Gonzalo Higuain will hang up his boots at the end of the Major League Soccer season, according to his father.

Higuain joined Inter Miami in September 2020, and has scored 15 goals in 44 MLS games for the team co-owned by David Beckham.

The 34-year-old is out of contract in December, and reports had suggested the former Real Madrid and Juventus striker was planning to move back to Argentina at the end of the campaign.

However, speaking to TNT Sports, his father, Jorge, said his son has told him he intends to end his career after he is finished in Miami.

"He is not going back to Argentina," his father, a former River Plate and Boca Juniors player, confirmed. "He told me that he is retiring at the end of the year. He is ending this year and is retiring from football.

"I would love for him to continue to be linked to football after playing. He is a boy who knows a lot, who has played in several places, he has everything to succeed. For me, it would be an insult if he does not continue in football."

After moving from River Plate to Madrid in December 2006, Higuain made a name for himself at Santiago Bernabeu, scoring 107 goals in 190 LaLiga appearances before moving to Napoli, where he famously broke the all-time Serie A record for goals in a single campaign (36 in 2015-16).

A big-money move to rivals Juventus saw him spend two seasons with the Bianconeri before loan moves to Milan and Chelsea. He spent one more year with Juve before heading to the United States in 2020.

He scored 31 goals in 75 games for Argentina.

The dust is settling following the 2022 World Cup draw, which has provided a number of subplots and talking points aplenty to discuss between now and the opening set of games on November 21.

France, placed in a group that contains Denmark, Tunisia and one of Peru or Australia, will look to avoid becoming the fifth defending champions in the past six tournaments to exit at the first hurdle.

Spain and Germany, the winners of two of the past three World Cups, face off in arguably the pick of the group games in what will be their fifth meeting in the competition and the first since La Roja's 2010 semi-final triumph.

There are some good omens for England, who are in action on the opening day of the tournament – the last time that was the case they went on to lift the trophy on home soil in 1966.

As the debate rumbles on as to which is the most interesting group this time around, and supporters of participating nations plot out their route to the latter stages, Stats Perform picks out a key stat for each team.

GROUP A – Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

Qatar are competing in their first World Cup and will aim to avoid becoming only the second host nation to be knocked out in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

They will begin their campaign against Ecuador, who have not faced a nation from outside of the UEFA or CONCACAF regions in their previous 10 World Cup matches.

Senegal are participating in the event for a third time and are the third African Cup of Nations title holders to qualify this century after Cameroon in 2002 and Nigeria in 2014.

However, the heavyweights of the group are the Netherlands, who have won 11 of their last 14 World Cup matches when not factoring in penalty shoot-outs. Three times Oranje have reached the final; three times they have been beaten. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, of course.

GROUP B – England, Iran, United States, Scotland/Wales/Ukraine

England have progressed past the quarter-finals just once since 1966, although the most recent occasion came four years ago when losing in the semi-finals.

First up for England are Iran, who have scored nine goals in 15 World Cup matches – that goals-per-game average of 0.6 the lowest of any side to have played at least 10 times.

Back involved after missing Russia 2018, the United States will be looking to reach the knockout stages for a fourth time in their past five participations in a World Cup.

Should Wales reach the finals, the gap of 64 years between their only two finals appearances will set a record.

Scotland, who meet Ukraine in a play-off for the right to face Wales, have made more World Cup appearances (eight) without making it past the first round than any other nation.

 

GROUP C – Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

One of three South American teams to have lifted the trophy, Argentina have made it past the first round in 12 of their past 13 appearances, the only exception being in 2002.

It would be an understatement to say that Saudi Arabia have had less success in the finals, having won only three of their previous 16 World Cup matches – albeit one of those coming against Egypt in the 2018 edition.

Mexico have reached every World Cup since missing out in 1990 and tend to do well in the group stage, having advanced to the last 16 in each of their last eight appearances.

Whereas Mexico have won five of their past six opening games, first opponents Poland have won just one of their previous eight curtain-raising fixtures and have lost the last three.

GROUP D – France, Peru/Australia/UAE, Denmark, Tunisia

France are out to become the third team, after Italy (in 1938) and Brazil (in 1962) to retain the trophy. However, the last three defending champions have fallen in the group stage.

Denmark boasted the best defensive record of any side in European qualifying and have made it out of the group stage in four of their five World Cup appearances.

That is in contrast to Tunisia, who have not made the knockout rounds in six previous attempts. The Eagles of Carthage have also not beaten a European side in 10 World Cup games (D3 L7).

Tunisia have lost 60 per cent of their World Cup games, the third-highest by a team to have played 15+ games behind Saudi Arabia (69 per cent) and possible Group D opponents Australia (63 per cent).

 

GROUP E – Spain, Costa Rica/New Zealand, Germany, Japan

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but that is the only occasion they have reached the semi-finals in their last 13 participations. However, they have won the group in four of their last five appearances.

Germany, champions in 2014, were the first side to reach Qatar 2022 aside from the hosts, and have made it to the semi-finals in four of the five World Cups this century – the best record of any side.

After reaching the last 16 in 2018, competition regulars Japan will aim to book a place in the knockouts in back-to-back editions for the first time.

Completing arguably the toughest group is either Costa Rica or New Zealand, who meet in a play-off in June. Costa Rica have appeared at five previous World Cups, while the All Whites have made it to the finals twice before.

GROUP F – Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Belgium have qualified for more World Cups without winning it than any other European team, with this their 14th appearance. With much of their 'golden generation' either 30 or close to it, however, this is realistically the final chance for that batch of players to cement their names in the history books, after a third-place finish in 2018.

Roberto Martinez's team might meet Spain or Germany in the last 16 but should have little trouble in getting out of their group.

Canada are competing in the global showpiece for the first time since 1986, when they lost all three matches and failed to score.

Morocco have won just one of their last 10 World Cup games, with that coming against Scotland in 1998, while their last knockout-round appearance was in 1986.

Beaten finalists in 2018, Croatia have had a mixed time of things in the finals, having been eliminated in the group stage (three times) or reached the semis (twice) in their past five appearances.

 

GROUP G – Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Brazil are the competition's most successful side with five trophies and are unbeaten in their last 15 World Cup group games, winning 12 of those. Their last such defeat was against Norway in 1998.

The next side with a chance to end that long run are Serbia, who have lost seven of their last nine World Cup matches, which is the most of any European nation since 2006. They also met Brazil in the 2018 group stage.

Another team to have been drawn with Brazil and, indeed, Serbia in Russia was Switzerland. History has repeated itself this time around. The Swiss finished above Italy in qualifying to make it to their fifth successive finals. Including the European Championships, they have reached the knockout stages in their last four major tournaments, a record only Belgium and France can match.

Cameroon make up Group G. They have played more matches at the World Cup than any other African nation (23), but they have lost the last seven of those – only Mexico (nine) have ever lost more in a row.

GROUP H – Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea

Heavyweights they may be, but Portugal have won only three of their last 14 World Cup matches, each of those in the group stage. Their last knockout-round win was in the last 16 against the Netherlands in 2006. 

All being well, Cristiano Ronaldo will be featuring in a record-equalling fifth World Cup. It will almost certainly be his last, though.

Ghana's quarter-final appearance in 2010 remains the joint-best finish for an African side, alongside Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990, and they have scored in their last five World Cup games.

Uruguay controversially eliminated Ghana in the quarter-finals 12 years ago but the Black Stars have a chance for revenge here in the final round of fixtures.

First up for Uruguay, meanwhile, are South Korea, but the South American side have won their opening match at just one of their last seven World Cups.

That is good news for Son Heung-min and Co. as South Korea look to win successive finals matches for just the second time ever, having knocked out Germany four years ago.

We know most of the teams and now we know the majority of the games after the draw for the 2022 World Cup was made in Doha on Friday.

The full line-up of teams is still to be determined and the locations and times for each fixture are also to be confirmed, but what we do know is that there will be some extremely intriguing matches in the group stage in November when proceedings get under way in Qatar.

Tournament debutants, check. Cinderella stories, check. A mouth-watering clash between European heavyweights, check. A game to make England fans extremely anxious, oh you better believe that's a check.

Yes, this is a group stage that appears to have everything and, while there is plenty of time for opinions of these teams to change, here Stats Perform takes you through a look at some of the best games delivered by this year's draw.

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

Over 8,000 miles separate Doha and Quito, but both cities figure to be transfixed by the World Cup opener, in which the hosts will make their debut.

Qatar have been dealt a difficult hand in Group A, having also been pitted against three-time finalists the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.

First up, though, is a meeting with an Ecuador side that came through the arduous challenge of CONMEBOL qualifying with 27 goals to their name, their highest tally in a single edition.

Qatar do have recent tournament pedigree, however, impressively beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, with the goal they conceded the only time their net was breached in the entire tournament.

Yet their performance in the Asian Cup that same year did not inspire much confidence in them beating a South American nation. Qatar were knocked out in the group stage with just one point to their name when they appeared in the Copa America.

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

Canada face a challenging start to their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986, a duel with the side second behind Brazil in the FIFA world rankings their immediate reward for a dream run through CONCACAF qualifying.

Belgium should not lack motivation, with Qatar realistically marking the last chance for their 'golden generation' to win a major tournament. Their performance in the group stage across the last 28 years suggests a shock here is unlikely. Since losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in 1994, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 12 group stage matches.

But Canada can afford to be full of belief following a remarkable qualifying run in which they scored 23 goals and conceded just seven in the final round.

Regardless of how they perform, English coach John Herdman will make history, as he is set to become the first person to manage in both the men's and women's World Cup.

England v United States (November 25)

Everybody loves a trilogy. Unless you're Rob Green. England and the United States have met twice in the World Cup, and the Three Lions have not won either of those games.

There was a famous defeat to the USA as England crashed out in the group stage in their first appearance in the finals in 1950.

Acquaintances were renewed 60 years later, with the USA claiming a point after Green spilled Clint Dempsey's long-range effort to cancel out Steven Gerrard's early opener.

England, having lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy and gone unbeaten in 22 matches – conceding only three goals in qualifying – will be the heavy favourites once again. However, a USA side that boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie have the talent in their ranks to spring a surprise.

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste will have a couple of tricky hurdles to negotiate in the group stage, this meeting with El Tri coming before a Group C finale against Robert Lewandowski and Poland.

Mexico boast a superb record when it comes to getting through the group stage, having done so in each of their last eight appearances at the finals.

Facing the prolific talents of Lewandowski and Messi, this is a group that threatens to put that streak in jeopardy.

The Mexico defence kept eight clean sheets in CONCACAF qualifying, and such resolute play at the back will likely be needed for them to defy Messi and Co.

That task has frequently proven beyond Mexico, who have lost each of their three World Cup meetings with Argentina.

Hoping to mastermind a shock will be a face familiar to Messi and his team-mates, with former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino set to lead Mexico into a game against his home country.

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

This is comfortably the headline act as two of the previous three World Cup winners square off knowing victory could be crucial, with the side that finishes second in Group E potentially set to face Belgium, presuming they win Group F as most would expect, in the last 16.

Germany will hope the early signs of progress under Hansi Flick are realised in Qatar, having gone unbeaten in each of their nine games (including friendlies) since he took over from Joachim Low.

Die Mannschaft have conceded just three goals in that run, but a meeting with a Spain side that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and is filled with emerging young talent promises to be difficult in the extreme.

La Roja reached the final of the UEFA Nations League, which they lost 2-1 to France, with that defeat and a qualifying loss to Sweden the only blips for Luis Enrique's side since their shoot-out agony at the hands of Italy.

Germany and Spain have met four times in the World Cup finals, with the former prevailing in 1966 and 1982. They played out a draw in the group stage in 1994, but Spain claimed a 1-0 victory in 2010 en route to winning the trophy for the first time in their history. Flick was an assistant to Low on Germany's coaching staff during that tournament.

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

The appetite for revenge will be high among fans of the Black Stars, who get another crack at Luis Suarez's Uruguay over 12 years on from their controversial 2010 exit at the quarter-final stage.

Suarez gladly took on the role of villain in a remarkable end to extra time in that match, committing a deliberate handball to prevent Dominic Adiyiah's header from giving Ghana a 2-1 lead late into the additional half hour.

The then-Ajax striker was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan skied the subsequent penalty, with Suarez seen enthusiastically celebrating the miss in the tunnel.

Uruguay then held their nerve to prevail in the shoot-out and prevent Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

Now, in a group that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Son Heung-min and South Korea, Ghana could have the chance to send Uruguay home early in the final round of group stage fixtures.

This one promises to be tasty.

The draw for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar took place on Friday, and there are some tantalising fixtures to look forward to before the knockout rounds even begin.

Spain and Germany, two of the tournament's past three winners, are in the same group, while hosts Qatar now know they will kick things off against Ecuador on November 21.

Three teams are still to be determined, with two inter-confederation play-offs and a European play-off to be staged in June – potentially meaning an all-British affair for England, who will open up their campaign against the United States.

Reigning champions France face Denmark, Tunisia and one of Peru, the United Arab Emirates or Australia. Brazil should be confident of progressing from Group G, while Belgium, Portugal and Argentina, similarly, should have the quality to make it through.

Below is the full group-stage draw, with kick-off times and venues for each fixture yet to be confirmed.


DRAW IN FULL

Group A - Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

Group B - England, Iran, United States, Wales or Scotland/Ukraine

Group C - Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

Group D - France, Peru or United Arab Emirates/Australia, Denmark, Tunisia

Group E - Spain, Costa Rica or New Zealand, Germany, Japan

Group F - Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Group G - Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Group H - Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea

Spain will face Germany in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup, while Qatar were given a tough draw as the hosts will come up against the Netherlands and Senegal.

Luis Enrique's Spain and their fellow European heavyweights Germany will do battle in Group E along with Japan, while the winner of a play-off between Costa Rica or New Zealand will be their other opponents.

Qatar will take on Ecuador in the opening game of the tournament at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on November 21 before coming up against African champions Senegal and the Oranje in Group A.

The ceremony in Doha on Friday saw holders France drawn to lock horns with Denmark, Tunisia and either Peru, Australia or the United Arab Emirates in Group D.

 

Five-time champions Brazil, the top-ranked side in the world, will fight it out with Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon in Group G.

England, semi-finalists in Russia four years ago, could face neighbours and fierce rivals Wales or Scotland in Group B, although Ukraine are also in contention to qualify via the play-offs. 

Gareth Southgate's side will definitely take on the United States and Iran in Group B.

 

Copa America champions Argentina, captained by the mercurial Lionel Messi, will be expected to advance from a Group C that will see them face Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 runners-up Croatia and Belgium were drawn in Group F along with Morocco and Canada, who qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana will be in Group H.

 

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Spain will face Germany in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup, while Qatar were given a tough draw as the hosts will come up against Netherlands and Senegal.

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

Sergio Aguero has raised the prospect that he could yet return to play football, albeit as an amateur rather than a professional.

The Argentine was forced to retire last year, months after leaving Manchester City for Barcelona on a free transfer, due to heart issues.

But after a lengthy career that saw him celebrate great success with the Premier League champions and reach a World Cup final with La Albiceleste, the 33-year-old still has the hunger to play.

However, Aguero stressed any return would not be at the top level, hinting that his passion would see him merely play for fun.

"Yesterday [on Tuesday], it crossed my mind that I could play football again," Aguero told TyC Sports.

"The doctors told me that I have to spend five or six months out of action, but I already want to train again.

"I want to play recreationally. They invited me to Miami to play a game and I didn't go. I want to send a message to the doctor."

Aguero's retirement means he will play no part for Argentina at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, where his nation will be among the favourites after last year's Copa America win.

Lionel Scaloni's side will be among the top seeds with holders France, Copa America runners-up Brazil and Euro 2020 finalists England when the draw is made on Friday.

Aguero sees no reason why they will not be in the mix to lift the trophy, though admitted that the prospect of being in the same group as Germany - who beat them in the 2014 final - is a dangerous one.

"You have to watch the matches and the draw, which is key, but Argentina are always candidates to fight for the World Cup," he added.

"In the first few games, the team are going to start gaining confidence.

"If it's Germany, we still have to qualify and, on the other hand, then we'll run into each other in the latter stages. The first game is the worst, the most difficult."

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

Luis Suarez reflected on a "special night" after overtaking Lionel Messi as the top-scoring player in South American World Cup qualifiers during Uruguay's win against Chile.

The Atletico Madrid striker scored an impressive bicycle-kick to open the scoring in Tuesday's contest before Federico Valverde added a late second in the 2-0 victory.

That goal sealed a third-placed finish for Uruguay behind Brazil and Argentina as La Celeste qualified for the World Cup for a fourth edition running, and a fifth time in six attempts.

Suarez has now found the net 29 times for his country in 62 World Cup qualifiers, one goal more than Messi having played two games more.

Next on the list is Bolivia striker Marcelo Moreno, who has 22 goals in 58 games, followed by Chile's Alexis Sanchez (20 in 56) and Argentina great Hernan Crespo (19 in 33).

 

Former Barcelona striker Suarez posted an image of himself with his match shirt on the back of the victory – Uruguay's fourth in a row under new head coach Diego Alonso.

That is their best run since an identical streak between March and June 2019 under former boss Oscar Tabarez, who was in charge for 15 years before leaving last November.

"Special night, special match, special shirt and with a goal," Suarez posted. "What more can I ask for to live unique and unforgettable moments with my country?"

Uruguay will learn their World Cup group opponents on Friday, along with fellow South American participants Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador. 

Fifth-placed Peru must come through an inter-confederation play-off against either Australia or the United Arab Emirates in June.

As for Suarez, he is set to return to club duty on Saturday when Atletico host Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga.

Despite making history in Argentina's 1-1 draw against Ecuador, manager Lionel Scaloni seemed disappointed to share the points away from home.

It looked like it was going to be a win and a clean sheet for the visiting side after Julian Alvarez put them up in the first half, before late drama.

VAR ruled that a 90th-minute header struck the arm of an Argentinian defender, and Enner Valencia stepped up from the penalty spot and put home the rebound after his initial strike was saved.

With the result, Argentina have now played 31 games since their last loss, dating back to the 2019 Copa America semi-final, which is the longest active unbeaten run in international football.

Argentina's 31-game unbeaten streak also matched the record feat achieved by the national team from 1991 to 1993.

However Scaloni, who received a yellow card from the sideline, was focused on the difficulty of the World Cup qualifying campaign as a whole.

"These two dates [against Venezuela and Ecuador] were very hard for us," he told reporters.

"Between suspensions, injuries and players who arrived very fair, we had to support each other and I appreciate that very much. 

"They are very hard to play – sometimes people really don't realise how hard they are. I was just talking to the boys from the under-20s who came to watch the match, and they couldn't understand the degree of difficulty that the matches present.

"Today's game was played on a field that was not in good condition – it was almost impossible to play from below – even so, we had a good first half, but in the second they came to us."

It was a different story for Ecuador manager Gustavo Alfaro, who addressed the crowd and called it "one of the happiest moments of my life".

"I thank my family, everyone who was part of this process and this achievement, which is the most important in my career," he said.

"I am living one of the happiest moments of my life. Nobody believed in Ecuador, and today it stands up and says present to the world.

"The challenge that is coming to us [the World Cup] is for 17 million people."

Julian Alvarez's first-half strike was all that separated Argentina from home side Ecuador until a stoppage-time penalty secured a 1-1 draw.

With both sides already punching their tickets to the Qatar World Cup, this fixture was more about national pride, and it was evident neither team was going to take it easy as a number of the biggest stars were included in starting line-ups, including Lionel Messi.

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, Ecuador defended with fiery passion, which was rewarded in the 93rd minute.

Enner Valencia tucked home a rebound after seeing a penalty awarded by VAR saved, cancelling out Alvarez's 24th-minute opener.

Ecuador almost had a dream start in front of their home fans, with Robert Arboleda's header from a fifth-minute set-piece tipped over the bar by Geronimo Rulli, who then denied Alan Franco.

Argentina had over 60 per cent of possession in the first half and, after their dominance was mitigated by sloppy mistakes early, the pressure paid off when Alvarez broke the deadlock.

Alvarez's goal came after a cross in from the left wing found him at the penalty spot, and though his first-time shot was blocked by a lunging defender, he tucked away the rebound neatly, hard and low across the goalkeeper into the bottom left corner.

Angel Mena fired wide from the edge of the box at the end of a surging run and it looked as if Argentina, who went close with a Messi free-kick would leave victorious until an on-target header struck Lucas Martinez on the arm, with VAR awarding a penalty.

Valencia's initial attempt was saved by Rulli, but the rebound fell fortuitously at his feet for him to tap in the equaliser.

What does it mean?

Both teams have secured qualification to the World Cup, but Argentina managing to again avoid defeat means they are now 31 games unbeaten, a run that stretches back to the 2019 Copa America semi-fiinals.

Immovable Otamendi controls the show

Argentina centre-back Nicolas Otamendi was near-flawless marshalling his defensive unit and was at no fault for the goal.

Otamendi won four out of his five aerial duels – two more than any other team-mate – and won six of his eight total duels.

Speedy Gonzalez runs straight to the bench

Nicolas Gonzalez started on the left wing for Argentina, but was largely ineffective before being substituted in the 78th minute.

Gonzalez was credited with zero created chances, and only had a passing accuracy of 44 per cent in the final third.

What's next?

Argentina face reigning European champions Italy on June 1. Ecuador can start to think about preparations for their first World Cup finals appearance since 2014.

Angel Di Maria should continue playing in Europe for another one or two seasons despite his uncertain future with Paris Saint-Germain.

That is the view of Di Maria's father Miguel as the winger reviews his career options.

Di Maria is expected to leave PSG when his contract expires at the end of the season.

The former Real Madrid and Manchester United player has only started four times in Ligue 1 since the start of 2022 and his importance to the team appears to be diminishing.

Di Maria has three goals and three assists from 20 league appearances this season, but his father Miguel believes he still has more to do in Europe and should remain there with the World Cup approaching.

"I would like him to play one or two more years in Europe and then come back [to Argentina]," Miguel said to Radio La Red. 

"He is just 34 years old and he still has a career [at the highest level]. 

"He takes great care of himself, so he has to continue playing [in Europe]." 

Di Maria has had a successful seven seasons with PSG since arriving from Old Trafford in 2015 after a disappointing campaign in the Premier League.

He is closing in on a fifth Ligue 1 title with Mauricio Pochettino's men, but is now deciding on his next move as he nears the end of the one-year contract extension he signed in 2021.

Di Maria has also been pondering his future at international level.

The veteran said after scoring once and creating another goal in the 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela at La Bombonera on Friday that he had likely played for Argentina on home soil for the last time.

He thanked supporters and confirmed he would consider retiring from Argentina duty after the World Cup in Qatar at the end of this year.

"We talked later [that night] – I was very happy and he was very proud," added Miguel.

"It's on his mind and it all depends on him.

"I wish he could continue but from what he said that was his last game in Argentina and then it's Qatar and it's over, he's not going to play for Argentina anymore." 

Miguel added that when the time comes to return home, Di Maria still plans to do so with boyhood club Rosario Central.

"His idea is to come to Central for what remains in his career and finish the race – that's it for now," he said.

"He has already said retiring with Central [is his goal]. Hopefully he can achieve it. That is what he is lacking so far because he left here very young and could not enjoy anything."

South America has not produced a World Cup-winning side for two decades because so many of their players are spread across the globe, Colombia coach Reinaldo Rueda has suggested.

Brazil were the last nation from the continent to win the biggest prize in football, triumphing at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

Since then, Italy, Spain, Germany and France have all won the title, with only Argentina coming close from the CONMEBOL confederation when they finished second at Brazil 2014.

Brazil and Argentina will be among the favourites at Qatar 2022 later this year following superb qualification campaigns, alongside a host of familiar European rivals chasing success.

Asked ahead of Colombia's final qualifying clash with Venezuela this week – in which they must at least draw and rely on results elsewhere, too, to make an inter-confederation play-off – Rueda offered an explanation for why CONMEBOL sides have come up short over the past four editions.

"Without doubt, [players playing in Europe] has always been our biggest worry, the problem that we have in South America," Rueda stated. "I have said so many times.

"South America, with the potential and talent that it has, we are approaching now 20 years without a World Cup winner because of that situation.

"Because our biggest talents go to Europe and for some of them, it is difficult, depending on the percentage of those players that are in the national teams, to respond in the same way.

"Then players coming from Europe must attend two or three tournaments. South America has been a victim of this problem in the last 20 years

"That has been a factor that explains why strong national teams haven't been able to consolidate good performances and to win a world title that hasn't happened since 2002."

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