a tough draw in the knockout rounds if they cannot secure top spot.
Last time: 3rd
Lionel Messi & Co. will have been pretty happy with how April’s group-stage draw panned out, as they are slated to face Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia.
Messi is back in form for club and country, while Scaloni has fostered a togetherness and spirit within his squad that has the potential to carry them all the way.
Can the Copa America champions now conquer the world? We wouldn’t put it past them.
Last time: 1st
Neymar, Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Antony, Richarlison, Gabriel Jesus, Rodrygo and Gabriel Martinelli. Throw in Copa Libertadores top scorer Pedro, and that is the group of attackers Brazil boss Tite has to pick from in Qatar.
That forward line is the main reason why the Selecao are favourites to lift the trophy in 2022, but they also have plenty of experienced heads in both defence and midfield, as well as the Premier League’s two best goalkeepers, Alisson and Ederson, fighting it out for a starting spot.
Brazil have been favourites for World Cups before and not won them, but right now, it’s tough to look past them as eventual winners. Source: goal.com