Host Country: Qatar
The 22nd World Cup involves 32 teams who will play a total of 64 matches. These will be played in 8 venues located in 5 cities across Qatar, which makes it the first World Cup ever to be held in the Arab world.
Date of the Finals: 21st November - 18th December
Number of Venues: 8 (5 Host Cities)
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ goes the old adage. And for African football fans, opportunities to see many of their top internationals can be rare, with a lot playing outside the continent. This could explain the enthusiasm with which fans greet each edition of the CAF African Nations Championship. This competition is reserved exclusively for players from the Mother Continent who are active in its national championships, thereby enabling fans to see players they watch week-in week-out in the domestic leagues proudly donning their national team colours.
The 2020 edition, moved to 2021 because of Covid-19 and being hosted by Cameroon, will be especially important for those called up, presenting as it does the chance for them to stake a claim for a squad place ahead of the second round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, in which all 16 teams are still involved. FIFA.com takes a closer look at some of the contenders on the eve of the continental showdown.
This sixth edition was originally set to take place in Ethiopia, before being switched to Cameroon and rescheduled for April 2020. After then being postponed due to the pandemic, the competition finally gets underway this week in Cameroon, which will also host the CAF Africa Cup of Nations next year. The opening game will see the host nation take on Zimbabwe on 16 January at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde, where the final will also take place on 7 February.
Hosts under pressure: As they prepare for their fourth appearance at the event and the first major men’s tournament to be staged in Cameroon since the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations, the Indomitable Lions will be anxious to improve on their quarter-final exits of 2011 and 2016, and most certainly atone for finishing bottom of their group in 2018. However, the hosts failed to impress in their preparation games (two defeats and a draw), despite a forward line featuring two strikers with European experience in the shape of Jacques Zoua and Yannick Ndjeng.
A Moroccan stroll: The Atlas Lions were comfortable winners on home soil at the last edition in 2018, thanks in no small part to an unstoppable Ayoub El Kaabi. The forward picked up the top scorer and best player awards and forced his way into Herve Renard's squad for Russia 2018. Three years on, he continues to hone his craft in his national league, currently playing for Wydad Casablanca after a short loan spell in China PR, and represents his side’s best chance of retaining the title. Former international Mustapha Hadji, assistant to senior team coach Vahid Halilhodzic, has been tasked with closely monitoring the performances of five players in Cameroon: Abdelkrim Baaddi, Yahya Jabrane, Hicham El Mejhad, Soufiane Rahimi and Abdelilah Hafidi.
Another miracle for Libya? Winners in 2014 and semi-finalists four years later, Libya have worked wonders with their teams of local players during a period when the country’s national championship has regularly been cancelled. Once again this year, it seems fortune is favouring the Mediterranean Knights who, despite being eliminated by Tunisia in qualifying, nonetheless secured a place following the subsequent withdrawal of the Eagles of Carthage.
Cranes hoping for lift off: In this their fifth participation (a record they share with Congo DR and Zimbabwe), Uganda look better equipped than ever to finally get past the group stage. Coached by Northern Irishman Johnathan McKinstry, who led Rwanda in the 2016 edition, the Cranes will take confidence from their 2019 CECAFA Cup title. On the flip side, however, Patrick Kaddu, the top scorer in the qualifying phase of this African Nations Championship, later signed for Moroccan club RS Berkane and is therefore ineligible for the tournament.
Leopards back for more: Winners in 2009 and 2016, Congo DR would love a third title on their return, after missing the 2018 edition. The Leopards welcome back former coach Florent Ibenge, who had previously enjoyed success with the full national team before leaving his post in 2019 after a disappointing performance in that year’s Cup of Nations. The current squad draws heavily from the two local giants, TP Mazembe and AS Vita-Club, and has three players – Micah Mika, Ley Matampi and Ricky Tulenge – who were part of the team that won the 2016 title.
"Friendly matches are not the same as competitive ones. In competition, sometimes it’s the most determined team that wins. We have to live up to our name of Indomitable Lions by giving our all in every game. Our country has invested a great deal in hosting this tournament, so we cannot let that be for nothing. We’ll be giving everything." - Jacques Zoua, Cameroon striker and Africa Cup of Nations winner in 2017
"If we prepare well, then things should work out for us. We have confidence in this group of players because most of those selected already took part in the 2019 CECAFA Cup." - Johnathan McKinstry, Uganda coach and 2019 CECAFA Cup winner
"There’s still work to be done but we‘re close to being ready, given the time constraints. The [preparation] games were welcome and allowed us to see some of our shortcomings and get ready for the finals. We’re representing an entire nation so there’s no margin for error." - Gnama Akate, Togo captain
Colombian Reinaldo Rueda has become the new head coach of his homeland's national team, confirmed by the Colombian Football Federation (FCF) on Thursday 14 January.
"Coach Rueda will be in charge of leading our national team in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, as well as in the Copa America Argentina - Colombia 2021. We wish him and his team much success, convinced that they will do an excellent job in the task ahead," wrote the FCF in its official statement.
Rueda replaces Carlos Queiroz, who left the position in December 2020 after the team's poor start to the South American qualifiers, where Los Cafeteros find themselves seventh in the standings with four points from four games.
The news comes just a day after Rueda left the Chilean national team, which he took charge of in the second half of 2018. "The FCF thanks the Chilean Football Federation and its president, Pablo Milad, with whom in all moments there was dialogue and communication on the matter," the association added in its announcement.
Rueda coached all of the youth teams in Colombia before assuming the leadership of the senior team back in January 2004. That first stint ended in mid-2006, after Colombia failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany.
His next two jobs would be successful experiences: he took Honduras to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Ecuador to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Rueda will be presented to the media on Tuesday 19 January, at which time he will give his first statements following his return to Colombia.
FIFA has opened two invitations to tender (ITT) simultaneously for the media rights to the FIFA World Cup 2022™ and the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™, FIFA’s flagship men’s and women’s competitions, in Italy.
The FIFA World Cup 2022™ will be the 22nd edition of the competition and a unique edition, as the first FIFA World Cup™ in the Middle East and the first to take place in November/December. With ultra-modern venues, optimal playing conditions and a compact event footprint, the host country will be a very special setting in which to celebrate the game and its ability to connect and inspire people around the world. The tournament will feature 32 participating teams and 64 matches, offering a highly competitive group stage followed by an exciting knockout phase.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™ will be jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand and will be the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup™ to feature a 32-team format, expanded from 24 teams. Since its inception in 1991, the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ has grown exponentially to claim the crown of the most-watched single-sport event for women globally, the most recent edition – France 2019 – attracting a record audience of over 1.1 billion viewers, and smashing domestic viewing figures in many territories.
The tender processes will allow FIFA to select the media companies that are best placed to secure the required transmission commitments and to achieve FIFA’s objectives of providing broad exposure for its competitions and offering fans a high-quality viewing experience.
Media companies or organisations wishing to participate in any of these tender processes can request the ITT by email. Interested parties should contact Italy-Media-Rights@fifa.org
Submissions to FIFA must be received by 13:00 CET on Tuesday, 16 February 2021.
Through the sale of media rights for its football tournaments, FIFA generates income which is essential to support and develop football around the world, for instance through the FIFA Forward Football Development Programme.
Bearded, tattooed and brimming with passion, Aron Gunnarsson is widely seen as the embodiment of Iceland’s national team. He was named captain at 23, and a famous back tattoo – based on the country’s coat of arms – reflects his pride in holding that position.
When Iceland beat England to reach the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals, it was Gunnarsson who led the first player-fan rendition of the now-legendary ‘Viking Clap’. But from the moment Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson began moulding a team that would write football history, they had identified this all-action midfielder as the rock on which they would build.
“He’s a shining example of what we would like to stand for,” Hallgrimsson said in 2018. “What he stands for as a player… he’s our living identity. He’s a shining example off the pitch of how players should behave and how they should support each other; on the pitch he’s vital for organising the team. He knows the position of every player, and he’s demanding. And on top of that, he’s just a very good football player.”
Given this glowing tribute, it should be no surprise that one of the first calls Hallgrimsson made, after leaving Iceland to take charge of Qatari side Al Arabi, was to his former skipper. Gunnarsson, restless and ready for a change, took up the offer that followed. And it was from his new home in Qatar that the 31-year-old spoke to FIFA.com, discussing Iceland’s heartbreaking EURO qualifying failure, their FIFA World Cup™ hopes and life in the country that will host the 2022 finals.
FIFA.com: Aron, be honest: are you missing the weather of a British or Icelandic winter?
Aron Gunnarsson: A little bit actually! [laughs] Being Icelandic, I don’t mind a bit of cold! But it’s very nice here right now – about 20 degrees – so perfect weather really, and so much better than when I arrived back in August. That’s the hottest time of the year, and I was gobsmacked. The heat was unbearable at times. We’d train in the evening but even then the humidity was just crazy.
You’ve built your career on being the kind of midfielder who covers every blade of grass. Did you need to become more economical with your movements, especially in those early days?
Yeah, there’s no way of getting around that. We all get our GPS stats and it’s clear the amount of running drops in the second half of games here. I would also cramp up towards the end of matches in those early days a lot more than I normally would. So I needed to adapt. But now the weather’s great – perfect for football – and I can play my usual game again.
Scoring goals from your own half isn’t your usual game though. Tell us about that one.
[Laughs] That’s definitely true. But I’d seen the keeper off his line a few times before and thought, ‘Next time I get the ball, I’m going to whack it’. Fortunately I hit it nice and straight. Normally I’m like I am in golf, hooking or slicing my shots! [laughs]
You’d been out to Qatar in 2018 as part of your rehab following a serious knee injury. Was that when the seeds were sown about playing there one day?
Absolutely. I came out here with my family, and at that stage it was touch and go whether I’d make the World Cup. There’s a clinic here with magnificent facilities and all the right doctors and physios, and they helped get me back in time. I said to my wife at that stage, ‘I wouldn’t mind living here, you know’. The next year, Heimir took the job with Al Arabi and, soon after that, he picked up the phone to me. I was in the last year of my contract with Cardiff and I knew straight away it was something I wanted to do. I felt like I needed a change after 11 years in the UK, so Heimir really didn’t need to do much to sell the idea to me.
I was reading that you’ve been impressed with, and pleasantly surprised by, the standard of football in Qatar.
Definitely. One of the things I’d noticed before coming here was that there were a lot of goals in the league, and it made me think that the standard of defending and the tactical side of the game wouldn’t be what I was used to in Europe. But I think people here have recognised that issue themselves and there’s been a big change over the last couple of years, with more competition in the league and a better standard of play – tactical play especially. That’s very important for the league, and for the Qatari players who’ll be involved in the World Cup.
What can people expect from a World Cup in Qatar?
It’s going to be special. They’ve prepared for everything here. All the stadiums are air-conditioned, although the change to have the tournament in December is completely right in my opinion because it wouldn’t be nice for the supporters to come here in summer. As it is, they’ll get a bit of winter sunshine and be able to watch football in really perfect conditions. And everything right now is geared towards making this a fantastic World Cup because the Qataris really do want to do something extraordinary and have everyone talking positively about the country.
You’ll obviously be desperate to be involved in that World Cup but it’s been a tough time for Iceland lately. Where do you think it went wrong for Erik Hamren?
Erik was very unlucky with injuries. We were without a lot of key players during his time in charge. We nearly made it to the EURO all the same, losing in the last minute in the play-offs. That was very tough to take. But now we have new coaches in place (Arnar Vidarsson having been appointed, with Eidur Gudjohnsen as his assistant) and I think there are real possibilities in our World Cup qualifying group. Germany are there and they’ll be favourites, of course, but then it’s ourselves, Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein. So I’d be hopeful of us doing well, and the boys are definitely highly motivated to return to the World Cup. There are also quite a number of players who are in their 30s now and know this will probably be our last chance.
How do you reflect on Russia 2018 now, a couple of years on?
I really enjoyed it at the time but I didn’t enjoy the build-up. I thought I wasn’t going to make it for a long time - right up until the tournament really - because I not only had the issue with my knee, but ankle ligament damage too. But stepping out on to that pitch, at a World Cup, was a special feeling. Not being match-fit and needing to chase Messi around for 90 minutes wasn’t the easiest comeback, I can tell you! But I was so relieved to be involved and it was fantastic to come up against one of the greatest players ever.
Are the ingredients that underpinned Iceland’s success over the past few years – that hunger and team spirit – still there to the same extent?
I get asked that question quite a lot: ‘Do we still have the hunger?’ And for me it’s a definite yes. Ok, we made history by qualifying for the EURO and the World Cup. But once you’ve experienced those things it just gives you a taste for doing it again and again. It’s the best feeling ever to be representing your country in a big tournament and if experiencing that doesn’t give you the hunger to do it again, you shouldn’t be playing football at all.
Tell us about that famous back tattoo. What was the inspiration there?
Playing for Iceland means a lot to me. I think there’s something special about representing a small country; you feel like you’re the little guy who always has to fight harder than the others. With the tattoo, it was after the EURO and I wanted to do something special and meaningful. It was done by an Icelandic guy who came over to Cardiff four times, working on my back for two days each time he came. Once it was for seven hours straight. When I introduced the idea to him, he said: ‘Are you sure? Because the colour [of the flag] will be right on your spine and you’re going to be in a lot of pain.’ And I can tell you: he wasn’t lying! [laughs] But it was something I really wanted to do, and I have no regrets.
You’ve been Iceland captain since you were 23. How did it feel to be given that responsibility at such a young age?
Lars [Lagerback] was building a new team at the time and I think he maybe wanted a young guy to lead the pack. It’s a big ask at that age but I guess he must have seen some leadership qualities in me. I made some mistakes at the start, said some silly things in interviews, but I think I grew into the role. One thing I know is that, when I retire, I’ll be so, so proud to say I’ve captained an Iceland team that made some real history.
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ is less than two years away, and with every milestone reached, excitement continues to build in the country and across the region.
Football’s showpiece event means many things to many people, especially those who have lifted the coveted trophy. And one player who has special memories of the tournament is former Brazil captain Cafu.
The 50-year-old won the World Cup on two occasions during a storied career that included trophy-laden spells with Sao Paulo, AS Roma and AC Milan. The former defender is also Brazil’s most capped player with 142 international appearances.
As a Global Ambassador for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Cafu believes Qatar 2022 will deliver the kind of memories he was fortunate enough to experience as a player on multiple occasions.
Cafu: The World Cup is a tournament for the entire world and so every country has the right to bid and play host to it. For passionate fans across the region, this must be very exciting. Having the tournament in your neighbourhood will offer millions the chance to attend it for the very first time. And knowing what Qatar is planning in terms of infrastructure and fan experience, this World Cup will be exciting for everyone.
The organisers behind this edition of the World Cup have made sure that its legacy will be felt around the world. Their commitment to sustainability is something that will have a positive impact on the environment and set the bar for how mega sporting events should be organised in the future. This includes plans to repurpose parts of stadiums after the final whistle to support sporting infrastructure in developing countries.
The timing of the tournament means that many players will be in peak fitness, because they won’t be joining their national teams after a long club season. Combined with the perfect weather conditions that Qatar is known for at that time of year, we are set to see some exciting football on the pitch. There will be no excuses for the biggest stars not to shine.
For those that love watching football, whether it’s on TV or in person, Qatar 2022 will be a dream come true. Four group stage matches a day, all played at stadiums that are close to each other, means that potentially you can attend two matches in one day. That’s something that hasn’t happened in the modern era of the World Cup.
For the participating teams, they will be able to stay in one team base and avoid any long travel between matches. This will undoubtedly give players more time to train, rest and be better prepared for what matters most – the football!
It’s what every player dreams of – to be a world champion. You play with and against the best players in the world. It’s where you want to be as a player.
Lassina Traore had a very big hand in Ajax Amsterdam’s 13-0 thrashing of VVV-Venlo on 24 October last year, scoring five goals and setting up three more. In the process the man from Burkina Faso became the first Ajax player to score as many goals in an Eredivisie match since Marco van Basten struck six against Sparta Rotterdam back in 1985.
It was no mean feat for a player who will turn 20 this January and who has only broken into the first team this season. Yet for anyone who has been following his performances with Ajax’s reserves since arriving in Europe two years ago, it perhaps came as less of a surprise. A powerful and lethal finisher and a consummate team player, Traore is repaying the faith that the Dutch giants showed in signing him from their former South African feeder team Ajax Cape Town [now known as Cape Town Spurs].
As Traore explained, however, it took time for him to make his mark in the Netherlands: “It was tough and the standard was really high. I realised how hard I would need to work. I remember one training session in the United States where I had Matthijs de Ligt right on my back. He couldn’t have marked me any tighter. He was strong like me and very quick. It was the first time for me and he got the ball off me every time, though things would be different today,” he added with a smile.
Keen to learn and a hard worker, Traore made every effort to adapt to his new life on and off the pitch. Luckily for him, his arrival at Ajax coincided with their thrilling run to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League in the 2018/19 season.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “I felt so proud. Even though my first year was really tough, I was really happy to be part of that adventure.” It was an adventure in which he made his first appearance on the bench in the dramatic semi-final second-leg defeat to Tottenham.
One good reason for Traore’s rise to prominence is the fact that he hails from a family that has football in its blood. His mother was as passionate about the game as anyone and has been in love with it since her childhood days. "Her parents didn’t want her to play football and she had to make sure they didn’t catch her training and playing matches,” said the young striker. “Then, when she started to make some money from it, they understood that it was serious and let her play."
And play she did, becoming the captain and playmaker of Burkina Faso’s women’s national team. “I went with her everywhere when I was young,” said Traore. “I was there when she was training and when she was playing. That’s where my passion for the game comes from. She gives me career advice but when it comes to things out on the pitch, she knows that I know what to do. She’s taught me how to rest, how to lead a healthy life, and how to focus the day before matches."
His father also played football, though not at the highest level, while his uncle, Rahim Ouedraogo, played for Burkina Faso before founding a club, Rahimo FC, in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso in 2012. Now one of the country’s leading clubs, it runs an academy that Traore joined at the age of 11. “I learned everything I know there,” said the Ajax front man, who fed his dreams of glory by watching the national team in action and following the exploits of his two favourite players: Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Traore is also the cousin of Bertrand Traore, the former Ajax and current Aston Villa forward, and sees him as something of a big brother, after the role he played in helping him adjust to his new life in Europe. The two played side by side for their country in 2017, when Lassina won his first cap at just 16. Despite his tender age, he began his international career with a bang, scoring three goals in his first two outings with the Stallions.
The Ajax star is part of an exciting new generation of Burkinese players who are building on the progress of the last ten years and are full of confidence heading into their next African engagements. First up come the last two qualifying matches for the 2021 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in March, followed shortly afterwards by the start of the preliminaries for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
As Traore explained, the Stallions have their sights set on reaching the world finals for the very first time: “The people of Burkina Faso are starting to believe we can do it. They know we’ve got a team that can go far, especially with the new generation that’s coming through. They’re linking up well with the experienced players who reached the Africa Cup of Nations final in 2013 and finished third in 2017. We’ll get our reward as long as we stick at it, and we’ve got what it takes to achieve big things.”
The qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ was hit by a number of organisational challenges in 2020. But with the action now under way in South America, and draws held by UEFA, CAF and CONCACAF, the path to the global finals has started to take shape in every confederation. FIFA.com takes a look at the state of play in each of the regions.
The year kicked off with the draw for the second round of qualifiers, which featured the 14 winners from round one and Africa's 26 highest-placed teams on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Those initial victors included Guinea-Bissau, who made history by finally passing the first obstacle in their home-and-away contest with Sao Tome and Principe. As for Djibouti, they sealed only their second-ever spot in round two by seeing off Eswatini – and avoiding an away defeat for the first time in a World Cup qualifier at the seventh attempt. Elsewhere, Emilio Nsue made headlines with the decisive goal for Equatorial Guinea, while Gerald Phiri struck a crucial late penalty for Malawi and 18-year-old Ashley Williams saved a spot-kick in added time for Liberia, helping them squeeze through with a 1-0 defeat in Sierra Leone following their 3-1 triumph at home.
The 40 remaining contenders have now been divided into ten groups. The ten group winners will progress to the third round, where they will be paired together in five home-and-away ties. The winners of those five ties will qualify for Qatar 2022.
Reigning African champions Algeria look to be the clear favourites in Group A, while a big name is guaranteed to miss out on the finals after Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire were both drawn in Group D. It is a similar story in Group G, where at least one of Ghana or South Africa are destined to watch the global showcase from afar. As for Senegal and their star forward Sadio Mane, the 2019 African Footballer of the Year will be looking to make his talent count against Congo, Namibia and former World Cup participants Togo.
The second round of qualifiers has already passed the halfway stage among the 40 teams divided into eight groups. So far, continental heavyweights Australia and Japan have shocked few by claiming a perfect record from their four games, but Syria have fared even better courtesy of five wins in five matches.
Familiar faces at World Cup finals, Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic have found the going more difficult, though both remain well placed. The Green Falcons now lie a point behind Uzbekistan but boast a game in hand, while the Taegeuk Warriors will need to roll up their sleeves to keep pace with surprise Group H leaders Turkmenistan. The situation appears trickier for IR Iran, who find themselves as low as third in Group C and have practically no room left for error.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up will advance to the third round, where they will be drawn into two groups of six teams. The top two in each section will secure tickets to Qatar 2022, while the two third-placed sides will meet in a play-off to determine who will represent Asia in an inter-continental playoff.
After four games, it is hard to draw any firm conclusions – and yet some obvious trends have already emerged. Top of the list is Brazil's dominant start thanks to four wins from four outings, their defence having conceded just twice while they have struck 12 goals at the other end. And this despite coach Tite needing to cope with injuries to Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho. A Seleçao are now unbeaten in their last 21 World Cup qualifiers and look set to extend their record of having appeared in all 21 editions of the final tournament.
Argentina are not far behind after posting three wins and a draw, and have also shipped just two goals, putting them level with Brazil as the continent's toughest side to breach. Their campaign so far has likewise underlined the talent of Lautaro Martinez up front, which could help coach Lionel Scaloni ease any dependence on Lionel Messi.
Third place in the table belongs to Ecuador, meanwhile, the surprise dark horses having recovered from a 1-0 loss away to Argentina in Gustavo Alfaro's first game in charge. Since then, he has transformed La Tri into a goalscoring machine, producing a 4-2 win against Uruguay, a 6-1 defeat of Colombia and a first victory in Bolivia since 2009. Ecuador will resist getting carried away, however, having won their first four matches on the road to Russia 2018 before ultimately falling short.
Although the qualifiers are yet to begin in earnest, the draw for the first round took place in August. Based on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for July 2020, CONCACAF's 30 lowest-placed sides were split across six different groups.
The six group winners will face off in three predetermined home-and-away ties – and the victors in those jousts will then contest the third round along with the five highest-placed CONCACAF teams in the same FIFA Ranking (Costa Rica, USA, Honduras, Jamaica and Mexico). Those eight sides will play against each other home and away in a round-robin format and the top three nations will qualify for Qatar 2022, while the fourth-placed team will dispute an intercontinental play-off.
The qualifiers have likewise not started in Europe, where a draw on 7 December laid out the road ahead.
The ten group winners will qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 and the ten runners-up will enter the play-offs, which will also include the two best group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League who have not already qualified for the finals or play-offs. Those 12 teams will be divided into three qualifying paths, with knockout ties determining the three remaining European sides to reach the World Cup.
There have also been no qualifying matches between the OFC's 11 member associations: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu. The region's top side after the qualifiers will contest an intercontinental play-off.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ represented a milestone for Croatian football, a summer fairy tale that will likely never be forgotten. Under Zlatko Dalic’s stewardship they made it to the Final, where they succumbed to a 4-2 defeat by France in a spectacular encounter.
The team subsequently underwent a period of transition as stars such as striker Mario Mandzukic and penalty-stopper supreme Danijel Subasic decided to call time on their international careers following that particular highlight. However Dalic, who has been at the helm since 2017, remained, determined that his path had not yet come to an end.
The 54-year-old successfully integrated talented youngsters into the side and led the national team to comfortable qualification for UEFA EURO 2020, which will take place in the coming summer. Before then, however, they face another serious test when the qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ begins in March.
FIFA.com spoke to Dalic about the upcoming challenges, the difficulties 2020 brought, and coaching through the coronavirus pandemic.
Zlatko Dalic: There are no easy groups because qualifying for the World Cup is a dream for every nation. We have a tough group but we accept our position as a favourite in the group - we're the best seeded team and we are current World Cup silver medallists. We truly respect all opponents in the group.
We've played against Slovakia in qualifiers and they know us very well - they proved their quality by qualifying for the EURO in play-offs. Russia was a very difficult opponent for us at the World Cup, there they beat Spain, which says enough. Slovenia is improving under the coach Matjaz Kek, who worked in Croatia and knows us very well, and our neighbours will be highly motivated to prove themselves against us. Finally, Cyprus and Malta are also among best teams in their seeding groups, so we're looking at a challenging group. However, we believe in our quality and we feel confident ahead of the qualifiers.
Obviously, schedule will be very tight in March and September with three games in one week. It leaves almost no time for training, and with the long travels, it's very challenging for the players to play three so important games, especially with their club schedule also being quite exhausting. It will be important to plan very well and try to manage our resources the best that we can, to protect the players while going for the best results. However, it's the same for everybody, so we won't use that as an excuse.
The other issue is the fact that we have the EURO in the middle of the qualifiers, which is unusual, and it will also present a problem for all EURO participants. For instance, you are starting the qualifiers with one team, but it's possible that after EURO, some players retire from the national team, so you have to make important changes in the middle of the cycle.
I had a privilege of working in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia and UAE, so I am familiar with the culture and people in that region. I have very nice memories of my time in the Middle East and still have many good friends there. Therefore, I am certain we'll have a great World Cup in Qatar because the hosts will do everything in their power to show us their great hospitality.
Yes, I think it will. Hopefully, the pandemic will be over, and we'll have a chance to enjoy the World Cup with fans from across the world. It will be a first World Cup in the Middle East, but also the first World Cup where fans could attend two games in one day - all the stadiums are so close to each other, and I think that will create a great atmosphere - something like Olympic games. Stadiums are going to be great, and again, I am sure the hosts will do a great job in organisation, security and everything else, to make sure fans have a great time.
I think people understand that 2018 was special and that you can't repeat that every two or four years. I think we had more pressure in 2018, when we knew it was probably a last chance for some of our senior players. Now, our pressure is to qualify - we want to be there, among the best.
Once we're there, we know that we have the quality, talent and self-belief to beat anyone on a given night, but we also understand that Croatia is not in the first row of favourites - that's reserved for the biggest teams, such as France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Belgium or Portugal. Of course, as we showed in 1998 and 2018, that doesn't mean Croatia can't make a historic run, but I don't think we have pressure to do that.
Yes, our team changed quite a lot since Russia. Players such as Rakitic, Mandzukic, Subasic and Corluka are no longer with us, and we have talented youngsters coming in and taking on bigger roles. We used the UEFA Nations League in 2018 and 2020 to give a chance to several new players and we got through EURO 2020 qualifying cycle quite well.
Luka Modric is still our leader, and with Brozovic and Kovacic alongside him, we still have one of the best midfields in the world. Senior players such as Perisic, Vida and Lovren give us much needed experience, and we also have young guns, such as Brekalo and Vlasic, who proved their potential, so we feel pretty good ahead when it comes to our future.
We fulfilled our dreams in Russia - that was unforgettable for everybody involved, and for our fans as well. But it also gives us an extra motivation because we know how special it is to make the whole nation so joyful and proud. With the current pandemic going on, and so many lives lost, we understand that the whole nation will look at us to make them happy once again, and it's our obligation to do our very best to try to replicate that magic from Russia.
As I mentioned before - there are a few teams that are, objectively, ahead of us at the moment. But, we're pretty confident in our quality and we surely won't admit to anyone they're better than us until they prove that on the pitch. And that's very difficult to do, because not only we have the quality, but we also play with so much passion and togetherness for Croatia.
I said during our last matches in November that I can't wait for this whole year to finish. First of all, it is devastating that so many people across the world lost their lives. Also, so many people and businesses were economically impacted by lockdowns and other measures. And then you have football without fans, which is just not the same and it lacks that emotion that full stadiums provide.
Finally, with all these measures, before the games we thought more about the tests and who's positive or not, than about tactics, conditioning or anything football-related. It's just been a terrible year and hopefully, we will all have a much better 2021. I just wish good health for everyone.
In the presence of His Highness the Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, along with an enthusiastic physically distanced crowd, Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium hosted the 48th Amir Cup final on Qatar National Day to become the fourth fully operational FIFA World Cup 2022™ tournament venue to be inaugurated. Today’s inauguration took place exactly two years ahead of Qatar’s 2022 final.
The stadium – which will become the new home of Al Rayyan Sports Club – follows Khalifa International, Al Janoub and Education City in being declared ready to welcome the first FIFA World Cup™ in the Middle East and the Arab world. The 40,000-capacity venue will host seven matches during Qatar 2022 up to the round-of-16 stage.
Following a spectacular pre-match ceremony featuring music, cultural performances and stunning visual effects, along with a riddle recited by presenters Hamad bin Mohsen Al Naimi and Ali bin Rhema Al Marri, the final between Al Sadd and Al Arabi kicked off.
Among the dignitaries in attendance was FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who praised the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) for the successful completion of another Qatar 2022 tournament venue.
“The Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium is a wonderful football stadium,” said Infantino. “The atmosphere is incredible, with the seats extremely close to the pitch. Even with a physically distanced crowd, I could feel the passion of the fans. I am sure this will be a perfect football arena in 2022 when it hosts matches during the World Cup.”
He continued: “I would like to congratulate Qatar and HH the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the completion of this venue. The country is very well prepared for the next FIFA World Cup and on track to host a memorable instalment of the tournament – the first in the Middle East and the Arab world.”
Built on the site of the Al Rayyan Sports Club’s former stadium, the venue is adjacent to the Mall of Qatar and within walking distance of Al Riffa station on the Doha Metro’s Green Line. The stadium’s most striking feature is a glowing façade, comprised of patterns that characterise different aspects of Qatar: the importance of family, the beauty of the desert, native flora and fauna, and local and international trade. A fifth shape – a shield – brings together all the others, representing the strength and unity that are particularly relevant to the desert city of Al Rayyan.
HE Hassan Al Thawadi, the Secretary General of the SC, said: “The inauguration of Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Qatar National Day is another important milestone on the road to 2022 and a triumph that is testament to the efforts of everyone involved in putting on such a successful event during a global pandemic. The stadium and surrounding precinct are sure to be a source of pride for Al Rayyan Sports Club and everyone who lives in this historic city.
“Looking ahead to 2021, we look forward to unveiling more stadiums in the new year, as we ensure that all tournament venues are delivered well in advance of the big kick-off in 2022,” added Al Thawadi.
Nasser Al Khater, the Chief Executive Officer of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 LLC, said: “Tonight was an immensely proud occasion for Qatar and the people of Al Rayyan. It was also another opportunity to test our readiness for Qatar 2022, with thousands of fans enjoying the spectacle, despite the challenges caused by the ongoing pandemic. We look forward to developing the Qatar 2022 fan experience further next year when we host more major tournaments, including the FIFA Club World Cup and FIFA Arab Cup – events that are sure to excite football lovers in Qatar, across the region and around the world.”
The match was attended by a host of other famous footballing faces, as well as AFC President HE Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, CONMEBOL President Alejandro Domínguez and UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin.
The passion of the Argentinian fan has been well documented, not least at the last two FIFA World Cups™. In both Brazil and Russia, Albiceleste supporters took their devotion to new levels, attending games in huge numbers while winning admirers with their catchy songs and characteristic colour.
Who better then than an Argentinian member of the FIFA Fan Movement to tell us first-hand about the sport closest to his heart, as well as his experience sharing that passion with other fans from all over the globe at the last two FIFA World Cups:
My name is Osvaldo Santander and I’m 55 years old. I have a degree in advertising and, above all, I’m Argentinian. I underline this because it relates directly to my passion for and devotion to football, and my unconditional love for the round ball.
I've been attending football games since the age of three, when my father first took me to see my beloved San Lorenzo de Almagro. That gave rise to something inside me that is still growing and has made me part of a large football family that enjoys games, delights in goals, suffers with defeats and experiences many emotions.
The 1974 FIFA World Cup in West Germany will forever have a place in my heart. I was nine years old and obsessed with filling my sticker album, which proved impossible but nonetheless led me to watch all the games on a black and white TV. That edition, along with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, ensured my love of football would endure forever.
My life story constantly references the World Cups: if I want to remember what I was doing at 25, I think of Italia ‘90; if I’m wondering about 2006, then I trace it back to the World Cup in Germany. It’s always been like that.
I’ve also been a collector of football memorabilia for more than 30 years, especially World Cup items. Football brings me joy and lets me dream. It’s a love that never asks anything of you in return.
My World Cup obsession led me to spend two weeks in Brazil for the 2014 edition. I experienced some fantastic shared moments there. A full-on party, swapping football shirts, scarves, flags... I even attended the Algeria-Korea Republic game with low expectations and witnessed an absolute cracker (4-2)... That’s when I first realised that I had to go to Russia 2018!
I came back very happy from Porto Alegre but then it dawned on me how difficult it would be: getting tickets, travel and accommodation costs, etc... My friends told me I was crazy, but nothing could deflect me from my goal.
The first positive sign came from FIFA, who granted me tickets for the seven matches I’d applied for, all in Moscow. There was also the chance of seeing Argentina there, but there were still two matchdays left in South American qualifying and we were struggling to secure our place.
Luckily, we qualified and I could breathe again. Those tickets were not only for me, but also for my son Julian – my companion on a thousand football adventures – my sister Maria Mercedes and a friend who was committed to our cause from the beginning.
Then we bought our flights. Eight months ahead of the World Cup, we already had the most important thing!
The months leading up to it were exciting. There were meetings with other fans who were joining us, and lots of plans to meet people whom I’m in contact with in other countries. Many of them are also collectors, and they too contributed to making this trip so wonderful.
As we were going to be 18 days in Moscow, we rented an apartment near the Luzhniki stadium, behind Moscow University.
En route to Russia, we had an eight-hour stopover in Frankfurt, and so to pass the time, we spread out all the flags we had with us on the floor. Other fans followed suit, and soon we’d created a magical global confraternity.
Russia 2018 was pure joy and excitement; everything was incredibly well organised. The authorities were cordial but strict, which helped us enjoy an event of great emotion in a controlled way, without fights or anything like that. That's remarkable.
If I were to recommend one thing, it’d be to arrive a few days before the start of the tournament. We got there four days early and met loads of fans in a state of complete bliss. None of us had had results to celebrate or be down about, that was all still to come.
With no tickets to the Opening Ceremony, we left early for Fan Fest. To say it was fabulous is an understatement. We'd seen it in Brazil, but this was on another scale. During half-time in Russia-Saudi Arabia, we approached the stadium on the hunt for memorabilia for our own museum: plastic cups that had been binned, credentials, merchandising... anything and everything!
Two days later, it was our turn to see our beloved Argentina against Iceland at the Spartak Stadium. We went with our football shirts, hats and flags, as well as stickers and 300 coasters, which we handed out to anyone we came across.
Hearing our national anthem was very emotional. My son and I were crying because, just a few months previously, the person who’d nurtured my love of football – my father (his grandfather Paco) – had passed away, and we felt that he was accompanying us. The result was not as important as the joy of having cheered on our national team so far from home. That was unforgettable.
After that we attended the Germany-Mexico, Poland-Senegal, Portugal-Morocco, Belgium-Tunisia and Denmark-France games before we ended our adventure with Brazil-Serbia. Those games were fantastic for acquiring content for for our museum: we got shirts, inflatables, tickets, glasses and many other things.
Safely through to the last 16, we began the journey back to Argentina with a host of unforgettable experiences. And all because football is unpredictable: win or lose, you always take away stories and moments that stay with you for the rest of your life.
You meet at a huge amount of diverse and inclusive people at a World Cup. You jump for joy and find yourself hugging and singing with other fans, and when you look closely, you see one is German, one Ecuadorian, another Senegalese, another Romanian... we even met someone from Nepal! It's magnificent!
A World Cup is not just about players, officials and coaching staff trying to win the Trophy. It is the coming-together of the world’s people, all pulsating with the same passion, the same feeling. Only a few take away the glory, but everyone can take away the celebrations! Long live football!"
Won most by: Brazil - 5 times winners
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