The 2022 World Cup draw has been made and England’s group is… complex. Perhaps it’s appropriate for what remains an inappropriate tournament.
Watching the BBC’s build-up to the draw for Qatar 2022, it was easy to start wondering whether this instance of sportswashing might be at the point of outliving its usefulness. The BBC weren’t shying away from the difficult conversations ahead. As Alan Shearer pertinently pointed out, of the 22 people who voted to award it to them, 11 have since been charged with corruption – and that’s before the latest grilling being given to Gareth Southgate, whose assimilation into the position of The Actual Foreign Secretary continues unabated.
It’s already impossible disconnect the 2022 World Cup finals from the human rights violations in Qatar and the shady manner in which they secured the tournament. Unless something changes dramatically over intervening seven months no-one is going to boycott over this, but there seems little question that the sort of subjects that causes the tournament organisers so much discomfort are going to come up again and again and again. If the aim of all the pizzazz was to deflect from these questions, it didn’t seem to be working.
Qatar 2022 chief executive Nasser al Khater‘s comments that Southgate should “pick his words carefully” was a pretty calamitous start for them; it sounded like a thinly-veiled threat to which the only reasonable response is: ‘Or what?’. Few will shed too many tears for a tournament organiser who’s richer than Croesus and who is demanding respect for the authoritah of a tournament that many do not even believe should be held there in the first place. If he’s upset by Southgate’s mild-mannered fumbling on subjects that he clearly doesn’t really want to talk about, then Al Khater is likely to spend the next few months blowing a gasket every couple of days at what people are saying about his country.
But in the air-conditioned rooms of Fifaworld in Doha, all was right with the world. Jermaine Jenas, whose agent was presumably watching this in a swimming pool filled with champagne on a lilo stitched with money, was “excited”. Carli Lloyd was “delighted”. Didier Deschamps had a rictus grin which suggested he was only one step away from blinking his replies to the inane questions he was being asked. And then a further ten minutes of time-wasting, as the eight seeded nations were pulled out for no reason other than to apparently prove that someone had gone to the trouble of printing off slips of paper with their names on them. The 2022 World Cup finals draw finally creaked to life.
And then came the draw itself, and we need to talk about Group B.
England, the USA, Iran and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine. How is this to be monikered? The Group of Legitimate Security Concerns? The Group of Complex Historical Relationships? The Group of Narrative? Get ready for seven months of piping hot takes, from all perspectives, most of which will conveniently back up the previously held political opinions of those writing them. So let’s get this out of the way. From this English perspective, it’s a group of two halves. On the one hand, England are a better team than many people give them credit for. They reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, the semi-finals of the first Nations League and were a penalty shootout from winning Euro 2020.
If we’re judging this strictly from a footballing perspective, there should be little there for England to fear. The USA only qualified for the finals on goal difference, while Iran haven’t even played a European team since drawing with Portugal in 2018 (although they’ve only lost four of the 35 games they’ve played since then). We don’t even know who they will be playing in their final group match from Wales, Scotland or Ukraine, but Wales haven’t beaten England since 1984, Scotland have only done so once since 1985 and England beat Ukraine 4-0 in Euro 2020 and 1-0 in Euro 2012.
But we all know it’s not as simple as that, certainly not when it comes to international football. The USA have played England twice before in the World Cup finals and remain unbeaten. Iran have played Scotland and the USA in the World Cup before and didn’t lose to either. Neither Wales nor Scotland will need a great deal of motivation to play England, as Scotland demonstrated at Euro 2020. And Ukraine will surely be carrying a considerable amount of public support should they get there, no matter who they happen to be up against. To a considerable extent, Group B for England feels a little like The Group of Dickens: it was the best of draws, it was the worst of draws.
Elsewhere, fans of ‘hot balls’ conspiracy theories will have enjoyed the host nation drawing Ecuador, Netherlands and Senegal, which makes qualification look surmountable for a mediocre host, while there may be spiciness aplenty when Ghana play Uruguay in a repeat of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, which was won by Uruguay after Luis Suarez’s last-minute penalty shenanigans. The most eagerly-awaited match of the group stages will likely come in Group E, where Spain will play Germany; Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland have all been drawn together for the second tournament in a row.
But the overall feeling that came from the 2022 World Cup finals draw was one of incompleteness. The exact identity of three of the qualifiers is still unknown, and neither the kick-off time nor the venues for most of the matches are clear. All we can say is that all of them will be played within a 45-minute drive of Doha. One of the multitudes of weirdness surrounding this tournament is that it is effectively being played in a city rather than a country. Perhaps, considering the way in which this tournament came to be held here in the first place and the current global political situation, it’s appropriate that this should all feel so strange.