In 607 days’ time, pandemic allowing, the 22nd edition of the World Cup will begin in Qatar. A month-long celebration of transparency, love and the dignity of labour for which The Fiver cannot wait. It will in some respects be a unique experience, the first to be held in the Arab world and the first not to be played in May, June or July. However, in other ways expect more of the same: a few goals will fly in during the group stage, everyone gets giddy with excitement and rushes on to the internet to disagree aggressively with anyone who doesn’t proclaim it to be the Best World Cup Ever, then after the fact folk reluctantly admit that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as 1954, 1970 or 1982, how could it be? Oh, and Lionel Messi will underperform. Shoo-ins, the lot.
It’ll be where you’ll find the in-crowd, and so the stampede to get there is on. A couple of confederations have been running their qualification competitions for a while already, so we know we won’t be seeing the likes of Guam, Chinese Taipei or Bangladesh, while the hopes of Nepal, Mongolia and Bolivia hang by a thread. But no dreams are yet to be extinguished in Europe, where qualification begins on Wednesday! Are England embarking on another campaign that will whisk them all the way to the last four? Could Scotland qualify for the first time since 1998? Will the Republic O’Ireland do a goal? Call us crazy, but anything is possible.
O’Ireland go to Belgrade hoping to take something off Serbia, though that may prove a tall order given eight of their regular starters are out and they’ll be forced to play a 19-year-old who can’t currently get a game for Bournemouth in goal. Still, Luxembourg are up next, so there’s that. Though if they face a tough start, that’s nothing on their Welsh counterparts, who begin what in theory is the toughest challenge in All Football: a trip to face the world’s No 1 team on their own patch. Not an ideal opener for a country that hasn’t qualified since 1958.
Wales go to Belgium, who haven’t lost a competitive match at home for 11 years, and Rob Page’s men could be forgiven for writing off the entire caper as a textbook exercise in futility. That’d be The Fiver’s inclination, but Wales are made of stronger stuff, and go into the game with genuine hope, not least because they’re on a four-game unbeaten run against the Belgians, the most recent meeting being that quarter-final at Euro 2016. More Robson-Kanuesque magic, please! “We know it’s going to be difficult but we’re going to give everything to get a result,” tooted Gareth Bale. “We want to take this opportunity to qualify.” Fans will be heartened to hear their star man speak with such determination, because Bale is notorious for looking like he wishes to be somewhere else – Madrid while at Spurs, the golf course while at Madrid, Madrid while back at Spurs – and he usually gets exactly what he wants. Qatar ahoy!