A World Cup like no other has kicked off. The game’s biggest competition is being held outside of summer for the first time, in the Middle East for the first time, and under its biggest cloud of controversy yet.
The top soccer leagues in Europe are taking an unprecedented midseason break to accommodate a tournament that has battled allegations of corruption and human rights abuses for more than a decade.
Little in sports can compare with the scale and spectacle of the World Cup. The game’s biggest stars vie for its biggest trophy, in front of the biggest audience (3.5 billion people tuned into the 2018 final).
Here’s everything you need to know.
Dates: Nov. 20-Dec. 18
TV: Fox has the rights to this World Cup, and games will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English and on Telemundo in Spanish.
Kickoff times: The games will be played in the morning and early afternoon Eastern time — the earliest kickoffs will be at 5 a.m. Eastern time, and the latest at 2 p.m.
The host nation
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar baffled many in 2010, when the small Middle Eastern nation beat out the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Australia — countries with significantly better infrastructure and with weather conditions that could permit the tournament’s usual early-summer staging — and the controversies have snowballed in the 12 years since.
Inhumane working conditions for immigrant laborers have led to numerous deaths; the country has criminalized homosexuality, with a Qatar World Cup ambassador calling homosexuality “damage in the mind” just last week; ticketless fans won’t be allowed to enter the country until Dec. 2 (at the end of the group stage); and the serving of alcohol in a country that largely prohibits it has offered much confusion, with policy changes just eight days out from the tournament.
The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in the first place immediately raised suspicions of blatant corruption, and several officials involved in the vote have either been exiled from the sport, arrested, or both.
Sepp Blatter, FIFA president at the time of the vote, last week called the host selection “a mistake” and reiterated then-UEFA president Michel Platini’s hand in swaying the votes under pressure from then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, while questioning the ethics of current FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s relationship with the Qatari government — the sport’s highest official has lived in Qatar for more than a year.
Eight stadiums will be used for the World Cup, highlighted by Lusail Stadium, which has a gold facade and 80,000 capacity and will host 10 games, including the final.
The majority of the World Cup venues will have their capacity diminished after the tournament as part of a sustainability drive. Plans include transforming the venues into community hubs that include housing, shopping, medical centers, and schools.
The other stadiums are Al Bayt Stadium (located in Al Khor); Stadium 974, (in Doha, this is a temporary stadium made out of 974 shipping containers that will be dismantled after the tournament, the first temporary stadium in World Cup history); Al Thumama Stadium (Doha); National Stadium (Doha); Education City Stadium (Al Rayyan); Ahmad bin Ali Stadium (Al Rayyan); and Al Janoub Stadium (Al Wakrah).
Qatar time difference
Qatar follows Arabian Standard Time, and is eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so a 10 a.m. kickoff in Boston will be at 6 p.m. local time in Qatar.
The groups and the format
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands
Group B: England, Iran, United States, Wales
Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
Group E: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
The group stage is played in a round-robin format with each team playing each other once; the two teams with the most points (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss) advance to the knockout stages. The rest of the tournament is single-elimination.
United States schedule and outlook
Monday, Nov. 21: United States v. Wales, 2 p.m. (Fox)
Friday, Nov. 25: United States v. England, 2 p.m. (Fox)
Tuesday, Nov. 29: United States v. Iran, 2 p.m. (Fox)
The Americans were fortunate in the draw, slotting in as second-favorite in one of the easier groups. England remains a contender, but Iran is very beatable and should provide a strong opportunity to secure 3 points.
If England performs as expected, the second qualifying spot for the knockouts should come down to the United States and Wales, making the tournament opener a pivotal 90 minutes for both.
Bringing more talent in midfield and on the wings than the Americans have perhaps ever had, with players like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie playing for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, the United States should be favored to advance. But it’s been a tough tournament buildup, with very unconvincing displays against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The defending champions
France boasted all sorts of star power in its run to a second World Cup win in 2018, topping Argentina in a 4-3 thriller in the Round of 16, shutting out Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final, and piecing together a dominant performance against Croatia to hoist the trophy for the first time since 1998.
The French are still among the favorites, but look very different. Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe made his arrival on the world stage in 2018 and still leads the attack with Antoine Griezmann, but it’s a weaker team elsewhere.
Without the endless energy and ball-winning of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante and the mercurial brilliance of Juventus’ Paul Pogba — both vital pieces in 2018, and both injured for this edition — in midfield, France may struggle to make the same impact.
Nations to watch
Brazil: A favorite every four years, the most successful nation in World Cup history is the clear favorite to claim its first win since 2002. Coach Tité’s cup runneth over with more attacking talent — headlined by PSG’s Neymar — than he could possibly use, plus excellent midfielders and defenders. Brazil is the betting favorite just about everywhere for good reason.
Belgium: It’s likely the last hurrah for Belgium’s “Golden Generation,” the greatest crop of players the country has ever produced but never saw get over the hump. The Belgians were at their best in 2018, when their biggest stars were at the peak of their powers, and fell just short of the final. With a star-studded back line aging out, the stars who remain, like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps the world’s best midfielder, will need to go above and beyond to deliver on this group’s promise.
Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao; the Portuguese are the only side that can compete with Brazil’s attacking talent, but coach Fernando Santos has long been notoriously defensive. Portugal might be the biggest boom-or-bust team at the tournament, with the quality to match up with any team in the world, but a habit of underwhelming with the talent at its disposal.
The biggest stars
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Lionel Messi (Argentina): These two have been compared and contrasted more than any contemporaneous athletes in history, and they slot in together here.
It’s almost certainly the last World Cup for the game’s two biggest stars. Messi and Ronaldo are the greatest players (and, perhaps, athletes) of their generation and two of the greatest of all time, the defining names of the last 20 years in the sport.
They boast similar resumes: more Ballon D’ors as the best player in the world than any other men in history, numerous Champions League titles at the club level, international success (a Euro triumph for Ronaldo and Portugal in 2016, a Copa America win for Messi and Argentina in 2021), staggering goal-scoring records that have changed the way we think about the game, and near bulletproof legacies as two of the best to ever play.
All they each lack is the game’s biggest prize. Messi fell agonizingly short in the 2014 final, while Ronaldo has never really come close. Messi has returned to his best for PSG and Argentina looks threatening. Ronaldo’s form has dropped off a cliff for Manchester United, though he has never let the national team down.
Neymar (Brazil): Tipped for greatness since he ascended to superstardom as a teenager in Brazil, few players in history have been burdened with greater expectations than Neymar, and he’s just about managed to meet them with near-unmatched flair, creativity, and attacking ability.
He’s probably this generation’s third greatest player, only behind the two transcendent names that precede him here, but he’ll never quite get his credit in a country that lives for the World Cup until he leads Brazil to the trophy himself. He may never have a better chance than he will in Qatar.
Kylian Mbappé (France): A teammate of Neymar and Messi at PSG, Mbappé was the prodigious teenager that helped France to a World Cup in 2018. Now, he’s an established world superstar and the defending champion’s best player, and after a tumultuous summer and fall dealing with his contract renewal and standing at PSG, he’ll be keen to prove again that he’s one of the best in the world when the pressure’s on.
Amin Touri can be reached at email@example.com.