FIFA World Cup: All you need to know about the groups, teams and key players
The lowdown on who all we believe could shake things up in the the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup being played in 2022.
Published: 19th November 2022 04:21 PM | Last Updated: 19th November 2022 04:51 PM | A+A A-
The worker deaths in the build-up to the World Cup has meant it will be tarred with controversy forever.
With this shadow looming in the backdrop, Qatar is far from the ideal grand stage for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - the two footballing prima donnas of our era - and the other great stars. But the show must go on. Here then is the lowdown on who all we believe could shake things up. Dive right in:
ECUADOR (44th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2006
Other notable performances: Fourth place at the Copa America in 1959 and 1993
How they qualified: Ecuador finished fourth in the single South American qualifying group to take the final automatic qualifying spot.
Key player: Enner Valencia, who this month turns 33, is Ecuador ’s captain and all-time top scorer with 35 goals. He is also a veteran of previous major tournaments, notably scoring all three of his country’s goals at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and appearing at four different editions of the Copa America. ‘Superman’ initially made his name at Emelec but later spent three years in the Premier League, first with West Ham United and then at Everton.
SENEGAL (18th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarterfinalists in 2002
Other honours: African champions in 2022
How they qualified: beat Egypt in a play-off
Key player: Captain Kalidou Koulibaly was born in France, but opted to represent the country where his parents were born. The 31-year-old centre-back played for French and Belgian outfits before beginning an eight-year stay with Napoli in 2014. He moved to Chelsea this year and teamed up with Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Koulibaly has been critical of African teams at the World Cup, saying they set their goals too low.
NETHERLANDS (8th in FIFA ranking )
Best World Cup performance: Runners-up in 1974, 1978, 2010
Other honours: European champions in 1988
How they qualified: Finished first in European qualifying Group G
Key player: Frenkie de Jong burst onto the scene in the 2018-19 season as part of another talented young Ajax team that was seconds from reaching that year ’s Champions League final. His eye-catching performances earned him a move to Barcelona as the Spanish giants fought off a host of Europe’s top clubs for his signature. De Jong’s creativity and versatility have turned him into an indispensable part of a resurgent Dutch side.
QATAR (50th FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Debut
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 2019
How they qualified: Automatic qualification as hosts
Key player: Qatar are counting on Akram Afif for the goals needed to get the victories required in the group. Afif, who will be 26 two days before the November 20 start of the World Cup, was born in Doha to a Tanzanian footballer father and Yemeni mother. He played for the Qatari-owned Eupen team in Belgium as well as Sporting Gijon in Spain before joining Al-Sadd, who were Qatari champions in 2021 and 2022.
USA (16th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Third place in 1930
Other honours: CONCACAF Championship/ Gold Cup winners in 1991, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2013, 2017, 2021; CONCACAF Nations League winners in 2019-20
How they qualified: The United States finished third in the CONCACAF zone final qualifying standings, behind Canada and Mexico
Key player: If the US upset the odds and progress beyond the group stage in Qatar, the chances are that Christian Pulisic will have had a lot to do with it. The 24-year-old Chelsea star has consistently been the Americans’ most important player in recent years, one of the few individuals capable of producing game-changing moments on the biggest stage. The man known as “Captain America” was a crucial contributor during the US qualification campaign, which included a hat-trick against Panama in March.
WALES (19th FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals in 1958
Other notable performances: European Championship semifinalists in 2016
How they qualified: Beat Ukraine 1-0 in playoff final
Key player: Gareth Bale has the crowning glory he craved on an impressive CV for club and country by finally making it to the World Cup. Now playing his club football in MLS with LAFC, Bale remains the talisman for his nation. The five-time Champions League winner followed up scoring twice in a 2-1 win over Austria in the playoff semi-finals with the only goal against Ukraine to send Wales to Qatar. At 33, there are rumours the former Real Madrid forward may even bow out from international football after the tournament.
IRAN (20th in FIFA ranking )
Best World Cup performance: First round in five previous appearances
Other honours: Asian Cup winners in 1968, 1972, 1976
How they qualified: Iran topped Asian Group A in third round
Key player: The passion of Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun for goals is matched only by his love of horses. When he is not scoring for club or country, the 27-year-old is involved in his horse racing and breeding complex in the northern town where he was born. Often called the Messi of Iran, he averages two goals from every three appearances for the national team. Azmoun played for three Russian clubs before moving to Germany this year and is renowned for his acceleration, innovation and aerial power. Some Iranians have given Azmoun the ultimate compliment -- comparing him to the legendary Ali Daei.
ENGLAND (5th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1966
How they qualified: England finished first in European qualifying Group I
Key player: Harry Kane could become England’s all-time leading scorer at the World Cup after reaching 51 goals for the Three Lions -- just two behind record-holder Wayne Rooney. The Tottenham Hotspur star has never won a major trophy with club or country but his predatory instincts make him one of the world’s top strikers. Keeping Kane fit and firing will be Southgate’s top priority in Qatar.
ARGENTINA (3rd in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1978 and 1986
Other notable performances: 15-time Copa America winners, including in 2021; FIFA Confederations Cup winners in 1992; Olympic gold medal in 2004 and 2008
How they qualified: Runners-up to Brazil in the single South American qualifying group
Key player: At 35, Lionel Messi knows this is surely his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to World Cup glory, eight years after they lost in the final to Germany. This will be his last World Cup and he heads to Qatar having scored 90 goals in 164 appearances for his country -- he has won more caps and scored more goals for Argentina than anyone else. After a difficult first year at Paris Saint-Germain following his departure from Barcelona, Messi has been in excellent form in the build-up to the World Cup, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 18 games for his club so far this season.
SAUDI ARABIA (51st in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Round of 16 in 1994
Other notable performances: AFC Asian Cup winners in 1984, 1988, 1996
How they qualified: Saudi Arabia finished first in Asia zone qualifying Group B
Key player: Winger Salem al-Dawsari, nicknamed “Tornado”, is participating in his second WC after the 2018 tournament in Russia, where he scored the deciding goal in a 2-1 win over Egypt. He has also notched goals in the 2019 Asian Cup and the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. During qualifiers, the 31-year-old saved them from a humiliating loss to Yemen
MEXICO (13th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986
Honours: Eight CONCACAF Gold Cups, 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, 2012 Olympic gold medal
How they qualified: Finished second in the North, Central America and Caribbean region final qualifiers.
Key player: Guillermo Ochoa - The 37-year-old is the Mexican national team’s most capped goalkeeper and holds the record at his Club America for the most games without conceding a goal. Easily recognisable with his curly hair and headband, Ochoa spent three seasons with French side Ajaccio before being chosen as Mexico’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 2014 World Cup.
POLAND (26th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Third place in 1974, 1982
Honours: Olympic champions in 1972
How they qualified: Finished second in European qualifying Group I. Defeated Sweden 2-0 in play-off
Key player: Robert Lewandowski is one of the greats of Polish football. The country’s record appearance maker and goalscorer, Lewandowski will hope to fare far better than in Russia four years ago when he drew a blank in the group stage and Poland made an early exit. He has picked up at Barcelona where he left off at Bayern Munich following eight prolific, record-breaking seasons with the Germans. The reigning two-time winner of the European Golden Shoe has also won the Best FIFA Men’s Player award the past two years.
FRANCE (4th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1998 and 2018
Other honours: European Championship winners in 1984 and 2000; FIFA Confederations Cup winners 2001, 2003; UEFA Nations League winners 2021
How they qualified: Finished first in European qualifying Group D
Key player: Karim Benzema is enjoying a remarkable twilight to his career. He will turn 35 the day after the World Cup final but he goes to Qatar fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or as recognition for his performances in captaining Real Madrid to glory in La Liga and the Champions League last season. Benzema was frozen out of the France team for five and a half years — missing the 2018 World Cup win — due to his role in a blackmail scandal involving a sextape and his international teammate Mathieu Valbuena. He was convicted for his role in that affair but by then he had returned to the France side.
AUSTRALIA (38th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2006
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 2015; Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup winners 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004
How they qualified: Came third behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in Asian qualifying Group B, then won the intercontinental playoff against Peru 5-4 on penalties after game was deadlocked without a goal for 120 minutes
Key player: Aaron Mooy is arguably Australia’s most important player, marshalling the midfield and bringing vast experience. Now with Scottish side Celtic, the 32-year-old played in the Premier League for Brighton and Huddersfield Town. At 32 and with over 50 international caps to him, Mooy is the heartbeat of the team. He was part of the side that featured at the last World Cup in Russia.
DENMARK (10th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finalists in 1998
Other honours: European champions in 1992
How they qualified: Denmark finished first in European qualifying Group F
Key player: Christian Eriksen’s mere presence at the World Cup is nothing short of a “miracle” in his own words. The Danish playmaker “died for five minutes” after collapsing on the pitch following a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020. He was fitted with a defibrillator but Italian rules prevented him from playing again with Inter Milan. Eriksen returned to action after eight months out with Brentford, where his displays earned him a move to Manchester United. The 30-year-old has been a regular for Erik ten Hag this season and will be appearing at his third World Cup.
TUNISIA (30th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: First round in five appearances
Other honours: African champions in 2004
How they qualified: Tunisia defeated Mali in a play-off
Key player: Youssef Msakni has been the mainstay of the Tunisian national team for more than a decade and will be desperate to impress in Qatar having missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia due to an ankle injury. His remarkable versatility enables him to play in his preferred position of winger, but also as a central striker, a midfielder and a left-back. Msakni spent seven seasons with two Tunisian clubs, including giants Esperance, before moving to Al Duhail in Qatar in 2013. He has since spent loan spells at Eupen in Belgium and with another Doha outfit, Al Arabi.
GERMANY (11th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014
Other honours: European Championship winners in 1972, 1980, 1996; FIFA Confederations Cup winners 2017
How they qualified: Finished first in European qualifying Group J
Key player: Despite a wealth of options between the sticks, Germany’s captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, 36, remains his side’s most important player. Alongside Thomas Muller and possibly Mats Hummels, Neuer will be one of only a few members of Germany’s victorious 2014 World Cup squad to make the trip to Qatar. Besides his leadership, experience and familiarity with the sizeable Bayern contingent, sweeperkeeper Neuer is essential to the way Flick’s Germany want to play. Neuer, who has won two Champions League titles and is on a record streak of 10 consecutive Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, enters the tournament under a significant injury cloud, having missed most of October due to a shoulder problem.
COSTA RICA (31st in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Reached quarter-finals at 2014 World Cup.
Other honours: CONCACAF Championship /Gold Cup winners: 1963, 1969, 1989
How they qualified: Defeated New Zealand 1-0 in a CONCACAF-Oceania playoff. Advanced to playoff after finishing fourth in CONCACAF qualifiers behind Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Key player: Keylor Navas, the 35-year-old goalkeeper, is an icon in his homeland, beloved after his heroics at the 2014 World Cup where his saves in a penalty shootout win over Greece helped Costa Rica reach the quarter-finals for the first time. He produced another man-of-the-match performance in the last eight against the Netherlands despite finishing on the losing side in the shoot-out. Blessed with agility and superb reflexes, Navas enjoyed a dazzling career with Real Madrid, winning three Champions League titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018, before joining French giants Paris Saint-Germain in 2019.
SPAIN (7th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 2010
Other honours: European champions in 1964, 2008, 2012
How they qualified: Spain finished first in European qualifying Group B
Key player: Talented Barcelona youngster Pedri has become essential for club and country at just 19 years old. The midfielder was named the Euro 2020 Young Player of the Tournament and was in the Team of the Tournament after a string of brilliant performances which helped Spain reach the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Italy. In 2022 Pedri has improved his finishing, which was the one area of his game which needed work, and he will be Spain’s creative hub in Qatar.
JAPAN (24th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2002, 2010, 2018
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 1992, 2000, 2004, 2011
How they qualified: Japan finished second behind Saudi Arabia in Group B in the third round of Asian qualifying.
Key player: Wataru Endo, 29, is the gumshield-wearing midfield lynchpin who holds Japan together. A non-playing member of the squad in 2018, Endo won the AFC Champions League with Urawa Red Diamonds before moving to Europe. He played for Sint-Truiden in Belgium and then joined Stuttgart, the side he now captains and for whom he scored the stoppage-time goal that kept them in the Bundesliga on the final day of last season.
CROATIA (12th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Runners-up in 2018
Other major honours: Quarter-finalists at Euro 1996 and 2008
How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group H
Key player: Luka Modric: The veteran midfielder won the player of the tournament award as he led Croatia to their first ever World Cup final in Russia. He ended Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or in the same year. Modric has showed few signs of slowing down since, winning his fifth Champions League crown with Real Madrid last season. Now aged 37, Qatar will likely be Modric’s last World Cup. The captain has made a record 154 appearances for Croatia.
CANADA (41st in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: First round in only previous appearance in 1986
Other honours: CONCACAF Championship /Gold Cup winners in 1985, 2000
How they qualified: Canada finished first in the CONCACAF zone final qualifying standings
Key player: Alphonso Davies: Canada have forged a close-knit men’s squad based on hard work, discipline and a clear tactical framework. Yet Bayern Munich’s Davies is one of the few players capable of providing an X-factor for the Canadians. Comfortable playing as a full-back or winger, Davies offers blinding speed on the counter-attack as well as a proven ability on the biggest stages. He was a key member of the Bayern team which lifted the 2020 UEFA Champions League and also played a key role during Canada’s successful qualifying campaign.
MOROCCO (22nd in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Second round in 1986
Other honours: African champions in 1976
How they qualified: Morocco defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo in a play-off
Key player: A standoff between Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Halilhodzic led to the change of coaches. The Bosnian accused him of feigning injury to avoid playing in warm-up matches last year, publicly calling it “unacceptable behaviour ”. Ziyech, 29, responded by retiring from international football until Moroccan football officials intervened and dumped Halilhodzic. Regragui has hailed the Netherlands-born attacker as a “fighter who gives everything for his adopted country” but there are concerns about his lack of game time at Chelsea -- he played just 17 minutes during October. There have been reports of a post-World Cup move to AC Milan.
BELGIUM (2nd in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Third place in 2018
Other major honours: Euro 1980 runners-up
How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group E
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne, who plays for Manchester City, finished third in the recent Ballon d’Or voting and will be Belgium’s go-to man when in need of inspiration. Injury-prone captain Eden Hazard has only made 11 starts for Real Madrid since the start of last season and striker Romelu Lukaku has struggled for full fitness since returning to Inter Milan on loan from Chelsea. De Bruyne scored a careerbest 19 goals for English champions City last term and has already notched 12 assists this campaign following the signing of Erling Haaland.
BRAZIL (1st in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002
Other honours: Copa America winners 1919, 1922, 1949, 1989, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007, 2019; Confederations Cup winners 1997, 2005, 2009, 2013;
How they qualified: Unbeaten winners of the single South American qualifying group
Key player: Having reached the age of 30, Neymar knows this could be his last chance to win a World Cup after the agony of 2014 — when his tournament was ended by injury before he saw his team-mates collapse against Germany — and the disappointment of 2018. The former Santos prodigy left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in a world record deal in 2017 but his move to France has not brought him the collective or individual honours he craves. He has not won the Champions League at PSG and he has still never won a Ballon d’Or. None of that will matter if he can lead Brazil to World Cup glory.
SERBIA (21st in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Group stage in 2010 and 2018
Other notable performances: Yugoslavia were European Championship runners-up in 1960 and 1968
How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group A ahead of Portugal
Key player: Serbia have formidable attacking options, nore more so than Dusan Vlahovic. The 22-year-old forward is a robust presence up front but does not lack for pace or skill. After starting out at Partizan Belgrade, he joined Fiorentina and quickly became a prolific goal-scorer in Serie A. That earned him a 70 million-euro move to Juventus last January. In Turin he has so far averaged almost a goal every second game despite his club’s recent struggles. Given his age, his peak years still lie in the future, but Serbia will hope he thrives on the World Cup stage in Qatar.
SWITZERLAND (15th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals in 1934, 1938 and 1954
Other notable performances: Euro 2020 quarter-finalists
How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group C
Key player: Forward Breel Embolo, 25, has pace and power in abundance and is hoping to take his early-season form with him to Qatar after leaving Borussia Moenchengladbach for Monaco in the summer. Born in Cameroon, he will get the chance to face the country of his birth in Switzerland’s opening group game. Embolo moved to Europe with his mother as a boy and went on to start his footballing career at Basel, where he was given his debut by Yakin. A big-money move to Schalke in 2016 was marred by injuries but as long as he stays fit he could have a key role to play in Qatar.
CAMEROON (43rd in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finalists in 1990
Other honours: African champions in 1984, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2017
How they qualified: Cameroon defeated Algeria in a play-off
Key player: Bayern Munich’s Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, 33, goes to Qatar in outstanding form having scored in seven consecutive matches for the German giants in all competitions. Born in Hamburg to a Cameroonian father and German mother, he has a point to prove at the World Cup after being largely ignored during the Cup of Nations this year. Choupo-Moting was furious at being left out of the quarter-final and semi-final starting line-ups and accused Conceicao of being “disrespectful”. He began his senior career with Hamburg, played for three other German clubs and spent time at Stoke City and Paris SaintGermain before joining Bayern two years ago
SOUTH KOREA (28th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Fourth place in 2002
Other honours: Asian champions in 1956, 1960
How they qualified: South Korea finished second behind Iran in Asian qualifying Group A
Key player: Son Heung-min is the undoubted star man but his World Cup appeared to be in doubt after suffering a serious facial injury for Tottenham Hotspur against Marseille in the Champions League. He had surgery more than a week ago to fractures around his left eye socket but South Korea believe he will be ready. The Spurs forward is captain of his country and their talisman. Son has scored 35 times in 104 appearances for South Korea. He shared the Premier League golden boot with Liverpool’s Mo Salah last season as joint top-scorer with 23 goals.
PORTUGAL (9th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Third place in 1966
Other honours: European Championship winners in 2016
How they qualified: Finished second in European qualifying Group A behind Serbia, and then beat Turkey and North Macedonia in the play-offs.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo is the all-time leading goalscorer in international football with 117 goals in a record 191 caps for his country. He has enjoyed a magnificent career but he is now 37 and has endured a difficult start to the season at Manchester United. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo made his Portugal debut in 2003 at the age of 18 and is now set to play at his 10th major international tournament. However, in many ways he is the key player because some wonder if his presence might hold back the many other outstanding — and far younger — talents in the Portugal squad.
GHANA (14th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Quarterfinalists in 2010
Other honours: African champions in 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982
How they qualified: Ghana defeated Nigeria in a play-off
Key player: Opponents of Ghana who consider Thomas Partey, 29, just a defensive midfielder would do well to watch a clip from the recent 5-0 drubbing Arsenal dished out to Nottingham Forest. The Gunners were three goals up when the former Atletico Madrid star, who became a Gunner in 2020, unleashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. The memorable goal confirmed the opinion of long-serving Atletico manager Diego Simeone that the humble footballer from a village in eastern Ghana is “extraordinary when defending or attacking, providing assists, passing, shooting and scoring”. Partey was so eager to play in Europe that he forgot to tell his parents he was leaving west Africa until he arrived in Spain 10 years ago
URUGUAY (14th in FIFA ranking)
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1930, 1950
How they qualified: Uruguay finished third in the single South American qualification group
Key player: With Uruguay’s top two goalscorers of all time, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, both 35 and playing in their last World Cup, Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde is the new talisman for this team. Now 24, the hardworking six-foot-tall central midfielder is crucial for club and country. Already a Champions League winner and two-time Spanish champion, Valverde’s increasingly mature performances have made him the key cog in Alonso’s team. Other honours: Copa America winners in 1916, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1956, 1959, 1967, 1983, 1987, 1995, 2011