This World Cup is unique in its location and winter scheduling so I do wonder how real it felt for the England players arriving at their Al Wakrah camp this week, but the Qatar 2022 wallchart now blu-tacked to my fridge tells me it is definitely happening.
I’m a little less excited for the tournament than usual because there hasn’t been the usual weeks of build-up and preparatory friendly matches. That also means we haven’t seen the teams playing, so we are going in blind in some respects.
Having spent time in Qatar, the climate factor shouldn’t be overlooked. Later kick-off times will be an advantage and teams playing earlier may need to tone down their warm-up accordingly. England’s opening match with Iran on Monday starts at 4pm local time, which means it will probably be over 30C beforehand, around 27C at kick-off and 22C at full-time.
What I don’t think will be different at this World Cup is the contenders, with usual suspects Argentina, Brazil and France to the fore.
Argentina are reigning South American champions, and having that 2021 Copa America success under the belt is a great asset. Lionel Messi is still one of the best players on the planet and the fact that this is probably his World Cup swansong will make them even more determined. Strong and confident, maybe it is written in the stars that Argentina win.
Brazil, the bookmakers’ favourites, have such a lot of talent and I feel that World Cups suit the type of football they want to play. Defensively they got it wrong at the last two tournaments but if they fix that then Neymar and team-mates have the firepower and individual skill to make them huge challengers.
I have France slightly behind those two because of their injury problems, which mean Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante are absent. But the holders have great experience and, in Didier Deschamps, a coach who has seen and done it all before. Having Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema back in the fold means they have even more attacking potential than when they won in Russia last time.
Beyond those three teams I’d put England in with a realistic chance of getting to the semi-finals and, once there, anything can happen. I think these four sides can all beat each other.
They say never write off the Germans, but I think the tournament specialists will need a bit of luck to get to the latter stages. If they do, however, you wouldn’t bet against them.
England should stick with Southgate, Bellingham can star at World Cup
I’m not placing any importance on England’s poor results since the summer. They didn’t start well in those Nations League games but time has passed and players have since had a chance to build up rhythm.
England’s strength is that the players are very familiar with each other and the systems that Gareth Southgate asks them to use. They should be able to grasp their tactics as quickly as anyone.
In Group B, Wales will be difficult opponents while the USA have a very athletic, good quality squad. They begin against Iran, who have a very astute coach in Carlos Queiroz and could make it difficult if they set out to suffocate England. It’s not the worst game for players to feel their way into Qatar 2022, however.
If England get to the last four again I’d be happy for Southgate to stay in charge, despite criticism of him, fuelled by recent poor results. He is a victim of his own success, having reached the semis in Russia four years ago and the final of Euro 2020.
We were rightly never among the favourites at the World Cups I played, but Southgate’s England are now in that conversation. I don’t see who could come in and do a better job, but I do hope he learns from being too cautious in previous big games.
Of England’s players, I would love to see Jude Bellingham star and confirm his standing as a player that all top clubs want. The team will only do well if they win the midfield battle, so Bellingham and Declan Rice will need to be strong on the ball, win tackles and drive forward. There is a lot of onus on the 19-year-old but Bellingham can handle it. He’s a one-off.
A final thought on England’s camp: Al Wakrah is very remote so I hope they have enough to do to pass the time. There is a difference between having no distractions and being bored out of your skull.
Trevor Steven is a former England footballer who played at two World Cups and two European Championships. @TrevorSteven63.