The planet’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup, starts November 20th. For sports fans, there’s hardly anything better, as it’s the biggest tournament on earth. But there’s a lot to love for the rest of us too. Soccer may not be the most popular sport in this country, but it’s wildly entertaining and full of amazing storylines. Shows like Welcome to Wrexham have proven that even the biggest novices can find a lot of joy in taking in some football (yep, that’s what they call it almost everywhere else) culture. Like the Super Bowl, the World Cup is so colossal and consuming that it’s often about way more than soccer, involving everything from fashion and politics to gossip.
Part of the intrigue is the fact that the World Cup only happens every four years. This year, there are 32 countries competing, and the first round is made up of eight groups of four teams. The top two teams in each group will advance, and from then on, it’s a single-elimination format.
The soccer alone is worth savoring, what with the insane endurance and technical ability these fine-tuned athletes possess. Even if you don’t know what offsides is, let alone a yellow card, there are many, many reasons to get jazzed. Here are ten storylines to get you excited for the 2022 World Cup.
1. Leo Messi
The best player to ever don a soccer jersey has never won the World Cup. Leonel Messi has won just about every other award, but this one still eludes him. This year, his Argentina squad has a real chance, and the timing could not be better. At age 35, this is likely his last World Cup. He nearly won it back in 2010 against Germany, but his team fell short. This year, it’ll be fun to track Argentina and their captain, who by all accounts seems to be one of the nicest and most humble sports superstars ever.
2. Bizarre marketing
The World Cup is far from perfect. It can involve dangerous stadium builds by underpaid and under-protected workers (especially in places that don’t already have the infrastructure), and it can conduct sweeps of host cities to make them look problem-free. This year, host nation Qatar is up to some strange marketing. As NPR reports, enthusiastic fans are being recruited by the country for some quality PR. It’s a manufactured approach by a nation that’s clearly worried about its image and a little out of touch, considering just how passionate most soccer fans are. It’ll be bizarre to see this unfold in the stands.
3. Qatar culture
As the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, Qatar will surely rank high on the search engines over the next couple of months. The Persian Gulf nation of roughly 3 million will be under the spotlight, and viewers will get to learn a bit about the customs, cuisines, and ways of Qatar. Some traits have already caused some issues, like the nation’s mostly dry policy. Soccer fans love their beer, and World Cup 2022 has come to acknowledge that after some resistance. At first, alcohol was not going to be served at the stadiums, but now there will be designated areas and times for a little pre-match imbibing.
4. A winter cup
Continuing the Qatar theme, it’s important to point out that the setting for the World Cup also happens to be one of the hottest places on the planet. As such, it’s simply too smoldering to host the tournament in the summer, when it normally takes place. Average summer highs in the capital of Doha routinely reach 108 degrees Fahrenheit. So, for the first time ever, the World Cup is being held in November and December. It’s a little odd, but it’ll be easier on the athletes and give fans some fun holiday-time viewing.
5. The refs
The referees are always a storyline with the World Cup, as they are the final arbiters in every match. To keep them from being influenced, FIFA (the world governing body for soccer) sequesters them during the extent of the tournament. It sounds a little extreme, but it’s also kind of fun. For example, in the 2010 World Cup, hosted by Germany, refs stayed together in an ancient castle. The refs will also be working with VAR (video assisted referee) again this year, meaning they’ll be able to analyze replays to judge very important calls like penalty kicks or awarding goals. The approach is far from perfect, but it adds tons of drama to an already dramatic sport.
6. We’re back
The U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a letdown that continues to haunt American soccer enthusiasts. Fortunately, we’re back on the right foot, not only in the tournament but also in holding a decent chance at advancing pretty far. This World Cup roster was just announced and features a young and talented team that, when clicking, could cause some real damage. The big names are there, like Christian Pulisic and Geo Reyna, but there are some lesser-knowns that are playing at major clubs all over the world. Never has a U.S. team had so many individuals playing at top clubs like Chelsea, AC Milan, Valencia, Borussia Dortmund, etc. It bodes well for a team that has never gotten past the semifinals of the World Cup.
There are always underdogs at the World Cup, and sometimes they can surprise their opponents. This year, Canada finished top of CONCACAF, ahead of both the U.S. and Mexico. It’ll be fun to see how our neighbors to the north do, as they rarely qualify for the tournament. Serbia has been a bit of a shock too and could go on a decent run if it can get past Switzerland or Brazil in its tough opening group play. There’s also Senegal, the best team in Africa with one of the best strikers in the world in Sadio Mane. African teams have never gotten past the quarter final stage, but that could change in 2022.
8. The kits
Just look at this stunning kit Mexico will be wearing at this year’s World Cup. It’s inspired by Mixtec art and Aztec deities and is a sight to behold. It’s one of many great jerseys that’ll be on display this year, along with some duds (the U.S. tie-dye jersey is awful). It’s always fun to see the kits debuted for the first time, and this year, more than ever, it’s all about the details. Poland’s jersey is made to look like an eagle’s wing, as the bird is a prominent figure on the team’s crest. Reigning champs France will wear a jersey that has tiny images of the Arc de Triomphe on it. The kits are a catch.
9. A little progress
Soccer has its share of hang-ups; just look at the recent NWSL scandal. This year, though, there’s at least a bit of progress on display at the World Cup. Three women will be among the referees officiating the games at the tournament. It’s a first for the globe’s biggest sporting event and at least a step in the right direction.
10. The spectacle
It’s hard not to give in to the giant spectacle of the whole thing. Consider this: More than half of the planet watched the 2018 World Cup. You think the Super Bowl is popular? It doesn’t hold a candle to this thing. In that sense, it sort of unites us all. Yeah, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s true. As tough and divided as things are out there, we can all come together every four years for the World Cup.
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