The World Cup draw is Friday in Qatar, even though the entire field isn’t yet complete. While we don’t know all the teams, we do know quite a bit about how things will play out. Here’s a primer on the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
When is the World Cup?
The opening match is Nov. 21 (three days before Thanksgiving in the United States). Over the month that follows, all the games will take place in a tight circle of eight stadiums in and around Qatar’s capital, Doha, making it the most compact World Cup in history.
The final is Dec. 18 — a week before Christmas, which means the Doha airport on the morning of Dec. 19 is going to look like the entrance to a Walmart on Black Friday.
Wait, don’t they play the World Cup in July?
They always had, until Qatar got it.
Qatar, like the other bidders, initially proposed holding the tournament in its normal summer window, and brushed aside any suggestion it could not do so with the help of cooling technology that did not, at the time, exist. As The Times wrote on the day of the vote in 2010:
“Qatar’s bid overcame concerns about heat that can reach 120 degrees there in the summer. Officials say they will build air-conditioned stadiums, spending $4 billion to upgrade three arenas and build nine new ones in a compact area connected by a subway system.”
It took more than four years, but in 2015 FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, eventually concluded that a summer World Cup in 120-degree temperatures might bring unneeded problems (like, say, fans and players dying) and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively cooler months of November and December.
What about the league games that normally take place then?
Oh, the leagues grumbled. A lot. But they lost.
The switch to winter will disrupt not only league competitions in Europe and elsewhere, but also the lucrative UEFA Champions League, and it will require starting seasons earlier or finishing them later, or both.
A winter World Cup also would leave those professionals who do not go to Qatar — less than 800 of the world’s players take part — with a midseason break that could extend to two months, once pretournament camps and friendlies and post-Cup rest is factored in.
Fox Sports, which paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the United States broadcast rights, will have to wedge in a month of soccer games around another fall sport that tends to demand attention that time of year. Maybe you’ve heard of the N.F.L.?
How many teams get in?
A total of 32. They’ll be split into eight groups of four. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.
Which countries have qualified?
Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and 28 other teams so far have joined it. Those include most of the biggest teams from Europe and South America: England and Germany, Brazil and Argentina, France and Spain.
Canada is in. The United States and Mexico joined the field on Wednesday night.
Three places remain unclaimed. One will come from Europe, where Ukraine’s playoff against Scotland was postponed by war. Those teams will meet in June, with the winner to face Wales for Europe’s final place.
The other two entries will come from two intercontinental playoffs that month: Costa Rica will face New Zealand, the Oceania survivor, in one game, and Peru, the fifth-place team from South America, will face an Asian team, either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.
Are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo going?
Argentina, and Messi, qualified in November. But Portugal, and Ronaldo, needed to sweat out a European playoff after botching its guaranteed route to the finals in the group stage.
When will the games take place?
Qatar is in the same time zone as Moscow. So whatever strategy you used to wake up early (or stay up late) for the games in 2018 will work this time, too. But it will mean kickoffs as early as 4 a.m. Eastern, and no later than 2 p.m. Eastern.
How can I find out who my team is playing?
The World Cup draw is Friday in Qatar. In it, all 29 teams that have qualified and the three still to be determined will be placed in groups. So by the end of the day, you’ll know which three teams your team will face in the group stage, and have a good idea of who might await in the knockout rounds.
Who are the favorites?
The usual suspects qualified early, so many of them, in fact, that our soccer columnist, Rory Smith, wrote in November that “the likelihood is that the winner is already there.”
Quite what the tournament, riddled with scandal and concern from the day Qatar was announced as the host, will be like cannot yet be known. The identities of the teams who will contest it, though, are — for the most part — extremely familiar.
Most, if not quite all, of the traditional contenders are already there: a 10-country-strong European contingent led by France, the defending champion, and Belgium, officially the world’s best team, as well as the likes of Spain and England and Germany. They have been joined by the two great powerhouses of South America, Brazil and Argentina.
More than a dozen more teams have joined the party since those sentences were written last year. Which is to say that, in March, it’s still wide open.