Hansi Flick moved forward in his seat holding on to that impassive look—or did the television cameras catch a twitch of disappointment?—as Lothar Matthaeus pulled out Germany putting the four-time world champions with Spain in group E. Among the eight World Cup groups finalised at Friday night’s draw in Qatar this is the only one to have two former champions.
The champions of 2010 and 2014 will meet on November 27 in what should be among the most watched games of the first stage. When the teams last met, Spain won 6-0 but after an underwhelming World Cup in Russia, and the Euros for Germany, both are on a rebuilding curve. So, when Matthaeus said he believed in his team which has a “good coach” and could go all the way, it didn’t sound hollow. That said, the last time Germany played an Asian team in the World Cup, they lost 0-2. So, Japan, who could feel hard done by being drawn in this group and who ran Belgium really close in Russia, can hope. Spain coach Luis Enrique has called the group “strong” after pointing out that “we are on top of the group because of our merits, the work we have being doing in recent years.”
Among other dates to save could—since this is about a competition that begins on November 21 and we are barely into April, there will be a liberal sprinkling of this verb— be November 25, November 27 and November 30 when England, Belgium and France play former colonies USA, Morocco and Tunisia, and November 29 (soccer segues into geo-politics when USA meet Iran). And those believing the World Cup can provide a shot at redemption should work schedules around the game on December 2 between Uruguay and Ghana.
Not being among the top eight seeds, Germany always ran the risk of being clubbed with former winners or Belgium whom they could meet in the round of 16. Every team in Germany’s place would want to be in the group that has Qatar, as hosts they were No. 1 seed, but it was Netherlands who got it. With bluntness typical of him Louis van Gaal— from criticising Qatar for hosting the competition to why Erik ten Hag shouldn’t go to Manchester United, he has been saying it like he thinks it is— said that barring being on holiday to Senegal he didn’t know much about the teams.
The last time the World Cup came to Asia, the hosts punched way above their weight so who’s to say that Qatar won’t despite their tendency to slide: they drew 0-0 with India in Doha in 2019 and 2-2 to Azerbaijan last November. Also, barring South Africa in 2010, all hosts have gone beyond the group stage.
Barring Group E, Group H offers interesting possibilities apart from Ghana being given an opportunity to avenge the hand of Luis Suarez. Portugal eventually qualified easily and should make the round of 16 but it could be difficult to choose one from Uruguay, Ghana and South Korea. Uruguay have moved on from the long reign of Oscar Tabarez and look a different team under new coach Diego Alonso and South Korea, barring a shock loss in an inconsequential qualifier to UAE last Tuesday, have qualified easily. And for all their stuttering run in the qualifiers—dubious penalty against South Africa and beating Nigeria on away goals— no African team has come as close to making the semi-finals as Ghana.
Defending champions France have the talent to retain the title, and be the first since Brazil in 1962, but with the same squad they imploded in the Euros last year. Denmark, buoyed by the return of Christian Eriksen, are in their group and having breezed through the qualifiers could (there we go again) spring a surprise.
Preserving the moment in his mobile phone, coach Rigobert Song showed what it meant for Cameroon to be among the 32 teams after they needed a late goal to seal the deal, but they could be pushed by Serbia and Switzerland (they knocked out France) for a second-spot finish from the group that has Brazil.
For many in India, the World Cup is about Brazil, Argentina and 30 others, and the five-time champions have again stoked great expectations. Brazil were unbeaten through the South American qualifiers and coach Tite has built a formidable team, one that can live without Neymar Jr. They are the last non-European team to have won the World Cup (2002) and like always, the odds will be low on them to do it again. William Hill has given them the shortest odds (5-1), ahead of France (11-2), England (6-1), Spain (15-2) and Argentina (11-1).
Brazil could play Uruguay/Ghana/Korea in the round of 16 and Spain/Belgium/Germany/Croatia in the quarter-finals, so Tite saying, “we will need to be at our highest level,” is not just about getting out of the group. It also fits why he has been asking the Brazil federation to arrange friendlies against European sides.
Now that he doesn’t need to show he can win for his country, will Lionel Messi finally be able to fill a World Cup-sized hole in his career at the fifth time of trying? Argentina have a team that looks balanced and should they avoid France in the round of 16, could play the Netherlands in the quarter-final. “I say to people, be calm and enjoy the World Cup. I hope it ends with Argentina in the final,” said coach Lionel Scaloni.
Like every World Cup they qualify, England have begun making noises about this being their moment. The difference is Gareth Southgate’s team has shown the ability to go deep into tournaments. “Over the last two years we’ve come to adapt to playing every three days. Going into the World Cup a week after the last Premier League game works in our favour,” said defender Kyle Walker. England could run into Senegal in the round of 16.
So, based on how the teams were grouped, England-France; Argentina-Netherlands; Brazil-Spain and Belgium-Portugal could be the quarter-final line-up. Or it could not. Because as Tite said, “every group has a degree of difficulty.”
And because the World Cup has enough examples of writing its own script as it goes along.