There’s one thing we can all be certain of: this World Cup will be like no other.
And most of that boils down to the choice of Qatar, the first debutant hosts of the World Cup since Italy in 1934 and the organisers of the shortest tournament (just 29 days) since Argentina in 1978.
As far as bizarre selections go, it’s up there with the selection of ‘Crash’ as Best Film at the Oscars in 2006, unknown Australian model George Lazenby being unveiled as the new James Bond and, well, Colombia being confirmed as the hosts of the 1986 edition.
Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who personally oversaw its selection many years ago, regrets the choice!
How weird exactly?
Its selection was all the more stranger when you consider that originally they wanted to hold it in the summer. Somehow, a majority on the FIFA ExCom ruled in favour of playing 64 games in a microwave.
Its switchover to a slot during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter has inconvenienced almost everybody involved in the game, and also further afield – God only knows how many Christmas events will end up suffering.
So here is an assessment of exactly how weird this World Cup might end up becoming.
Qatar is the smallest and possibly most corrupt host in World Cup history, but will it become the worst performing too? And what other records might tumble?
The Most Corrupt?
Well, before you shout it has to be Qatar, bear it in mind that Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Putin and Argentinian junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla have all been heads-of-state of host nations before.
In 1934, Mussolini was keen to use the tournament to promote fascism, reorganising the logistics of matches to support the propaganda. Mussolini was accused of personally selecting referees for the Italy matches, and if he did, it worked, as Italy went on to win. However, they did go on to win gold at the 1936 Olympics and then defend their trophy in 1938. After WWII, Stadio Municipale Benito Mussolini was renamed.
The propaganda was again out in force in 1978. The Argentine authoritarian military junta government, two years after their coup, viewed it as an opportunity to seek legitimacy on the world stage and took a win at all costs approach. Throughout the tournament, Argentina always played second, so they always knew what was required. Against France in the first group stage, after the referee turned down a stonewall penalty following a Daniel Passarella foul of Didier Six, he was overheard telling the culprit “Don’t do that again please, or I might have to actually give it next time.” Rumours the Argentines were high on speed were rife. A random drug test on a urine sample revealed the player was pregnant – coincidentally, so was the waterboy’s wife. It got worse in the second group stage. After drawing against Brazil, Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals to advance to the final. They won 6-0. But in the end, the tournament only attracted 15,000 overseas fans – a failure compared to almost all other finals.
2018 was tame in comparison. Hosts Russia progressed to the quarter-finals but never looked like serious contenders. It’s only in hindsight that the tournament looks murky, although most will probably say otherwise. Of course, Russia will remain tarred by the same brush as Qatar: the underhand nature by which the countries were both confirmed as hosts in 2010. Votes were bought from at least five FIFA ExCom members from the Americas.
Since then, it is well documented how Qatar has used migrant workers to build its WC stadia. According to the Guardian, 6,500 have died – but perhaps it’s even more shocking to learn that 70 percent of the deaths are simply unexplained. Tales of workers being unpaid, deprived of their passports and generally mistreated have dogged the country for the last decade. It’s a toil of blood unprecedented in the tournament’s history. And then on top of everything, Qatar reneged on its promise to allow the sale of beer at the tournament, announced barely two days before the start, while officials recently attacked a Danish TV crew for filming in a public place.
The Most Wintry?
While the World Cup final has never been held later than July 30 – a distinction shared by Uruguay in 1930 and England in 1966 (so lucky for host nations) – the 1956 Olympics were also held in the last two months of the year, although the Melbourne games did not intrude on Christmas, a less commercial festivity back them, lasting from November 22 until December 8.
Despite the World Cup taking place during the northern hemisphere’s winter, Qatar’s average temperature in December tends to be 21 degrees, so it is unlikely it will come anywhere close to matching the all-time record for the coldest ever game.
That distinction belongs to 1930 hosts Uruguay. When France’s Lucien Laurent became the first scorer in World Cup history on July 13, in a 4-1 demolition of Mexico at the Estadio Pocitos, it was snowing – for the first and last time in the tournament’s history. What’s even more bizarre is that it hasn’t snowed in Uruguay since. It’s like God created the World Cup, shook his globe to bring its nations together (only four European nations ended up competing), and then let the snow settle, never to fall again.
So no, the 2022 World Cup won’t be the coldest. Maybe that honour will befall Uruguay when it co-hosts in 2030?
Hitherto, the World Cup has only been hosted by five countries that observers might describe as small: Uruguay in 1930 (size of 181,034 square kilometres), Switzerland in 1954 (41,284), England in 1966 (243,610), West Germany in 1974 (357,022) and co-host South Korea (100,210) in 2002. But they all dwarf the 11,571 sq km inhabited by Qatar. The country is only 160 km north to south and 80 km east to west, so no car journey should take longer than two hours. It is only marginally bigger than Jamaica and Cyprus!
The Worst Performing?
Only once in World Cup history have the hosts failed to make it out of the group stage, which is no mean feat when you consider that Scotland, in eight appearances at the tournament, have never contested a knockout game. South Africa in 2010 was the only host to bow out in the group stage, but they still managed to beat France – so no huge disgrace there. Drawn alongside Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands, Qatar don’t have an impossible group, but should they be knocked out without winning a game, they will indeed go down in history as the Worst Performing Host in history. Come on Qatar! Even unfancied Russia (2018), the US (1994), Japan/South Korea (2002) and Switzerland (1954) managed to make the knockout stages!
WILL HOSTS QATAR PROVIDE …
The worst opening game?
The day after the draw, FIFA confirmed Senegal vs The Netherlands would be the opening game of the tournament. Senegal famously beat defending champs France in the opening game of 2002, continuing a tradition of African sides shining in the spotlight started by Cameroon when they heroically beat 1986 champs Argentina in the first game at Italia 90.
But that decision was scrapped in August, when Qatar vs Ecuador was brought forward by a day to officially kick off the tournament. It makes sense as the hosts have contested every opening game since 2006. From 1974 until 2002, the defending champs had that honour, but then FIFA voted to not grant them automatic qualification – so far, none have failed to qualify.
So is Ecuador vs Qatar the worst opening game? It had a long way to go to match the drama of Cameroon and Senegal’s victories or the entertainment of Germany vs Costa Rica in 2006 and Croatia vs Brazil in 2014. Never before have such lowly ranked sides (44 and 50) been involved. But while there was something bizarre about the manner of the 2-0 win for Ecuador, was it as bad as Germany vs Bolivia in 1994 and two forgettable affairs in the 1980s. Probably not!
The worst kickoff times?
Not since the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan have the kickoff times been so inconvenient for European football fans. That tournament memorably resulted in some of the earliest mass commuting in history, as millions arrived early to work to catch key clashes such as England vs Brazil in the quarter-finals. There’s nothing more deflating than losing with a clear head at barely 10 in the morning, although it didn’t help matters that England goalkeeper David Seaman got lobbed from 40 metres out.
So no, they’re not the worst kickoff times in World Cup history, and as an added bonus, the only seven games to start before midday CET are all ones neutrals would probably avoid watching anyway. We defy any neutrals to admit they were excited about these seven 11 AM kickoffs: Argentina vs Saudi Arabia, Morocco vs Croatia, Switzerland vs Cameroon, Wales vs Iran, Tunisia vs Australia, Japan vs Costa Rica and Cameroon vs Serbia. Sorry, Cameroon, we know you’ll prove us wrong. Saudi Arabia already has.
So by the time all the knockout games start, they will either start at 16:00 or 20:00 CET. The semis will start at 20:00 and the final at 16:00.
The country with the worst goal return in history?
In the history of the World Cup, five teams have failed to score a single goal. None of them ever returned. But in Qatar, one of them is returning to make their second appearance at the finals. And should they go a further 270 minutes without scoring, they will set a new record for the worst goal return in history. That nation is Canada!
Indonesia became the first goalless nation in 1938, followed by Zaire in 1974, Canada in 1986, China in 2002 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. Together they share the unenviable record of never finding a World Cup net.
Some have come perilously close to going six matches without a goal. In their first appearance in a finals, in 1970, El Salvador lost their group games 0-3, 0-4 and 0-2. Suddenly Indonesia had company! But 12 years later, El Salvador had a chance to right their past, although it didn’t look good when they trailed Hungary 0-5 after 54 minutes to make it 14 conceded without reply.
But up stepped Luis Ramírez Zapata, the ‘Salvadorian Saviour’. His goal after 64 minutes didn’t stop the rot – Hungary eventually won 10-1, a World Cup record scoreline – but it did end up being their only goal in six games.They ended the tournament with a goal difference of -12.
But Canada could end up even worse! Their 0-5 showing will no doubt play on their minds as they seek their first tournament goal to shake off the title of equal-worse goal-scorers in WC history. But fail to find the net, and the title will be theirs all alone.
The all-time top WC scorer?
It’s very unlikely but several players could potentially become the top World Cup scorers in history in Qatar. That record currently belongs to Miroslav Klose, who found the net 16 times in 24 matches between 2002 and 2014. Not only does a striker need to be prolific, but they need to play in a successful team. In the four tournaments Klose contested, Germany made the semi-finals every single time.
The first, and closest to Klose’s record, is his countryman Thomas Muller. He stands on 10 goals, and although seven might sound like it’s doable, only two players have managed this since 1978 – in fact, for seven WCs on the trot up until 1998, the golden boot winner always scored six.
Four more players are also within touching distance, but it would need the kind of effort not seen since the early 1970s. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez currently have seven, so would need 10 to topple Klose, while England’s Harry Kane and Argentina’s Lionel Messi stand on six. For three of the four, this will be their last World Cup. Kane, on the other hand, might have a realistic chance of catching Klose in 2026.