We’ve finally reached what is usually such an exciting moment in the sporting and football calendar: the World Cup. And yet, this one feels different from previous ones. Let’s dive right into the storylines and end with overall predictions of the whole tournament.
1. The Ethics Of The Tournament –
There is absolutely no getting around it, this tournament is being played in a place that has done some truly heinous and awful things to prepare for it. From the mountains of corruption and money laundering scandals that are plaguing both FIFA and the Qatar government to the thousands of migrant worker deaths and workplace atrocities, the entire event has left many questioning whether it should even happen. I know several friends who are boycotting the entire event and I cannot blame them as they just can’t stomach what has gone on.
There are grander questions abound out of this, such as how much money gets pumped into these sort of global events and who it ends up benefitting but make no mistake, there are crimes of all sorts that have been committed and the lives that have been lost will never be replaced. It feels frankly icky to just pivot right on to the sport itself and that too is an important point. We, as sports fans and as human beings must not let these events get pushed aside or papered over. Normalizing loss of life and corruption is not what we can stand for and it will take the strictest of scrutiny from not just the media but all fanbases to make sure that the truth of what happened here comes out and those involved are punished for it.
As a Liverpool fan, I know all too well what it is like to be gaslit by organizations trying to hide their own sins and they will not be allowed to slink off back to their parties or be made to feel comfortable just because of their wealth or influence.
One final note is that this does not reflect the everyday Qatar citizen or fan. A people are not their regime. In the same way that every day Iranians are standing up to be counted in solidarity against their oppressive government, so too must it be said here. The sins of the organization do not take away from the great opportunity and celebration that football is being hosted in the middle east. This game belongs to all of us and we must do everything in our power, with our voices, our wallets and our influence to keep it as such.
2. The Last Chance At Glory –
To the field now, where the focus is almost certainly on a few players who are searching for one last shot at glory. Specifically Leo Messi, Luka Modric and presumably Cristiano Ronaldo. All three are among the greatest players to ever take the field and will be desperate to walk off on their own terms with the trophy. To varying degrees, they still command the full attention of the crowd and their performances still dominate headlines. Of the three, Messi has perhaps the best shot at crowning his career with the World Cup but the chaotic nature of this entire tournament means that nothing is set in stone. Unlike previous cycles, there is no one team that just seems like such a titan that anything less than a title is failure. Even the pre-tournament favorite, Brazil, has wilted under the spotlight often lately and could have an extremely tricky path to the title.
Ronaldo is always a walking news story but now with his completely destroyed relationship with Man United on display, how he is able to gel with his teammates and navigate his next move domestically could overshadow anything on the field for Portugal.
On a larger scale, entire “Golden Generations” such as the one from Belgium might also be coming together for one last ride, though their best player, Kevin De Bruyne will probably remain near the top of his game in 2026. Still, this feels like it could be the last chance for that collection of players who have been hyped year after year to finally prove they can finish the job.
3. The Next Big Thing –
Just as fading icons are gearing up for one last ride, the World Cup also can catapult a relative newcomer to superstar status. Some seem inevitable like Henry or Mbappe in years passed while others like James from Colombia burn bright and never quite get there. This year, there is no shortage of up and coming players who could take the tournament by the scruff of the neck and command the stage. Some names to remember include Jude Bellingham of England (Whom most Liverpool fans are already dreaming about), Pedri and Gavi from Spain, Jamal Musiala of Germany, Jonathan David of Canada and Rafael Leao of Portugal. All are poised to play huge roles for their teams and could step into the spotlight this year and some certainly could see record transfer fees being thrown their way too.
Likewise, players can come out of absolute nowhere and make a career for themselves which is also what this tournament is all about. Especially from countries or regions that don’t get the media coverage such as Africa or Asia, this could be a chance for a player or a team to put themselves on the map.
4. Wither Dark Horses? –
It’s always fun to try and pick out a dark horse team or two but with this year’s tournament happening at such a strange time and with so many players being thrown together at the last minute, I fully expect there to be some chaos. In the end, the cream will probably still rise to the top but it won’t be an easy ride for any team this time around. With so little time to get into a rhythm and with injuries playing a part due to the condensed nature of the event, it is imperative to find a way to get points on the board early. Starting slow could very well mean a quick ride home before you’ve ever found your sea legs and some teams are lying in wait like a scorpion, to take down a group favourite.
Sadly, one of my biggest shouts was going to be Senegal but with news that Sadio Mane will miss the tournament due to injury, I fear they will struggle to get out of their group now. Qatar have the home field advantage but do they have the skills required to sneak through? In other groups, what does Gareth Bale have left in his magician’s bag or could Iran be galvanized by the bravery of their people to topple the two favorites in their group? Or perhaps a team that has already shown its potential to come together like Denmark with a fully fit Eriksen at its center again? Or could a fast, attacking Japan pounce on either Germany or Spain if they start slow? Finally, South Korea might have a real shot to snag a knockout round place especially if the Ronaldo chaos engulfs the Portuguese. Overall, there are certainly group favorites but this feels like a season where the chaos might win out, at least early on.
Now onto some predictions. Based on my European predictions earlier in the year, take all of these with a HUGE grain of salt.
I was tempted to go with a more straightforward set of predictions but instead, I’m leaning into the chaos, at least early on.
I was fully prepared to choose Senegal as the second team but losing Mane is a mortal blow. He is the team’s heart and biggest threat upfront, replacing him this late in the game seems like a mountain too high to climb. I think Qatar can find a way to steal a point off of them and squeak out a win against Ecuador. The Dutch should cruise through this group, especially with a fully motivated Van Dijk finally debuting on the biggest stage.
England needs to start strong because the rest of the teams all could really give them trouble. I think they just possess too much talent and a few nervy Kane penalties should see them through. Everyone else is really going to be a cage match and any one of them could rise to second place. In the end, I think the USA may have just a little more talent and magic in their boots to find a way through.
Choosing chaos means I have to believe things won’t be smooth sailing for the giants. Argentina have been on such a good run that it is expected they’ll breeze through this group. Though they possess a still lethal attack, their defense is questionable and I could see both Poland and Mexico giving them real trouble. It might come down to goal difference and if any team can really run up the score on the fourth team in the group, which is a plucky but overmatched Saudi Arabia. With the form he’s in at Napoli this season, something tells me that Zielinski will link up well with Lewandowski and they’ll be the early darlings of the tournament. Many will fear the sky is falling for Argentina but ironically, finishing second may prove an easier road ahead for Messi and company.
The curse of the World Cup victor threatens again as France, a team just bursting with talent, stumbles early out of the gate and manages to just barely get the results they need without ever looking that impressive. Problem is, their reward for finishing top in the group is an angry Argentina who will come out with a point to prove. Both Mbappe and Benzema could be dueling for the Golden Boot as they pile in the goals against the other teams in their section but if they don’t find a way through Argentina, they may not have enough games to finish the job.
Two squads that are in the midst of a rebuild and both could see their future mix well with the present. Spain have an absolute embarrassment of riches in midfield and the question will be if their forwards can cash in on the chances that will be needed to advance. Germany come in with a point to prove having been on an uncharacteristically bad run of form in big tournaments of late. They start fairly slow but begin to pick up steam as the tournament unfolds which is always a danger for the rest of the teams in their path. Japan will be a real pest and if they ever manage to capitalize on mistakes from the two favourites could find themselves in a real fun position.
This should be a really fun group, with teams headed in all sorts of directions. Both Belgium and Croatia could be at the end of their cycles with their greatest players either at or past the primes of their careers. Belgium possess all the sheer talent in the world but can never seem to put it together for an entire tournament. Croatia meanwhile might have used all of its fairy dust to get to the final 4 years ago and despite the presence of Modric, they might run into a team that has no pressure at all and the bravado to believe in themselves in Canada. Behold, this is my dark horse team for the tournament. It’s not just a country in love with hockey anymore.
The favourites for a reason, Brazil absolutely roll through this group. Scoring goals for fun, they seem to be operating on a whole other level to any other team. Serbia have some excellent attacking quality and are able to outscore a stout but ultimately under-gunned Switzerland squad. I do expect at least one moment of Shaqiri magic of course but it might come when things are already settled.
Cancel all your plans, because this group might have all of the fireworks. Between the ever-unpredictable and combustible nature of Uruguay mixed with the chaos agent that is Cristiano Ronaldo, every match here is rife with drama. Throw in the sublime talent of Son from South Korea and the steady, solid Ghana and you have yourselves 4 teams capable of advancing. Overall, this may well come down to how well Ronaldo can perform with all the pressure he has brought upon himself. Will he be able to carry it? Win or lose, he’ll almost certainly be in the middle of things. Could the script be written any better than a winner take all match day 3 between South Korea and Portugal, with Ronaldo lining up a free kick to snatch victory or go up in flames?.
This sets the stage for some truly tasty knockout matchups:
Netherlands-USA Poland-Denmark Germany-Belgium Brazil-Portugal England-Qatar France-Argentina Canada-Spain Uruguay-Serbia
Some of these are worthy of the final right there!
There’s always a wildcard in the mix and as I said, my chaos darkhorse is Canada this time. I think they possess the young players who are just finding their stride in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David to pull off the upset of the tournament.
The four teams that I think could ride their luck, talent and the draw the furthest all possess the qualities needed to claim the title: star players, strong personalities and experience. And yet, this feels like destiny might be calling:
Brazil versus Argentina, Neymar and Messi, two absolutely football-crazy nations who finally can meet for ultimate bragging rights against each other. Finals rarely ever turn into goalfests but maybe this one can live up to the hype.