FILE - Brazil's Neymar celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal from the penalty spot during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 against Chile at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

By Steve Douglas | Associated Press

A last chance for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Kylian Mbappé back on the biggest stage of all. Brazil bidding for a record-extending sixth title.

One of the most eagerly anticipated World Cups in memory — as much for off-the-field reasons as those on it — begins Sunday in Qatar.

Thirty-two teams, 64 matches, 29 days. The first World Cup in the Middle East.

League play around the world has paused and now soccer’s focus is on Qatar, whose national team opens the tournament with a match against Ecuador.

Here are a few things to watch when group games get going in the smallest country ever to host a World Cup, where some fans will be staying in floating hotels when they head over to take in the action:

Top teams

Brazil (No. 1 in FIFA ranking). Neymar, Vinícius Júnior and the rest of the flair-filled Selecao are peaking at the right time. Is a first World Cup title since 2002 on the horizon?

​Brazil star ​Neymar celebrates after scoring a goal from the penalty spot during a qualifying soccer match for the World Cup against Chile in March. Brazil is ranked No. 1 coming into the tournament, and Neymar is considered the team’s best player. (Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press)

Belgium (No. 2). The “Golden Generation” is gradually breaking up but there’s still Kevin De Bruyne leading the Belgian charge. There is a doubt about the fitness of Romelu Lukaku, however.

Argentina (No. 3). No World Cup title since the days of the great Diego Maradona. This will be the first World Cup since his death in November 2020 and Argentina has improved under coach Lionel Scaloni, with Messi still at its core and leading the team on a 35-match unbeaten run.

France (No. 4). The defending champions. Still the country with the most depth to its squad, despite an injury list that includes Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Now with Mbappé AND Karim Benzema leading the attack. No team has retained its World Cup title since Brazil in 1962.

England (No. 5). The team has hit a bad patch of form — winless in six games — but has a strong track record in recent major tournaments. England was a semifinalist at the World Cup in 2018 and a finalist at the European Championship in 2021.

Big stars

Lionel Messi, Argentina. The seven-time world player of the year might have been saving his 35-year-old legs for one last …read more

Source:: The Mercury News


World Cup 2022: A viewer’s guide to soccer’s biggest tournament

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