The biggest sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup, is upon us, with play set to kick off in Qatar on Nov. 20 when the host nation faces Ecuador at 11 a.m. ET. And in order to get you ready for the biggest competition in the world, we've put together a primer for the fan. From tournament favorites and popular narratives to sleeper picks and some of the more obscure storylines to follow, there's something here for everyone.
Why a winter World Cup?
First things first: yes, you are correct if you feel like this is the wrong time of year for a World Cup. The tournament is usually a June-July event, but it's being hosted by Qatar this year, which has "fry an egg on the road" weather in the summertime. Originally, Qatar's bid promised that they could completely air-conditioned stadiums and create artificial flying clouds that would shade entire matches. Seriously. The mockups looked like giant anime war aircraft.
All of those promises did not come to fruition in a way that would negate an average summer temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and so the World Cup is taking place in November and December. Even then, the stadiums are still going to need air conditioning for temperatures that will likely reach into the 80s. The timing of the tournament also means most major soccer leagues around the world are pausing for a month in the middle of their seasons.
England manager Gareth Southgate gives his thoughts on Christian Pulisic as a player ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
Put your coffee or tea on. During the group stage, which goes from Nov. 20 to Dec. 2, the games are played at 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET. USMNT fans, the stars and stripes play all of their group-stage matches at 2 p.m. ET, and with a few exceptions, such as Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia on Nov. 22, most of the 5 a.m. games fail to get the pulse really racing, if you need some extra sleep and want to binge the feisty games later on in the day.
Games in the round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals will take place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET, and the final will start at 10 a.m. on Dec. 18.
Keep your eyes on these players
This World Cup seems like it will finally be the last hurrah for several players who have defined and dominated the game for the past decade and beyond. At the same time, plenty of players are waiting to step into the voids they'll inevitably leave, and there's no better place to do that than the World Cup.
While Ronaldo has languished on the bench at Manchester United and Portugal had to sneak into the World Cup through the playoffs, Argentina is coming off of Messi's first ever major international trophy at last year's Copa America. Argentina are unbeaten in 35 matches and also have the emotional boost of Messi saying that this is his last World Cup, while Ronaldo ... well, it's Ronaldo. He's probably got some cyborg strength and conditioning coach, and we wouldn't bet against seeing him in 2026 when the World Cup comes to the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Portugal also have a much tougher group than Argentina, which doesn't bode well for Ronaldo's hopes of winning his first World Cup.
Outside of the big two, there are plenty more icons likely taking their final World Cup bows. Luka Modric will undoubtedly feature for Croatia at 37 years old. Brazil is bringing along Dani Alves (39) and Thiago Silva (38). Uruguay will lean into their pair of 35-year-olds in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
The young guns: A new generation of talent is ready to make their mark. There's a cavalcade of young Englishmen who would love to get the country its first World Cup since 1966, such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Declan Rice, and Bukayo Saka. Bellingham will be of most interest, as his exploits for Borussia Dortmund have many Premier League fans putting him on their club's wishlist for the January transfer window.
Spain also have a pair of young stars in Pedri and Gavi who'll be making their way from Barcelona to the World Cup. Both teenagers are skilled on the ball, as befits the traditions of their club. If they see the field in Qatar, they'll undoubtedly produce highlights.
There's also the interesting case of Jamal Musiala, Bayern Munich's German winger by way of England. Musiala, born in Germany but raised since age 7 in England, finally decided to represent Germany at the senior level last year, becoming an integral part of manager Hansi Flick's set-up.
A point to prove: This group is interesting because it includes several players at very different stages of their careers. Kylian Mbappe has been the "next big thing" for almost his entire life, and announced himself to the world at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where France won. But he has yet to dominate the game like a Messi or Ronaldo, and some have even questioned his status amongst the world's best players in light of him staying in France with PSG, where the competition isn't as strong as it is in LaLiga and the Premier League, for example.
Yes, Mbappe's clearly good. But he has stayed in a cushy role with PSG, who routinely outshine all domestic competitors. After the Real Madrid transfer debacle and subsequent tendencies to look lackadaisical and dissatisfied in Ligue 1, will Mbappe reestablish himself as the heir apparent to Messi in this World Cup?
Meanwhile, Christian Pulisic is just trying to prove that he deserves more respect than he seems to get at Chelsea. His playing time with his club has been infrequent at best, he has been prone to long cold streaks and he has struggled with injuries ever since he joined the club. Pulisic has questions to answer in this World Cup if the USMNT want to make it out of the group stage.
Vinicius Junior has proven himself worthy of the £38 million fee Real Madrid spent to bring him several years ago, becoming a staple member of their first team and one of LaLiga's feared wingers. Now, it's time for him to leave his stamp for Brazil as well. For the last two World Cups, Brazil have gone as Neymar has gone, and it's great news for them that he has been in vintage form for PSG lately. The standard quality of the team rarely wavers from year to year, but it's often been up to Neymar to give Brazil the special sauce they need to get over the hump.
Obviously, that hasn't been enough to bring the most successful country in history back to World Cup glory (they won their fifth World Cup title in 2002, making the 20-year title drought one of the country's longest), and it's time for Brazil to get themselves a new talisman attacker. Enter Vinicius Junior, or Vini for short.
Breakout candidates and comeback stories: Qatar will also be an excellent chance to put faces to names you may have heard but haven't seen play, and also spot new talent. 23-year-old Rafael Leao is a known quantity to fans of Portugal and Serie A, but the AC Milan man has a tendency to pull off the stupendous that could considerably raise his profile in Qatar.
Even less well-known is Australian wunderkind Garang Kuol, an 18-year-old who has already signed an agreement to join Newcastle in 2023. Kuol is undeniably green, but he's a dynamic attacker who makes things happen when he gets on the ball.
Then there are players whose mere presence at the World Cup is a distillation of joy and relief. Christian Eriksen will most likely feature for Denmark, a little more than a year after suffering cardiac arrest at Euro 2020. He has since staged a remarkable comeback to become a vital part of Erik ten Hag's Manchester United squad. If he features in the World Cup, it'll be a welcome sight to fans around the world.
A World Cup of firsts
This is the first World Cup in the Middle East, and the first World Cup staged in the winter. But that doesn't mean coats and scarves.
Temperatures in Qatar are still going to be toasty during the day, which means 2022 will be the first air-conditioned World Cup. Outdoor air conditioning in the desert probably sounds like a monstrous task with massive energy consumption, but Qatar is trying to use the sun to their advantage. These air-conditioned stadiums will run off of solar power. It's practical, and it's also part of FIFA's attempt to make this tournament the greenest World Cup to date. Both FIFA and Qatar have pledged to make this World Cup carbon-neutral. However, carbon analysts and climate advocates have cast doubt on Qatar's claims and say that major sources of emissions are being ignored in their calculations.
The stadium air-con works then.... pic.twitter.com/GVpzSiXfcM— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) September 7, 2022
Naturally, with air conditioning and carbon-neutral promises, Qatar 2022 will be the most expensive World Cup ever staged. It's estimated that Qatar will end up spending well over $200 billion on stadiums, hotels and other vital infrastructure. By comparison, Russia spent about $14 billion to stage the 2018 World Cup.
While so much of the drama of the World Cup happens in the knockout stage, the group stage will have plenty of juicy games that fans and neutrals alike can enjoy.
Qatar vs. Ecuador (Nov. 20): It's the first match of the tournament, and many people's first time watching Qatar play. While they're not expected to go particularly far in this tournament, as the 50th best team in the world according to FIFA's rankings, their first match against Ecuador (FIFA ranking: 44) will be an excellent barometer to gauge their strengths and weaknesses.
Senegal vs. Netherlands (Nov. 21): Senegal finally broke through on the international stage last year, winning their first Africa Cup of Nations. Now, Aliou Cisse's men will look to prove they're one of the best teams in the world against the Netherlands to start their tournament.
Senegal are routinely one of the world's most entertaining squads to watch, and this match between Group A's heavyweights looks like it will be a crowd-pleaser, but the Lions of Teranga will also hope against all hopes that their best player, Sadio Mane, will have recovered from injury in time for it. The game also carries the added weight of being the opener for Louis van Gaal's third and likely final World Cup as manager for the Dutch, especially as he has spent the year battling health issues while guiding the Netherlands to a 15-game unbeaten run.
Brazil vs. Serbia (Nov. 24): Brazil enter the World Cup as favorites to win it all, and they're bringing nine forwards with them. Nine. It seems to us like they plan on scoring a lot of goals, and they'll need to given how light they are in defense. They kick off their tournament against Serbia (and their forward tandem of Luka Jovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic).
England vs. United States (Nov. 25): Celebrate Black Friday with some good old fashioned imperialist dread. Group B is a tricky one for everyone involved, with Iran and Wales rounding out the group. And while it won't be do-or-die for either of these teams as the second match, the U.S. have a winning record against England in FIFA competitions. The Three Lions will look for revenge after finishing second in their group behind the Americans in 2010.
Argentina vs. Mexico (Nov. 26): On one side, Messi is hoping to win his first World Cup. On the other is Mexico, a team that haven't managed to crack through to the quarterfinal stage since they were the hosts in 1986. Former Argentina manager and current Mexico manager Tata Martino gives this match an interesting wrinkle, too.
Why should I watch if the U.S. go out?
Let us break it to you, friend: the U.S. almost certainly will go out. Only one team of the 32 gets to win, and the U.S. are not considered a favorite. They failed to qualify for 2018 and this squad is high on youthful energy but low on experiences, with almost every player competing in their first World Cup. No worries, however: there's plenty of tension and drama elsewhere.
Brazil enter the World Cup as betting favorites to win the whole thing, which would be massive for the country. While they are the most decorated country in all of international soccer, it's been 20 years since their last World Cup triumph. After the infamous loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup and being bested by Belgium in 2018, Brazil are desperate for another triumph.
Defending champions France are also worth watching if for no other reason than you never know what you're going to get. They're a strong squad, which could net them consecutive titles. They'd be the first team to win back-to-back men's World Cups since Brazil in 1962. Then again, France have a habit of imploding when it comes to World Cups (remember the player revolt in South Africa in 2010?). Never far from crisis or glory, France are a must-watch.
And did we mention Messi? Because man, does that guy deserve a break in the international game. Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, but have often faltered at the last possible moments with Messi in the team. After finally winning a Copa America last year, can he end his World Cup career at an all-time high and secure GOAT status over Ronaldo?
Or course, you can always root for some underdogs. Only eight teams have ever won the men's World Cup to begin with, leaving a decent chance that the tournament might see a first-time winner.
Who are you betting on?
If you're looking to make the games even more interesting, you can always take a look at some of the most popular betting lines from Caesars Sportsbook and DraftKings heading into the tournament. (All odds are from Caesars Sportsbook unless noted otherwise.)
Harry Kane +800: He may do it just by virtue of England going far in the tournament, but the team has played far too conservatively lately for me to like betting on Kane here.
Kylian Mbappe +900: It's difficult not to bet on Mbappe, all things considered. If there is one reason that I wouldn't, however, it's because I'm betting on his teammate, the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner.
Karim Benzema +1100: Benzema scores oodles of goals, and he scores them in the biggest moments. This line is probably our favorite right now.
Neymar +1200: The upside of betting on Neymar for the Golden Boot is that Brazil will likely be one of the highest-scoring teams in the tournament. The downside is that those goals will likely come from many different sources.
Lionel Messi +1200: Messi is a decent shout here, as he'll likely be in charge of penalties and free kicks for Argentina, but he often turns into a facilitator and orchestrator first for Argentina with the attention that he draws from defenders.
Cristiano Ronaldo +1400: Ronaldo also draws lots of attention from defenders, but there's the simple fact that he hasn't really looked like Ronaldo in a very long time.
To win World Cup
Brazil +375: If you're going to throw your money at a country, this Brazil team are as good as any. And if you want to bet on a "favorite," this seems like the bet to make.
France +650: France are another favorite, but maybe not enough of a favorite for odds this low on them. Betting on a winner of the World Cup being a crapshoot anyway, you're probably looking for smaller bets with better odds.
England +1000: England have a great team and nearly won the 2020 Euro, but they'll likely have to defeat talented squads right out of the group stage if they advance.
Argentina +500: I don't think Argentina will win the World Cup. But they've got Messi. So who's to say?
Spain +850: This actually feels like a very good line for Spain, who I think should be favored a bit more than their current betting line suggests.
Germany +1000: This line reflects Germany's current place amongst European squads. They're good, but they've lost their way a bit in the last four years.
Belgium +1600: Tempting, especially given this may well be Belgium's last hurrah for their golden generation. There are far worse teams you could throw money at here.
Netherlands +1400: It's the same odds as Belgium, but if things work out close to the way they look like they will on paper, Netherlands will have a much tougher draw to worry about.
Portugal +1400: I know there are Portugal truthers out there, but I think they're more likely to exit in the group stage than they are to win the World Cup.
And a few more fun ones
Brazil under 9.5 goals +120 (DraftKings): This one goes out to all the haters. Do you think Brazil will crumble and not be nearly as prolific in goals as everyone is making them out to be? +120 on the under for the tournament isn't bad.
First time winner +175 (DraftKings): Hey, only seven teams playing in this tournament have won the World Cup before. Most of those teams constitute the favorites, sure, but this bet might give you some extra inventive on rooting for the underdog.
A hat trick scored in the final +2500 (DraftKings): We know this looks like a lucky shot, because it is one. But Geoff Hurst did pull this off for England in 1966, so it's not impossible. And it's great odds for a fun long shot bet.
Closing in on milestones and records
Messi looks to overtake Maradona: Diego Maradona holds the record for most individual appearances in World Cup matches at 21. Messi is hot on his tail at 19, and will almost surely overtake him this World Cup.
Five World Cups, Part 1: Four men's players in history have scored at four different World Cups: Pele, Miroslav Klose, Uwe Seeler and Cristiano Ronaldo. If Ronaldo scores in Qatar, he'll be the only man ever to score in five.
Five World Cups, Part 2: The record for most World Cups won by a single country is five, which only Brazil has managed to accomplish. On the other hand, Germany could equalize Brazil's record of five if they win in Qatar.
The Long Shot: The record for most goals in a World Cup was set by France's Just Fontaine in 1958, recording an incredible 13 goals. The last time any player even got to double digits was Gerd Muller in 1970 with 10. This record doesn't seem to be in particular danger of falling.
Senegal: We've already sung their praises in this guide, but Senegal are a great team that will punish you if you don't give them the respect they've earned. They know their system back-to-front and are led by longtime coach and former player Aliou Cisse.
They just won AFCON, then had to qualify for the World Cup through one of Africa's most difficult paths to the tournament, drawn in the final round with Mohamed Salah and Egypt. Their only major question mark is Sadio Mane's health, and whether the Bayern Munich attacker will be able to play in the tournament or not.
Canada: Canada haven't been to the World Cup since 1986, but they've emerged from CONCACAF as the team to beat, with a crop of talent featuring some of the best young players in the world in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David.
Iran: Much attention has been given to the matchups in Group B between England, the United States and Wales. But Iran has a legitimate shot at winning the group. Their friendly results from September indicate they're certainly up for it, playing Senegal to a 1-1 draw and beating Uruguay 1-0. They're a tough team to play against at all times, and that's the type of team that can cause upsets at a World Cup.
Denmark: The Danes are part of the World Cup furniture at this point, but the way they went through the Euros last year was something to behold, even while dealing with the traumatic events surrounding Eriksen. Eriksen is back and leads a solid midfield consisting of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Thomas Delaney. They're a team that can pour on the attacking verve when they need to, and they have one of the easiest groups in the entire competition. Look out for them in the knockout rounds.
How to watch the 2022 World Cup
FOX holds the rights to the 2022 World Cup, and matches will be spread across FOX and FS1 for English-language viewers in the United States. Telemundo will carry Spanish-language coverage of games.
For those looking to stream games, a wide variety of options will be open to you. You should be able to catch games on Fubo, Peacock TV, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and Vidgo.
The World Cup final will take place on December 18th starting at 10 a.m. ET, and will be broadcast on FOX's main network channel.
Tune into ESPN FC
During the tournament, you can keep up with all of ESPN FC's analysis, reaction and news via YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. We'll also have the Gab & Juls podcast where Gabriele Marcotti and Julien Laurens dive into the latest news and gossip, analyze matches with special guests, and give their unique perspective.