The joined actions of some of the most powerful figures in modern football unwittingly created an ever mightier alliance on April 18, 2021.

The announcement of a new European Super League united Manchester, with fans and players of United and City joining those invested in the fortunes of Liverpool and the three London giants of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in opposition.

Although the reaction in Italy and Spain may not have been quite as damning, the protests that followed over the course of an extraordinary few days were enough to derail the plans.

A year on, Stats Perform looks back on one of the most controversial proposals in the sport's history and where it stands now.

What is/was the European Super League?

The past week has shown exactly what makes the Champions League great, whether Villarreal's upset of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid withstanding Chelsea's fightback, a thriller between Liverpool and Benfica in a tie widely considered over or the blood and thunder of Manchester City's defeat of Atletico Madrid.

But Arsenal and Tottenham did not qualify for the Champions League this season, while Barcelona and Milan failed to make it beyond the group stage.

In another season, another superpower – the clubs whose names and riches have made the Champions League what it is – might miss out on these great games.

That was the fear of a dozen leading sides, anyway. Barca had a prominent role, along with Real Madrid and Juventus, as the European Super League was launched.

The competition was to be backed by United States-based investment bank JP Morgan and managed by the owners of the founding clubs, who would be guaranteed entry to the competition.

Three clubs were hoped to join the initial 12, followed by five others qualifying each year to form a 20-team tournament, which would be split into two 10-team leagues prior to a knockout stage.

The idea was for the Super League to replace the lucrative Champions League, rather than domestic leagues – hence its inception on the eve of Champions League reforms. The interested parties even claimed the money raised would benefit "the wider football pyramid".

But the reception was widely critical, while there were notable absentees in the form of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the previous campaign's Champions League finalists.

PSG had spent too much time – and, of course, money – establishing themselves among European football's elite to risk it all in the breakaway.

Meanwhile, Bayern, like most German clubs, are partly fan-owned. And it would soon become clear football fans in general were not enthused by the prospect of seeing Europe's best teams slog it out in a closed-shop tournament.

Then what?

The 12 clubs must have imagined some sort of response, but what followed appeared to stun those involved.

Their own players and coaches announced opposition, with many frustrated these plans had provided such a distraction at a key stage in the season. Notably, Jurgen Klopp fumed when Leeds United, Liverpool's next opponents, told the six-time European champions to "earn it" if they wanted to play in the Champions League.

The rest of football appeared united against those who had sought to cut loose, as former Manchester United captain Gary Neville called for the Old Trafford club to be relegated along with Liverpool and Arsenal.

Unsurprisingly, UEFA, FIFA and even the UK government railed against the Super League, too.

But most importantly, the fans – particularly in England – made clear they would not stand for this apparent betrayal of the sport and its roots.

Chelsea were the first team to back out of the European Super League while Petr Cech attempted to negotiate with furious supporters blocking the team's entrance to Stamford Bridge prior to a drab goalless draw against Brighton and Hove Albion.

With protests following at stadiums up and down the country, the Premier League clubs soon quit the breakaway competition, and they were joined by Inter, Milan and Atletico Madrid, as the Super League was declared dead mere hours after its birth.

Football had won, it was widely acknowledged.

And they all lived happily ever after?

Well, not quite. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus have continued to pursue the European Super League, their owners refusing to relent.

The huge debts racked up during the coronavirus pandemic contributed to their desperation to land this lucrative deal, with Barca since forced to let club legend Lionel Messi leave on a free transfer due to their inability to afford a new contract for the 34-year-old.

Those who backed out of the controversial plans have at least returned to the European Club Association, in which PSG were huge beneficiaries of their reluctance to follow their elite rivals. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the PSG president, now leads the ECA in a role that previously belonged to Juve chief Andrea Agnelli.

But even Barca, Madrid and Juve have been able to continue playing in UEFA competitions – those they have qualified for, anyway. Madrid have made the Champions League semi-finals as they bid for a record-extending 14th European crown.

And sceptics could be forgiven for wondering if the new Champions League format sounds a little 'European Super Leaguey'.

As of 2024-25, the group stages will be no more, replaced by – yes – a league. And although the competition is increasing in size to 36 teams, two of the additional four slots are reserved for clubs who have the highest UEFA coefficients but have qualified only for one of the organisation's lesser competitions.

Barca, who toiled in the early stages of this season, or Juve, facing a fight for a top-four finish in Serie A, would have to slump significantly not to be assured of a seat at the time.

The Super League is dead... but long live the Super League?

Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and ex-UEFA boss Michel Platini will go on trial facing corruption charges in June, Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court (FCC) has confirmed.

The pair were last year charged with fraud and other offences by Swiss authorities relating to a payment made in 2011.

Switzerland's attorney general's office (OAG) published an indictment following an investigation that began in 2015.

Both men "are accused of unlawfully arranging a payment of CHF2million from FIFA to Michel Platini", the OAG said at the time.

The date for the trial to start has now been set for June 8, with proceedings set to last until June 22.

The case centres on a payment made by FIFA to Platini in 2011, authorised by Blatter, which the OAG alleges "was made without a legal basis".

The indictment alleges that Platini demanded this CHF2million payment more than eight years after his work as a consultant for Blatter between 1999 and 2002 had come to an end, and that it "damaged FIFA's assets and unlawfully enriched Platini".

According to the indictment, Platini had allegedly been paid by FIFA an annual fee of CHF300,000 for his consultancy work. This amount had been agreed upon in a written contract, the indictment said.

Blatter was originally banned from footballing activities for eight years, reduced to six, by FIFA in 2015 following an Ethics Committee investigation that described the payment as "disloyal". Platini was also given an eight-year suspension.

Both Blatter and Platini have denied any wrongdoing, with the former FIFA president stating there was a "gentleman's agreement" over the payment.

Blatter has been charged with fraud, misappropriation, criminal mismanagement and forgery of a document. Platini has been charged with fraud, participating in misappropriation, participating in criminal mismanagement and forgery of a document.

The Arsene Wenger-fronted plan for a World Cup every two years was "more or less a nonsense" and FIFA saw sense by finally ditching the idea, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino last week indicated the world governing body had dropped the project, which had drawn strong criticism from European and South American authorities in particular.

Infantino said FIFA had never proposed the change to the tournament that has taken place every four years since the first edition in 1930.

But Infantino had been seen by many as a cheerleader for the switch, making a widely criticised claim in January that opportunities delivered by a World Cup every two years could provide impetus for African migrants to avoid treacherous crossings to Europe, suggesting they could avoid "death in the sea".

Ceferin told a news conference on Thursday: "We are happy FIFA ordered that it is finally off the table, the biennial World Cup.

"Formally it was not proposed by FIFA, but it was encouraged by FIFA. It's good they've listened to the football community.

"For me, it's very good that this project that is more or less a nonsense is off the table."

Former Arsenal manager Wenger, as FIFA's chief of global development, had been the main advocate for the biennial World Cup, promoting the concept widely ahead of a possible vote and nailing his colours firmly to the mast.

Infantino claimed the alterations would yield significant financial returns if the plans were approved, with a boost of $4.4billion in the first four-year cycle of a new international calendar, which would climb to $6.6bn if each confederation also switched its regional competition to become biennial.

A vote now appears highly unlikely to happen in the near future, and Ceferin questioned whether there should be any other major tournaments added to the international calendar.

"About new tournaments, I don't think there's much time for new competitions, but let's speak about it and let's see," Ceferin said. "For now, we didn't discuss it."

Ceferin said UEFA would take a decision "very soon" on Russia's possible involvement in the Women's European Championship, which begins in July and will be staged in England.

Despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has led the country to be widely ostracised, a final ruling has yet to be taken on whether the women's football team should be allowed to take part.

The men's team were swiftly thrown out of the World Cup by FIFA, denied a place in a play-off to reach the Qatar 2022 finals.

Ceferin said: "There is a court case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the case of the Russian Football Union. We expect some information from there as soon as possible, but we know we are in a hurry to decide about this issue. We know the Euro is very soon and that we'll have to take the decision soon, but we need some more information."

Asked whether Russian football authorities should be expelled by UEFA, Ceferin said there were "considerations about many things these days".

Russia has bid to host the Euro 2028 or Euro 2032 finals, in a move that has been met with widespread disbelief.

Ceferin will be aware of that sentiment and said of Russia's bid: "We are discussing it, and you will have the answer very soon."

Russia has withdrawn its appeal against a ban for its teams from FIFA competitions after World Cup qualifying continued without its senior men's national team.

Russian teams were suspended from FIFA and UEFA competitions following the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The FIFA sanction meant Valeri Karpin's Russia could not compete in their scheduled World Cup play-off semi-final against Poland.

The Russian Football Union (RFU) asked for the ban to be delayed, with that match set for late March, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected its request.

It meant Poland progressed to a final against Sweden, who had defeated the Czech Republic. Poland won to advance to Qatar 2022.

With that tie settled and Poland drawn into a World Cup group alongside Argentina, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, CAS announced on Tuesday the RFU had withdrawn its appeal last week.

Russia's challenges of various bans – including from UEFA – appear set to continue, however.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has called for Italian authorities to honour the legacy of Paolo Rossi by naming the Stadio Olimpico after the former forward.

Rossi scored six goals to claim the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as Italy lifted the 1982 World Cup, while he was awarded the Ballon d'Or in the same year – the only player to win all four trophies in the same year.

During that competition, Rossi guided his side into the knockout stages as his hat-trick propelled Italy to a 3-2 group-stage victory over a formidable Brazil team, which included legends Socrates and Zico.

Rossi still remains Italy's joint-top scorer at World Cups, with his nine goals only matched by fellow attackers Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri.

The former Vicenza and Juventus striker died aged 64 in 2020, and Infantino implored the Italian Football Federation (IFF) to mark Rossi's legacy by naming Lazio and Roma's Olimpico stadium after him.

"What are we waiting for to name the Olimpico after Paolo Rossi? There isn't another Italian who has given more to this sport," he said on Monday at an event to remember former IFF president Artemio Franchi.

"So, please I'm saying this to all the directors here. Please, help us, I think Paolo deserves it."

Infantino also recalled a meeting with former referee Abraham Klein, who officiated the meeting between Italy and Brazil in 1982 and ruled out what would have been Italy's fourth goal through Giancarlo Antognoni.

"Among other things, he admitted that Antognoni's goal [that was disallowed for offside] was valid, so let's rectify the result, it ended 4-2," he added on Klein before discussing the legacy of Franchi.

"I am president of FIFA, who for the first time in its history has appointed a woman general secretary. These are the values ​​that football gives and that we managers must protect, as did Artemio Franchi.

"It means listening, but also making decisions and acting: without this, Italy probably would not have won the European Championships and would not have qualified for the World Cup, UEFA would not have taken the steps it took at a time when Europe was uniform.

"As leaders, we must always seek, with diplomacy and emotion to bring the sport back to play this very important role of giving emotions to people."

England boss Gareth Southgate has expressed his support for proposed changes to 2022 World Cup squads.

FIFA is expected to announce an increase in squad sizes for the tournament in Qatar, with 26-man squads instead of 23 – akin to those permitted at Euro 2020 – expected to be allowed.

Coaches of the qualified nations are also pushing for 15-man benches at the competition after Euro 2020 regulations forced Southgate and other bosses to leave three players out of their matchday squads.

England will begin their 16th World Cup campaign with a first-ever competitive meeting with Iran on November 21, before rounding off their group-stage campaign with games against the United States and one of Wales, Scotland, or Ukraine.

Southgate has now claimed that coaches were "unanimous" in their desire to allow every player in a squad to be in matchday contention in Qatar at a recent meeting, making his strong support for the proposal clear.

"I think what everyone is saying is that if the squads are going to be bigger, then it needs to be a situation where everybody is able to change on a matchday," Southgate said. 

"That was unanimous in the room [at the coaches' meeting]. Whether a bigger squad is necessary... originally that was for COVID-19, there's now people talking about the [impact of] condensed fixtures. 

"I still think it's a bigger skill to pick 23 and to work all that out, but that decision will be made and I suspect it will be 26. 

"But I think everybody has to be available for all the games."

Southgate also highlighted some difficulties of managing a squad at an international tournament, noting the "challenge" of keeping players involved as a reason why some coaches may not elect to take extra players.

"You either get the difficult conversations in the middle of November or in the next few weeks," Southgate added. "That's how it was last summer.

"When you are picking a team, when you've got 11 who are happy and 15 who are disappointed, that's more of a challenge. That's managing. 

"That's why you don't have to take 26, I know Luis Enrique didn't last year [Spain took 24 players to Euro 2020]. That's something we'll have to think about, depending on what the Covid situation is and what our injuries might be."

England are the only European team to have reached the semi-finals of the last two major international tournaments (the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020), and sealed their place in Qatar via a dominant qualification campaign in which they scored 39 goals and conceded just three.

The top organiser of the Qatar 2022 World Cup has hit back at the Norway Football Association following damning criticism by the latter during FIFA's Congress in Doha on Thursday.

Hassan Al Thawadi accused Norwegian FA President Lise Klaveness of inflammatory comments over the country's human rights record ahead of the tournament, which begins in November.

This year's World Cup has been the subject of criticism since it was awarded to Qatar in 2010, with issues ranging from the treatment of migrant workers to the safety of the LGBTQ+ community.

During the 72nd FIFA congress, Klaveness – whose nation failed to qualify last year and had mooted plans to boycott if they did so – launched a blistering argument against its organisers.

"In 2010, the World Cup was awarded by FIFA in unacceptable ways with unacceptable consequences," she stated.

"Human rights, equality, democracy, the core interests of football, were not in the starting XI until many years later.

"These basic rights were pressured on as substitutes, mainly by outside voices. FIFA has later addressed these issues, but there is still a long way to go.

"There is no room for employers who do not secure the freedom and safety of World Cup workers, no room for leaders that cannot host the women's game, no room for hosts that cannot legally guarantee the safety and respect of LGBTQ+ people coming to this theatre of dreams."

Thawadi, chief executive of the World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, refuted his counterpart's suggestions, and accused her of failing to open dialogue over her concerns.

"Madam president, you visit our country and made no request for a meeting," he added. "You did not attempt to contact us and did not attempt to engage in dialogue before addressing Congress today.

"I urge everybody, we have always been open for dialogue. We have always welcomed constructive criticism, criticism that is based on discussion, understanding the issues and understanding the context of the issues and the progress of the facts on the ground.

"We will always have our doors open for anybody who wants to understand the issues, who wants to educate themselves before passing any judgement."

Qatar will host the draw for this year's tournament on April 1, with 29 of the 32 sides set to compete confirmed ahead of final play-offs later this year.

The 2022 World Cup is now less than eight months away and the excitement will ramp up another notch on Friday when the draw takes place in Doha.

Qatar will become the first Arab country to host the global showpiece, 92 years after the inaugural event in Uruguay, in what is the 22nd edition of football's biggest tournament.

It will become the smallest host nation by area, with matches to be spread across five different cities, making this the most concentrated edition since Argentina 1978.

Twenty-nine nations have already booked their finals spot, 22 of which competed at the 2018 edition, with the automatically-qualified hosts the only side to make their debut.

Due to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the fate of eight teams remains in the balance – only three of whom can still advance.

Wales will face the winners of the Scotland versus Ukraine play-off in June, while New Zealand take on Costa Rica and Peru meet either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.

To further whet the appetite ahead of Friday's draw, Stats Perform looks at some key questions to be answered with the aid of Opta data.

 


Will Europe continue to dominate?

The past four World Cups have been won by European teams: Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018.

That is the longest run of victories for a single continent in the tournament's history, with only one defeated finalist – Argentina in 2014 – coming from outside of Europe.

Indeed, a European team has triumphed in 12 of the previous 21 editions, with South America responsible for the other nine victors.

France are the reigning champions and are aiming to become the third team to retain the trophy after Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962).

However, a word of warning for Les Bleus – the past three defending champions have been eliminated in the group stage (Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018).

 


No Italy, but will it be a familiar winner?

Despite that, France will be fancied by many having reached the final in half of the past six World Cups –1998, 2006 and 2018 – which is more than any other country.

Another World Cup heavyweight will not be present in Qatar, though, as four-time winners Italy – only Brazil (five) have won more trophies – missed out in the play-offs.

Speaking of Brazil, they are taking part in their 22nd World Cup, making them the only team to have featured in every edition of FIFA's showpiece competition.

Like Italy, Germany have won four titles and they have reached the semi-finals on four of the past five occasions, which is double the number of any other team in that period.

No matter how strong a side, a perfect tournament is tough to come by – only Brazil in 1970 and 2002 have achieved that since the 1930s, when teams played just four games.


Or is it a chance for someone new to shine?

Canada will play in their first World Cup since 1986; that gap of 36 years the longest between appearances among teams confirmed to be taking part in this year's event.

Egypt and Norway had the longest gap at 56 years, though Wales will break that should they advance from their play-off to qualify for the first time since 1958 (64 years).

Qatar are the only new face and will aim to avoid becoming just the second hosts to be eliminated in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

Mexico will also have their sights set on the knockout stages, though no side has played as many games (57) as them without reaching the final.

Netherlands, meanwhile, have reached the final on more occasions (1974, 1978 and 2010) without lifting the coveted trophy than anyone else.

 


Can Ronaldo and Muller set new records?

Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at a record-equalling fifth World Cup and is out to become the first player ever to score in five different editions.

The Portugal forward has seven World Cup goals in total, nine short of the record held by Miroslav Klose, who netted all 16 of his goals from inside the penalty area.

Thomas Muller has an outside chance of catching countryman Klose in Qatar, having scored 10 times across his three previous participations – no active player has more.

The top scorer in a single World Cup is Just Fontaine, who scored 13 times in 1958, including a goal in all six of France's games.

Not since Gerd Muller in 1970, with 10 goals for Germany, has a player reached double figures in a single edition. Brazil great Ronaldo's eight in 2002 is the highest since then.

Russian teams will be welcomed back into world football immediately once the invasion of Ukraine ends, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has declared.

Infantino said FIFA "would be there the first day to play football again", as he spoke at the world governing body's congress in Qatar, this year's World Cup host country.

Infantino, who in 2019 was awarded an Order of Friendship medal by Russian president Vladimir Putin, said he was "devastated" by the news coming out of Ukraine.

But he said it was right that there was Russian representation at the congress, insisting the country's national federation had not been suspended by FIFA.

The country's national and club teams have been blocked from playing in FIFA and UEFA competitions, including the World Cup, but Infantino said it was important to maintain dialogue with federation officials.

Speaking in a news conference following the congress session, Infantino said: "I'm very sad of course for what is happening, and I'm as devastated as everyone."

He added: "We had to suspend Russia and Russian teams. It's not an easy decision of course, because it's about people who love football.

"We had to take the decisions, and now we have to look forward and hope the hostilities can stop, and we can bring a little bit of peace.

"The decision on Russia has been taken. The Russian Football Union has appealed the decision to CAS [the Court of Arbitration for Sport] so we are waiting for the result of the CAS deliberations.

"We will see what comes next. I sincerely hope the conflict can end, and we would be there the first day to play football again, because that's what I think is needed in this country.

"Russia as a football union, like any other federation, has not been suspended as such by FIFA, it has been participating in this congress as well."

Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup, and now Qatar, whose qualification as suitable hosts has frequently been called into question, will stage the tournament in November and December of this year.

Asked whether Qatar would be awarded a World Cup based on what FIFA considers are now increasingly robust methods of deciding who should be hosts, Infantino initially distanced himself from the decision that was made in 2010, when Sepp Blatter was the governing body's president.

"When it comes to the Qatar World Cup, the decision has been taken now 12 years ago, when I was far away from FIFA happenings in these days," said Infantino, who was UEFA secretary general at the time.

"We've now put in place a different bidding process, which I think is also pretty unique, and I said in the past bulletproof. I hope it will continue to be bulletproof. It's open, it's transparent, it's professional and you know why you vote for somebody when you vote for somebody.

"This is what has happened for the men's World Cup in 2026 and for the women's World Cup in 2023.

"We still see even in these decisions there are political votes rather than factual-based votes. That's probably part of the game.

"When it comes to Qatar, the decision has been taken. We'll organise the best World Cup ever here in Qatar, and in any case we shouldn't go back. We should look forward, and we should look at what has happened.

"All the changes that have happened in this country in terms of workers' rights and human rights, and so on, would not have happened or certainly not at the same speed without the projectors of the World Cup being there."

Speaking about Qatar, whose records have been criticised by human rights organisations, Infantino said the tournament would "show to the world there are people living here, and you can come here and feel safe and be safe".

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has dismissed the plans for a biennial World Cup as he claimed the changes were never a formal proposal.

Led by chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, FIFA had promoted the idea for the World Cup to shift format and take place every two years – an idea strongly opposed by both UEFA and CONMEBOL.

Infantino claimed the alterations would yield significant financial returns if the plans were approved, with a boost of $4.4billion in the first four-year cycle of a new international calendar, which would climb to $6.6bn if each confederation also switched its regional competition to become biennial.

FIFA also published results from a study that claimed "the majority" of football fans would like to see more frequent World Cups, while UEFA said an independent survey called proposals "alarming".

But the prospects of those plans coming to fruition appear over after Infantino told the FIFA Congress, with 211 member associations in attendance, that the governing body never proposed the changes.

"Let me clarify one thing here – and I want to speak about some of the discussions and speculations on a biennial World Cup," he said on Thursday during his speech in Qatar. "Fifa has not proposed a biennial World Cup.

"Let's get the process clear. The last FIFA Congress asked the FIFA administration for a vote and 88 per cent voted in favour to study the feasibility of that and some other projects for women's and youth football.

"The FIFA administration, under the leadership of Arsene Wenger, did that. We studied the feasibility. But FIFA did not propose anything.

"FIFA came to the conclusion that it was feasible, but it would have some repercussions and impacts. The next phase was consultation and discussions and trying to find agreements and compromises.

"In addition to the confederations and the member associations, the clubs and the players present here as well, we tried to have a discussion and a debate to find what was most suitable for everyone.

"Everyone has to benefit, the big ones have to become bigger with the whole movement, and the smaller ones have to benefit to give opportunities to everyone and I'm thanking everyone for their input, their feedback, positive or negative.

"What is important is we have put national team football back on the agenda all over the world, we have to talk with the clubs, of course, which is the biggest part of where the players are playing.

"There are ways to find compromises and what is important is respect of the footballing institutions, of the football pyramid, with FIFA at the top, the confederations, the league, the clubs and the players all being involved, that is how football is organised and it is paramount we protect this structure from all organisational challenges."

England manager Gareth Southgate has come under criticism from Nasser Al Khater for questioning Qatar's human rights record.

Southgate confirmed earlier this month that his side intend to use the World Cup in Qatar to highlight concerns around the host country.

However, he also stressed that they must be "realistic" as any demonstration will be "complicated".

Qatar's stance towards women and the LGBTQ+ community was widely pointed to as a problem before FIFA awarded it the tournament in 2010. 

Meanwhile, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers have been reported during preparation for the finals, although Qatar's organising committee disputed what it called "inaccurate claims" around the number of fatalities.

Al Khater – the chief executive of Qatar 2022 – has rebutted Southgate's concerns, though, believing the England boss is unaware of the actual situation in the Gulf State.

"My question would be, who from the England squad has come to Qatar? My question to the coach is, has he been to Qatar? Is he basing his opinions and his public statements on what he has read? Because it is kind of an issue if you're basing your opinions and you are very vocal about that based on things you have read," Al Khater told Sky Sports.

"Somebody with a lot of influence, such as Southgate, somebody with a big audience that listens to what he says, ought to pick his words very carefully.

"And I think that before making statements like that, when it comes to the workers, he needs to come here and speak to workers and understand what workers get out of being here.

"There are isolated cases, those are the cases that make it to the media, however, I can assure him that if he comes here and speaks to the majority of the workers, they will tell you how they put their children through university, they will tell you how they've built their houses for them and their families.

"These are the stories that nobody hears, so I look forward to welcoming him here, I look forward to meeting him at the draw and he can listen to my opinion, he does not have to believe it, but at least he needs to go that far to understand different opinions and different cultures.

"No country is perfect, let's get that right and I do not think anybody can claim that, so if somebody is coming and claiming they are a perfect country, they need to really take a look at themselves."

Al Khater, who was pictured with Southgate at an event in December 2019, also suggested fans should not be concerned about travelling to Qatar.

"People are basing their opinions and fears on things they do not understand and that is usually what causes apprehension with human beings, a lack of understanding," he added.

"People are going to feel safe here, people are going to be very comfortable, what I can say to fans is, we are a modest country, we have our culture, we have our norms, what we ask of them is to respect it. What that means is, whether you are a gay couple, whether you are a heterosexual couple, we have the same norms, we look at it the same way.

"All we ask is for people to be respectful, like we are respectful when we travel around the world, and just to observe these cultural differences. Basically what it means is public displays of affection are frowned upon, that is simply it."

Furious Nigeria supporters stormed the pitch at the National Stadium in Lagos after rivals Ghana sealed a World Cup spot at the expense of the Super Eagles.

Arsenal's Thomas Partey opened the scoring in the 10th minute for Ghana, before William Troost-Ekong levelled from the penalty spot for the hosts midway through the first half.

Nigeria could not find a crucial second goal, however, with Otto Addo's Ghana side holding on for the 1-1 draw, to progress to Qatar 2022 via away goals after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

The result sparked ugly scenes inside the stadium, with videos on social media showing supporters leaving their seats and smashing equipment at the side of the pitch.

There was heartbreak for Mohamed Salah and Egypt after they suffered another dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat to Senegal.

Hosts Senegan recovered from a 1-0 first-leg deficit to beat Egypt by the same margin at the Abdoulaye Wade Stadium, before Salah, with dozens of laser pens seemingly pointing at his face, fired Egypt's first penalty of the shoot-out over the bar.

Mostafa Mohamed later failed with the visitors' fourth kick, allowing Salah’s Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane to slam his penalty past Mohamed El Shenawy and seal Senegal's progress, in a repeat of February's Africa Cup of Nations final triumph.

"We try our best but today was not enough," he wrote. "To all my players and my staff, [I give] my recognition and humble thank you.

"You will be always in my heart. It was my privilege to work and be helped by such dedicated and capable professionals and wonderful friends."

There was stunning late drama in Bilda as Karl Toko Ekambi scored late in extra time to seal a 2-1 win for visitors Cameroon against Algeria, the Indomitable Lions progressing to Qatar via away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

Algeria thought they had sealed a place at the World Cup when Ahmed Touba cancelled out Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's opener with two minutes remaining in extra time, but there was just enough time left for Ekambi to seal the most dramatic of victories.

Morocco also booked their place in Friday's World Cup draw with an emphatic 4-1 win over Democratic Republic of Congo. A brace from Azzedine Ounahi, as well as goals from Tarik Tissoudali and Achraf Hakimi, sealed a 5-2 aggregate win over DR Congo, who scored a late consolation through Ben Malango.

Meanwhile, a 0-0 draw for Tunisia against Mali was enough to see the former seal their own place in Qatar after they managed a 1-0 win in the first leg.

The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying format is too tough on the players, with Thiago Silva keen for an alternative that can aid performance to be found. 

In the current system, South American teams play one another twice in a single group for a total of 18 matches. The top four qualify for the World Cup, with the fifth-placed team entering a play-off against a team from Asia. 

Given the scale of the continent and the fact many players ply their trade with European clubs, huge distances need to be traversed and matches can be played at significantly varying altitudes and temperatures in the space of just a few days. 

Brazil centre-back Silva believes a change is needed, with FIFA having reportedly met with some players to discuss what a new format could look like for the first 48-team World Cup in 2026. 

"It's not the 18 games, but the travelling we do. It's a lot of mileage compared to the Europeans, who play close together," Silva was quoted as saying by Globo Esporte. 

"There's a lot of wear and tear, in addition to the climate, which is totally different from what we are used to in Europe. 

"Me and the team had a hard time training in Teresopolis, which is colder than Rio de Janeiro [where Brazil played Chile on Thursday]. This can hinder performance. 

"If we could somehow find a balance in these trips, it would certainly facilitate our stay and our performances. 

"It's definitely unnecessary wear and tear, in my opinion." 

After defeating Chile 4-0 in the heat of Rio on Thursday, Brazil play their final qualifier against Bolivia at over 3,500 metres above sea level on Tuesday.

Will it be Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane? Italy or Portugal – or indeed neither? Can Canada end their long wait, and are the United States and Australia at risk of missing out?

Those questions and plenty more are set to be answered over the next week or so as World Cup qualifying concludes for many nations.

Just 15 of the 32 participants have so far been confirmed for Qatar 2022, leaving 48 teams battling for the 17 remaining spots.

Fourteen more countries will be assured of a finals berth come the end of next week in what is very much crunch time for those still in contention.

Stats Perform looks at the key talking points.

Egypt seeking revenge in AFCON final repeat

Less than two months on from meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Egypt and Senegal face off over two legs for a place in Qatar.

Senegal prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first AFCON crown and, buoyed by that triumph, will consider themselves as favourites here.

While both teams boast an array of top-class talent, this fixture is being billed as a showdown between Liverpool team-mates Salah and Mane.

The two biggest stars in African football, only one of the pair will be part of the World Cup later this year – and neither will fancy watching it all unfold from home.

This is not the only grudge match taking place in the CAF section over the next week and a half, as fierce rivals Ghana and Nigeria will also face off in a two-legged play-off.

Cameroon are up against Algeria, Mali take on Tunisia and DR Congo meet Morocco in the other three ties, each of which will be concluded on March 29.

European heavyweights on collision course

Since the play-off draw in the UEFA section took place in November, all talk has centered around a potential meeting between Italy and Portugal for a place in the finals.

The winners of the past two European Championships, either the Azzurri or the Selecao will miss out on the biggest tournament of them all.

It should never have been this way, of course, as both teams were strong favourites to finish top of their groups and qualify automatically.

Italy finished second to Switzerland and Portugal were runners-up to Serbia, meaning the sides must now come through two qualifying ties.

First up for the reigning European champions is a meeting with North Macedonia in Palermo, while Portugal face Turkey in Porto, with the winners of both ties advancing.

Should, as expected, Italy and Portugal come through those semi-finals, the latter will have the advantage of staging the final on home soil five days later.

For Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, it presents what will surely be his last chance to play at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.

 

Pathways impacted by political events

Path C of UEFA qualifying is undoubtedly the most eye-catching, but there are also some tasty fixtures in the other two sections – not least a possible Home Nations derby.

Scotland and Wales were kept apart in the Path B semi-finals but could meet in the final should they overcome Ukraine and Austria respectively.

However, due to ongoing events in Ukraine, their game against Scotland has been pushed back – likely until June – as has the final involving either Wales or Austria.

In Path C, Russia had been due to face Poland, but the invasion of Ukraine forced FIFA and UEFA's hand and they have been banned from competing.

Poland have therefore been handed a bye to the qualifying play-off final, where either Sweden or the Czech Republic await. That match will be contested next week as planned.

Canada on verge of ending long wait, USA with work to do

The United States qualified for every World Cup between 1990 and 2014, but they missed out on a place at Russia 2018 after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Gregg Berhalter's side are by no means assured of one of the three automatic qualification spots in the CONCACAF section this time around, either.

USA sit second with three games to go, but they still have to travel to third-placed Mexico, as well as facing Panama and Costa Rica, who occupy fourth and fifth respectively.

Level on points with Mexico and four ahead of Costa Rica, it could be a tense finale to qualifying for the Stars and Stripes.

That should not be the case for Canada, who are eight points clear of fourth and are all but assured of ending their 36-year wait to make a second World Cup finals appearance.

Brazil and Argentina through, but who will join them?

The drawn-out South American qualifiers are nearing their conclusion and only four of the 10 sides know their fate at this juncture.

It has been plain sailing for Brazil and Argentina, who are assured of an automatic qualifying spot with three games to go, including a rescheduled meeting between the pair.

Behind those perennial World Cup representatives are Ecuador, who have been the surprise package in qualifying and can finish no lower than fifth.

Ecuador will not be content with anything other than a top-four finish, though, and they can make certain of that with victory over Paraguay.

Assuming Ecuador get over the line, that will leave Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia battling it out for progression, which sets up some intriguing fixtures.

Uruguay occupy fourth place, meaning their qualifying aspirations are in their own hands, but they have Peru and Chile – the two sides behind them – still to face.

Socceroos sweating on finals spot

Only four teams advance automatically from the CONMEBOL section, with the team in fifth entering a play-off against the winner of the AFC fourth round in a one-off tie in June.

That may well turn out to be Australia as the Socceroos are five and four points behind top two Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B with two games to go.

However, those remaining two fixtures are against those nations occupying automatic qualification places, so Australia may yet sneak through.

Iran and South Korea have already made certain of progression in Group A, meanwhile, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq to compete for third place.

The two third-placed finishers – which, as it stands, are Australia and the UAE – will meet in a one-legged match ahead of that aforementioned play-off with a CONMEBOL side.

FIFA has outlined how the Qatar 2022 World Cup draw will be carried out, including the basis for seeding.

The draw is scheduled to take place in Doha on Friday, April 1, by which time 29 of the 32 participants will have been confirmed for the tournament, which is set to run from November 21 to December 18.

World Cup qualifying continues this week, with 17 places still up for grabs for a place in Qatar.

World governing body FIFA confirmed hosts Qatar will be among the first seeds, along with the seven top-ranked qualified countries according to the FIFA men's world rankings, which will be next issued on March 31.

"The countries occupying positions 8-15 in the ranking of the qualified teams will be allocated to Pot 2, while the 16th-23rd best-ranked qualifiers will be placed in Pot 3," FIFA added in a statement.

"Finally, Pot 4 will include the qualified teams in positions 24 to 28, plus three placeholders representing the two winners of the intercontinental play-offs and the remaining UEFA play-off winner.

"The intercontinental play-offs will be contested on 13-14 June in Qatar, with the AFC representative facing the CONMEBOL representative and the CONCACAF representative taking on the OFC representative, per the draw held on 26 November 2021.

"The final team to qualify through the UEFA play-offs will also be determined in the May-June international window, as per the decision taken by the bureau of the FIFA organising committee on 8 March."

The nations currently occupying the top seven places in the FIFA men's world rankings are Belgium, Brazil, France, Argentina, England, Italy and Spain, though this could change when the list is updated at the end of this month.

Portugal are currently in eighth spot, and would therefore take Italy's place in pot one should they qualify as both are in the same European play-off qualifying path.

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