A World Cup hounded by controversy will finally grasp our collective attention one month from Thursday. On Nov. 20, a ball will roll at the Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar and, for better or worse, headlines will drift toward soccer. The following day, the U.S. men’s national team will make its World Cup return. The day after that, Lionel Messi will take center stage. And for an entire month, unpredictability will reign.
It will reign because soccer is an inherently unpredictable sport, but also because this World Cup is particularly difficult to parse. It is a midseason tournament rather than a postseason one, and will surely be scarred by injuries. It is also a meeting of foes who, in many cases, will feel completely foreign to one another.
The 13 European participants, restricted by COVID-19 and by their new Nations League, have rarely ventured beyond their own continent since the last World Cup. Many of the favorites will head to Qatar with no head-to-head experience against opponents from South America or Asia — and, therefore, against the styles and traits they’ll encounter next month.
That unfamiliarity, and the lack of cross-reference points, make picking 2022 World Cup winners incredibly difficult. But millions will try over the coming month. If you choose to partake, or to wager, or to simply show off your knowledge when the games begin, let the following be your guide. We’re already power-ranked the 32 teams. Below is a group-by-group primer on the top storylines and players, and the wide range of outcomes that this World Cup could deliver.
(All betting odds via BetMGM, and up to date as of Oct. 19.)
World Cup 2022 — Group A
Odds to advance: Netherlands -750; Senegal -135; Ecuador +100; Qatar +425
Odds to win group: Netherlands -200; Senegal +360; Ecuador +600; Qatar +1100
Storyline to follow: Qatar, on paper, is a mishmash of naturalized foreigners and nondescript veterans who comprise the worst of the 32 teams at their own tournament. But at the 2019 Asian Cup and as guests at the 2021 Gold Cup, they punched above their weight. So, will they get embarrassed? Or will years of Qatari government investment in soccer — much of it to ensure they don’t get embarrassed — pay off? (Of note: South Africa was, on paper, also the worst team at its World Cup in 2010. It finished with four points and beat France.)
Players to watch: Sadio Mané (Senegal), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal), Moisés Caicedo (Ecuador), Frenkie de Jong (Netherlands), Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands)
Most likely outcome: Dutch quality rises to the top of the group. Ecuador and Senegal, after sputtering through their first two games, duke it out on the final matchday for a spot in the knockouts. The outcome will rest on Ecuador’s ability to find a fix for its attacking impotence — and recent history is ominous. La Tri, as they’re known, have scored just twice in their last five games.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: The flip side of that Ecuadorian impotence is a combativeness and resoluteness that are equal parts hideous and effective. Senegal also tends to play less expansively than you’d expect. And the Netherlands doesn’t have a reliable striker. Those three could, in tandem, produce some mucky soccer, and bring one another down to the same level. One or more could fail to beat Qatar. Any of the three could, realistically, win the group on five points.
Prediction: The Dutch scrape through a low-scoring group. Ecuador bullies its way into second place by virtue of a draw with the favorites. Qatar doesn’t win a single point.
World Cup 2022 — Group B
Odds to advance: England -3000, U.S. +100, Wales +115, Iran +400
Odds to win group: England -350, U.S. +550, Wales +600, Iran +1800
Storyline to follow: Iran might be the most complex story at this World Cup. The country has been aflame in protest. Most of the players say they support the people, and specifically the Iranian women fighting for their rights. But they also play for a soccer federation that has tried to silence them, and that has deep ties to the Islamic Republic’s repressive regime. Oh, and on the field, they’re very capable of stunning the U.S. and advancing from this group.
Players to watch: Phil Foden (England), Jude Bellingham (England), Yunus Musah (U.S.), Gareth Bale (Wales), Mehdi Taremi (Iran)
Most likely outcome: England waltzes unimaginatively through a vanilla group. The U.S. recovers from a dreadful September to take four points from Wales and Iran and advance in second place.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: The lazy narrative — which American players, coach and media trotted out immediately after April’s World Cup draw — is that Iran is something of an unknown quantity, and therefore dangerous. The more accurate narrative is that Iran is very much a known quantity … and still dangerous. Under a coach, Carlos Queiroz, who’s intimately familiar with American and English soccer, the Iranians will sit in a 4-1-4-1, and they’ll break through a talented striker (Taremi) and winger (Alireza Jahanbakhsh), and they’ll fight. They can absolutely take six points and advance.
Prediction: The most likely outcome.
World Cup 2022 — Group C
Odds to advance: Argentina -1600, Mexico -115, Poland -110, Saudi Arabia +650
Odds to win group: Argentina -250, Mexico +450, Poland +500, Saudi Arabia +1800
Storyline to follow: It’s probably Lionel Messi’s last World Cup. And this is probably the best Argentina team he’s ever had around him. Enough said.
Players to watch: Messi (Argentina), Lautaro Martinez (Argentina), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (Mexico), Edson Alvarez (Mexico)
Most likely outcome: Argentina cruises to the top of the group in style. The Mexico-Poland opener determines who follows in second. If it ends in a draw, the group becomes a two-part contest: Who can keep Argentina at bay, and who can ruthlessly pound Saudi Arabia to inflate their goal differential?
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: There really isn’t one. Poland is dull. Mexico is weakened, and hasn’t climbed back to its 2019 peak under Gerardo “Tata” Martino. El Tri has more upside than the Poles, but don’t bet on either troubling Argentina.
Prediction: Mexico wins a rip-roaring game on Matchday 1 and advances.
World Cup 2022 — Group D
Odds to advance: France -1600, Denmark -200, Australia +275, Tunisia +300
Odds to win group: France -275, Denmark +275, Australia +1400, Tunisia +1800
Storyline to follow: The defending champs, France, are a mess. And the last three teams in their position — 2010 Italy, 2014 Spain, 2018 Germany — flamed out of the group stage. Surely Les Bleus, with the most talent at the tournament, won’t follow in those perilous footsteps, but … you never know, do you?
Players to watch: Kylian Mbappé (France), Karim Benzema (France), Paul Pogba (France), Aurelien Tchouameni (France), Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
Most likely outcome: France overpowers the field; Denmark comfortably finishes second; neither Australia nor Tunisia challenges them.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: There’s a very logical argument that the Danes should be favored here. They’ve already beaten France twice in the past five months. They also play a far more adventurous brand of soccer, which could have goal-differential benefits if their Matchday 2 showdown with the French ends without a winner.
Prediction: France slogs its way to two wins; Denmark soars to two of its own; they draw each other, France slides to the runner-up slot on goal differential, and gets Argentina in a Round of 16 rematch of 2018 — with roles very much reversed.
World Cup 2022 — Group E
Odds to advance: Spain -1200, Germany -900, Japan +300, Costa Rica +1400
Odds to win group: Spain -110, Germany +110, Japan +1100, Costa Rica +4000
Storyline to follow: Neither Spain nor Germany is the all-powerful force it once was. With clear identities, both are title contenders … but with equally apparent flaws, both are potential group-stage flops as well.
Players to watch: Pedri (Spain), Jamal Musiala (Germany), Leroy Sané (Germany), Joshua Kimmich (Germany), Daichi Kamada (Japan), Kaoru Mitoma (Japan)
Most likely outcome: Spain and Germany progress, and the order in which they do hardly matters, because the runner-up very well could earn an easier path to the semis.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: Japan is going to unsettle the Group E establishment. It is going to press Spain fearlessly, and counter Germany’s every attack. It does not have a singular star, as it had at past World Cups in Keisuke Honda or Shinji Kagawa, but it will be sharp and savvy and coherent. Perhaps it does not have enough final-third bite to convert verve into multiple victories, but it very well might.
Prediction: The Samurai Blue cause a ruckus, but Germany and Spain restore order on the final matchday and escape.
World Cup 2022 — Group F
Odds to advance: Belgium -1000, Croatia -225, Canada +250, Morocco +250
Odds to win group: Belgium -175, Croatia +225, Morocco +900, Canada +1100
Storyline to follow: The rise of Canadian men’s soccer has been a joy to behold. A cohort of young, fun stars propelled a nation that has never won a single men’s World Cup point to the top of CONCACAF. Next up? Two of the 2018 semifinalists. No biggie.
Players to watch: Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Luka Modric (Croatia), Alphonso Davies (Canada), Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
Most likely outcome: Belgium is somewhat precariously clinging to its place among the sport’s elite. Croatia’s golden generation has grayed. Neither is going to steamroll through this group like both did four years ago (and like Belgium did in 2014). Both are vulnerable. But they’re still, by a significant margin, the two most talented teams here. De Bruyne, on his day, is the best player in the world, and he can single-handedly will the Red Devils to seven or nine points.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: The real “most likely outcome” here is chaos. Pure, unadulterated chaos. Belgium’s frail defense has Canada’s Jonathan David and Cyle Larin salivating. Morocco is underrated and re-energized after a coaching change. These four teams, more so than any other pod, could realistically finish in any order.
World Cup 2022 — Group G
Odds to advance: Brazil -1400, Switzerland +115, Serbia +120, Cameroon +250
Odds to win group: Brazil -350, Switzerland +600, Serbia +650, Cameroon +1200
Storyline to follow: Switzerland and Serbia will, in all likelihood, meet on the final matchday in an early elimination game — and in a rematch of the 2018 World Cup’s most political game.
Players to watch: Vinicius Jr. (Brazil), Neymar (Brazil), Gabriel Jesus (Brazil), Dusan Vlahovic (Serbia), Breel Embolo (Switzerland)
Most likely outcome: The weighting of this group feels a lot like Argentina’s. Brazil will surely win it. Cameroon surely won’t. And choosing between the other two for one available knockout-round spot is a true toss-up.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: Look, there’s a chance that either of the European teams could shock Brazil and win the group. But not a good chance. The Selecao are stacked and surging. Even if they’re held to a draw or two, they won’t crumble.
Prediction: Chalk, and Switzerland (the more refined team) over Serbia (the more talented one) in the decider.
World Cup 2022 — Group H
Odds to advance: Portugal -700, Uruguay -190, South Korea +225, Ghana +225
Odds to win group: Portugal -145, Uruguay +200, South Korea +900, Ghana +900
Storyline to follow: Cristiano Ronaldo has spent the early stages of the 2022-23 club season looking washed. He no longer starts for Manchester United. He no longer wants to play for the Red Devils, but nobody else wants him. Will he rise to one last occasion in Qatar? Or will he hold Portugal back?
Players to watch: João Cancelo (Portugal), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal), Federico Valverde (Uruguay), Son Heung-Min (South Korea), Mohammed Kudus (Ghana)
Most likely outcome: Portugal and Uruguay both get tested, especially by South Korea, but pass with a B+ and B-, respectively. The game between them showcases a new generation, and accelerates their transition away from old guards. Portugal narrowly tops the group.
More-likely-than-you-think outcome: South Korea can make some noise, especially if Uruguay is unprepared on Matchday 1. (Ghana, lamentably, can’t.) A Heung-Min Son screamer or two in that opener is a very plausible outcome, and would completely change the shape of the group.
Prediction: The South Koreans give the South Americans a scare, but the favorites advance.