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How about Kevin De Bruyne's brittle body: will it hold up? Shall the other thirty-somethings in the squad help banish the lingering stench of being bridesmaids. The Netherlands—another serial bridesmaid—will be hoping that Louis van Gaal produces tactical masterclasses during his final coaching assignment.
As far as underwhelming buildups to a Fifa World Cup go, the one for the 22nd edition that gets underway in Qatar on Sunday will take some beating.
This is supposed to be the crowning moment of the beautiful game, its coming-out party; yet here we are. There’s a latent queerness about staging the World Cup at a time the dust is being knocked off Christmas decorations.
Never has the tournament ever looked strangely out of kilter. The backstory of how it ended up occupying an odd November to December window is well documented; yet this hasn’t insulated it from sweeping rebukes.
Such is the frosty reception that most football fans are looking forward to Fifa’s showpiece event with an unusual fatalism. They want squads laden with players from their favourite European football clubs to run into speed bumps from the outset.
Fans find such outcomes tellingly attractive because the players that bow out early will get a golden opportunity to recharge their batteries. The toll of deep runs is thought to be devastatingly brutal. As indeed it is!
Fielding the most number of players at the World Cup is supposed to be remembered with a sentimental fondness.
Not this time though. One of your columnist's friends couldn’t have sounded more distinctly sincere when he took great pride in his beloved Liverpool contributing only seven to the 831 players in Qatar.
Manchester City doubles Liverpool's tally, and my sibling—a supporter of the former—tweeted his wish that England, Belgium, Spain and Portugal all fail to make inroads in Qatar because “we need our players back in one piece.”
Evidently, he’s not alone. Many football fans are deeply conflicted—or at least claim they are. They will greet news of any injury ‘their’ players pick up in Qatar with horror and dismay.
This of course is something organisers of the World Cup will not see, or perhaps refuse to see. To them, it seems not just possible but perhaps inevitable that the tournament will be a roaring success.
And with this widely expected to be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's swansong World Cup, maybe the talismanic veterans will roll back the hands of time à la Zinedine Zidane in 2010.
But if football, World Cup football, is expected to be an exercise in high aesthetics, what’s to be demanded of players strained by a flurry of fixtures in a truncated first half of a club season? I'll tell you what—lethargic performances.
There will be less runway for towering performances. Players, with tailwinds at their back, will most probably show a reluctance to wad into complicated tasks.
Consequently, there will be various moments, some good, none great, some terrible. Fans—purely out of a compulsion to be close to the action—will hold their breath.
The interests of their respective clubs in the second half of the club football season will not be faraway. The World Cup will be the archetypal as a millstone around the neck.
All this doesn’t mean the appeal of Qatar 2022 will drop off precipitously. The tournament in its grandeur and efficiency is sure to hold anyone spellbound. The hope is that the edition that kicks off on Sunday will end up being replete with brilliances.
Many observers have framed Qatar 2022 as a last hurrah for Messi and Ronaldo. Less known, but no less remarkable, is the last dance of Belgium's so-called golden generation.
Given a steady run in the Red Devils' team, will Eden Hazard—who has been starved off first team football at Real Madrid—manage to wave a magic wand? How about Kevin De Bruyne's brittle body: will it hold up? Shall the other thirty-somethings in the squad help banish the lingering stench of being bridesmaids.
The Netherlands—another serial bridesmaid—will be hoping that Louis van Gaal produces tactical masterclasses during his final coaching assignment. Portugal also wears the bridesmaid tag, and Ronaldo will be hoping that the razzmatazz of the likes of Rafael Leão, João Félix and Bernardo Silva snap the hoodoo.
Punters, though, reckon their money is safe when bets are hedged on serial winners like Brazil and Germany. Supporters of France will hope that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Les Bleus's last World Cup defence ended in ignominy after Zidane picked up an injury at the 11th hour. Will Karim Benzema's fitness concerns also ensure that the defending champions' aspirations suffer a setback?
As this column has previously stated, forecasting a first placement for any of Africa's five representatives will be the epitome of cognitive dissonance. That’s the only prediction yours truly will muster. Good viewing!