Thirty-two teams, 832 players, and eight groups of four countries each. After one of the most controversial build-ups, the football World Cup gets underway in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday with the hosts taking on Ecuador in the opening match at the Al Bayt Stadium. The Indian Express takes a close look at each of the 32 teams, taking a look at their strengths, weaknesses, the player who can be their X-Factor, what would be the best-case scenario for them as well as the best (and the most catchy) phrase for the country’s football glossary.
Here, we analyse Group A, which comprises hosts and Asian champions Qatar, the mighty Dutch, African champions Senegal and Ecuador.
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify
After a tumultuous build up, riddled with internal problems within the national federation and a change of coach, Ecuadorians are hopeful that this team will go farther than any other sides of the past and reach quarterfinals. The reality, however, could be harsh for one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the tournament, with only three players from the 2014 campaign still around – forward Enner Valencia, midfielder Carlos Gruezo and goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.
They are one of the better sides in transitions, using their strength and speed to move from defence to attack and vice versa. Their speed allowed them to play with a high line even against Brazil, making them an exciting team to watch so much so that Tite, the Brazilian coach, said during the World Cup draw in April that Ecuador are a team capable of pulling off a surprise.
They might be good in transitions but that doesn’t make Ecuador a dangerous counter-attacking side. The team, coached by Argentine Gustavo Alfaro, has not conceded a goal in their last five matches but they haven’t scored as well. It is a young team that has already tasted success – Ecuador were the South American U-20 champions in 2019 – but for them to stamp their authority on the biggest stage of all will be a challenge. An injury to Angel Mena, one of their key playmakers, only complicates the situation for them.
— La Tri 🇪🇨 (@LaTri) November 15, 2022
Moises Caicedo: A player who is on the radar of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea, the 21-year-old Brighton midfielder is known for his rampaging runs through the middle. A classic box-to-box midfielder, he was thrown into the deep end during the World Cup qualifiers when he was just a teenager and has not looked back since.
Language of football: Tacticia del murcielago (bat tactics)
Translated roughly as ‘bat tactics’, tacticia del murcielago is used to describe teams that sit deep in their own half and defend with backs to the goal, comparing them to a bat hanging upside down on a goal post. Ecuador will hope the phrase they use for other teams that isn’t used to describe them in Qatar.
Fixtures: Nov 20: vs Qatar (9.30pm), Nov 25: vs Netherlands (9.30pm), Nov 29: vs Senegal (8.30pm)
2018 World Cup: Did Not Qualify (DNQ)
For Qatar, the first aim would be to avoid becoming only the second host country, after South Africa in 2010, to be eliminated in the group stages itself. The Asian champions would fancy their chances of making it to the knockout rounds, given that they are in a group where the fight for second spot – behind group-favourites Netherlands – is truly open and each of the three teams has a realistic possibility of reaching the Round of 16. Anything beyond that would be a bonus for Qatar.
— Qatar Football Association (@QFA_EN) November 14, 2022
Qatar’s biggest asset is the partnership between the two forwards, Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, who are also the team’s creative outlet. It also helps that all their players compete in the Qatari league and a dozen of them represent the same side – Al Sadd. At Al Sadd, all these players were coached by Spanish legend Xavi before he left for Barcelona. This should make Qatar one of the most cohesive teams, as was seen at the Asian Cup three years ago.
Their over-dependence on Ali and Afif for goals is a drawback but the bigger concern for the team’s Spanish coach Felix Sanchez would be the porous defence. Qatar usually play five men at the back while defending. Their three centre-backs, however, were drawn out of position repeatedly when they were playing higher-ranked teams from Europe in the last couple of years. The defence also showed vulnerability while dealing with crosses and set-pieces.
Almoez Ali: The forward, who plays for Al Duhail in the Qatari Super League, was the top scorer of the 2019 Asian Cup. He has shown an unerring eye for goal and is physically strong. It will be crucial for the 26-year-old to deliver if Qatar hope to progress into the knockout rounds. And he will also be chasing a personal milestone and become his country’s all-time highest goal-scorer. Ali is just five goals behind Mansour Muftah, who has 44 goals to his name.
Language of football: Mujannisoon
Expect the English translation of this word – ‘naturalised players’ – to be thrown around a lot each time Qatar take the field. Given that there was a dearth of talented homegrown players who could go shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best, Qatar started to naturalise players from other countries. So much so that the national team, at times, has more naturalized players than homegrown ones. Their squad has eight mujannisoons, players who were born in other countries.
Fixtures: Nov 20: vs Ecuador (9.30pm); Nov 25: vs Senegal (6.30pm); Nov 29: vs Netherlands (8.30pm)
2018 World Cup: Group stage
In 2018, none of the African team made it past the group stage. This time, Senegal are the biggest prospects to venture into a territory no other team from the continent has before – the World Cup semifinals. Senegal came very close to achieving this feat the first time they participated in the World Cup – 20 years ago in Japan and South Korea. One of the heroes of that campaign, Aliou Cisse (also the captain), is now the coach of a team that’s brimming with talent.
— Football Senegal (@FootballSenegal) November 15, 2022
The African champions are a very well-balanced side, with a strong defence, led by Kalidou Koulibaly, functional midfield and a dynamic forward in Sadio Mane. They have one of the finest goalkeepers in the world, Edouard Mendy. It made Senegal one of the best teams to watch at the African Cup of Nations this year. Attacking wise, Senegal have been most dangerous and balanced while playing a 4-4-2 system, with Krepin Diatta and Ismaila Sarr on the flanks and Boulaye Dia and Mane in the middle.
On occasions when Mane plays from the left wing, Senegal have not been able to identify a dangerous centre-forward to finish off the chances that are created from both flanks. Cisse has tried multiple players in that role but with little success. Injury to winger Bouna Sarr, who plays for Bayern Munich, will only add to Cisse’s attacking concerns.
Ismailia Sarr: While Mane becomes the main target man for most team, Sarr is turning out to be a perfect decoy for Cisse’s team. The 24-year-old Watford forward has been very effective on the right and is one of the players to watch out for in this very talented Senegalese team.
Language of football- Yalli: What’s called a ‘nutmeg’ in the rest of the football world, Senegalese call it a Yalli. The origins of this term go back to 1964 during the replay of the Senegal Cup competition between Club Olympique Thiessois and US Ouakam. Playing for Ouakam, a third division side, forward Ibrahima Dione scored the winning goal in extra time. His shot went between the legs of the goalkeeper Yalli Ndieguene. Since then, the nutmeg got a new name in Senegal: a Yalli.
Fixtures: Nov 21: vs Netherlands (9.30pm); Nov 25: vs Qatar (6.30pm); Nov 29: vs Ecuador (8.30pm)
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify
The Netherlands return to the biggest stage after a gap of eight years, after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. In the last four years, the team has shown signs of finding its old magic, which should give them the confidence of going deep into the tournament. The Dutch have one of the easiest groups, at least on paper, and are likely to face the runner-up of Group B, comprising England, Iran, the US and Wales, in the Round of 16. Given the draw, anything less than a quarterfinal appearance will be seen as a debacle.
— OnsOranje (@OnsOranje) November 11, 2022
They have an eclectic set of players, who form the spine of the team, managed by a coach – Luis van Gaal – who has scripted the turnaround. Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij are the options in central defence for the Dutch; Frenkie de Jong has exhibited his wide range of skills and magical vision playing in the midfield for club and country while Memphis Depay, on his day, can punish the best of defences.
Despite making some progress since 2018, this side isn’t nearly as efficient in the final third compared to the Dutch teams of the past. This was seen at Euro 2020, where they breezed past the group stage but were stunned 2-0 by the Czech Republic, against home they did not even have one attempt on goal. The defensive and attacking fragilities were also seen in the qualification match against Montenegro, where they wasted a 2-0 lead to be held to a draw.
Steven Bergwijn: The 24-year-old looked out of sorts in the Premier League with Spurs but he’s lit up the Eredivisie since joining Ajax. The winger has been Van Gaal’s go-to attacking option and he hasn’t disappointed yet.
Language of football- Stofzuiger (Vacuum Cleaner): A midfielder who has the ability to absorb pressure, operate in the free space in front of the defence and chase down the ball is called, in the Dutch football vocab, a vacuum cleaner. The phrase was first used to describe Will van der Kerkhof, the 1978 World Cupper who was nicknamed ‘De Stofzuiger’. In the current team, Marten de Roon plays the role of the ‘vacuum cleaner’. However, he picked up a muscle injury on October 27, putting his participation in doubt.
Fixtures: Nov 21: vs Senegal (9.30pm); Nov 25: vs Ecuador (9.30pm); Nov 29: vs Qatar (8.30pm)
*All times IST