After host nation Qatar produced a 92-year first in the opening match, the 2022 FIFA World Cup truly gets underway on Tuesday morning (AEDT), with three games on the docket.
It kicks off with the English desperately hoping to avoid the disappointment it seems like their entire country expects from them.
Follow England v Iran (12am AEDT), Senegal v Netherlands (3am AEDT) and USA v Wales (6am AEDT) in our live blog below!
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ENGLAND v IRAN – Preview and blog
Gareth Southgate said on Sunday that England will take the knee before their World Cup matches in Qatar to send a strong message of “inclusivity”.
On the eve of England’s Group B opener against Iran in Doha, Southgate once again found himself fielding as many questions about politics as he did on his team’s prospects.
The build-up to the tournament has been dominated by concerns over the Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community.
England did not take the knee — a gesture against racism and other forms of discrimination — in their most recent matches in September.
The gesture has also been scaled back in the Premier League but Southgate’s players have agreed to repeat it before their World Cup matches.
“We feel it’s a strong statement that will go around the world, to young people in particular, to show that inclusivity is very important,” he said.
England are one of several European teams who aim to show support for the LGBTQ community.
A number of captains are planning to wear a rainbow armband with the “OneLove” slogan even though FIFA wants skippers to wear different armbands to promote social messages as part of a partnership with United Nations agencies.
England’s match with Iran also takes place against the background of turmoil in the Islamic republic.
Iran’s clerical leadership has been shaken by more than two months of women-led demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran.
But Southgate was wary about giving his view on the situation in Iran. “I don’t feel informed enough to comment on what’s going on in Iran,” he said. “I don’t think it’s my place to comment on it either.”
The England boss found himself having to defend his record ahead of his latest attempt to lead England to their first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
The Three Lions were World Cup semi-finalists in 2018 and finished as European Championship runners-up last year, but Southgate still receives criticism for his perceived lack of adventure.
“We can only answer that on the pitch by winning matches and scoring goals,” he said.
“The first thing for a coach is to enable (the team) to win. Then of course you want to play football that excites people, that players enjoy.
“Our challenge is to give supporters a tournament that is memorable. We have taken them on a fantastic ride in the last two tournaments.”
Expected England XI: Pickford; Trippier, Maguire, Stones, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham, Mount; Saka, Sterling, Kane
Expected Iran XI: Beiranvand; Moharrami, Kanaani, Hosseini, Hajsafi; Ezatolahi; Gholizadeh, Nourollahi, Jahanbakhsh; Taremi, Ansarifard
Follow England v Iran in our live blog below!
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SENEGAL v NETHERLANDS – Preview and blog
Netherlands star Virgil van Dijk said he was sad to learn that former Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane would miss the World Cup due to injury, even if it will boost Dutch hopes.
The defender was due to come up against Mane when the Netherlands face Senegal in their opening Group A match on Monday but the Bayern Munich forward is out of the tournament after suffering a leg injury playing for his club.
“I called him the next day and obviously I wanted to know how he was,” Van Dijk said at his team’s pre-match press conference in Doha.
“There were so many rumours coming out. As a friend I wanted to know how he was. It wasn’t the best news he has had and unfortunately he won’t be able to make this tournament.”
Van Dijk and Mane played together at Southampton before being reunited at Anfield, winning the Premier League title and the Champions League together under Jurgen Klopp.
Mane left Liverpool earlier this year for a fresh start at Bayern. “I feel sad for him,” Van Dijk added. “I know how hard he worked for this and he has been important for Senegal so he is going to be a big miss for them.
“But hopefully we can benefit a little from that as well.”
Tuesday’s match at the Al Thumama Stadium in the Qatari capital marks the Netherlands’ return to the World Cup after they failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, who is back in charge after taking the team to third place in 2014, pointed out that his side are also handicapped by the absence of Memphis Depay.
The Barcelona forward, 28, who has scored 42 goals in 81 games for his country, including 12 in qualifying for the Qatar World Cup, has not played since September.
“This is the match that sets the tone for the rest of the tournament and Senegal are the African champions so they are not just any old opponent,” said Van Gaal.
“I think that Mane is an extraordinary player. I wanted him at Manchester United, when he was still at Southampton, so I am a fan of Mane.
“He can break open a match and I would say that Senegal will really miss him, but the same applies to us. We will really miss our top scorer.”
Expected Senegal XI: E Mendy; Sabaly, Cisse, Koulibaly, Ballo-Toure; P Sarr, N Mendy, Gueye; I Sarr, Dia, Diatta
Expected Netherlands XI: Noppert; Dumfries, Timber, van Dijk, Ake; Blind; De Jong, Koopmeiners; Gakpo; Janssen, Bergwijn
Follow Senegal v Netherlands in our live blog below!
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USA v WALES – Preview and blog
Gareth Bale says he’s ready for a rough ride from the United States as he prepares for the “incredible” challenge of leading Wales into their World Cup game since 1958 on Monday.
Bale will captain Wales against the USA in their opening match on Monday, the country’s first at a World Cup since they lost to Pele’s Brazil in the quarter-finals 64 years ago.
“As a kid you dream of seeing Wales in a World Cup, but to actually be in the team that achieves it is an incredible feeling and an honour to be able to do it for our country,” Bale told reporters on Sunday.
“Everyone’s dreamt of it for such a long time. We’ve had so many close calls. For us to be the team to get over the line was incredible.
“But more importantly the best thing to grow football in our country, to inspire another generation. By doing that hopefully we’re going to have a stronger national team in the future.”
Bale’s Los Angeles FC team-mate Kellyn Acosta said last week that the US players would need to “kick” the Welsh skipper if necessary.
“I tried to avoid him kicking me the last two weeks before we came,” joked Bale. “It’s nothing new I’m used to getting kicked on the field, nothing’s changed. I’m sure it will be fair but difficult game and played in a great spirit.”
Wales made a shock run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016 and again reached the knockout phase at last year’s European Championship.
Despite his struggles with injury and lack of match sharpness, the 33-year-old Bale was the driving force of a successful World Cup qualification campaign.
The former Real Madrid star has started just twice since joining Los Angeles FC in June, but Bale has a habit of rising to the big occasion and insists he is ready to deliver in Qatar.
“I’m right where I want to be. I’m here the night before the first game and I’m ready to go,” said Bale.”
“We’ve all been training hard the last week, adapting to the heat, the time zones, and we have no excuses now.”
Wales will be without experienced midfielder Joe Allen, who was ruled out of their Group B opener by coach Rob Page.
Allen, a mainstay in the Wales midfield at the past two Euros, has not played for Swansea since September because of a hamstring injury.
“He’s probably not going to make it if I’m being completely honest with you. We could’ve pushed him maybe but then if he breaks down he’s definitely out of the tournament,” said Page.
Page also confirmed Bale would wear a rainbow armband as part of the “OneLove” campaign to promote diversity and inclusion, adding that FIFA had not tried to intervene.
FIFA has proposed a series of alternative armbands featuring different social campaigns in response to plans by European teams to wear rainbow armbands at the World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.
Expected USA XI: Turner; Moore, Zimmerman, Long, Robinson; Adams, Musah, McKennie; Weah, Ferreira, Pulisic
Expected Wales XI: Hennessey; Mepham, Rodon, Davies; Roberts, Ampadu, Ramsey, Williams; Johnson, Bale, James
Follow USA v Wales in our live blog below!