There’s been something missing from our lives, a great void that needs to be filled. That void is competitive international men’s soccer; great soccer countries competing against each other, furthering their long histories of glory, grudges and ambition. And small countries aiming for era-defining victories and a place at the next World Cup, spurred onward by the ecstatic roar of the crowd.
Well, forget the roar of the crowd, but after COVID-induced delays and much hand-wringing about safety protocols and quarantine periods, the qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar got under way this week across the world and continues through the weekend.
In normal times this would be an exciting first step and an excuse to speculate wildly about what countries are waning and what players are primed for national-team eminence. But it’s complicated. Oh boy, is it convoluted. Take Canada, which began a potential 20-game journey to Qatar with impressive 5-1 victory over Bermuda on Thursday. What was impressive was Alphonso Davies’s key role as playmaker. What was missing was forward Jonathan David, who is scoring often for his club Lille in France. Quarantine regulations meant that Lille did not have to release him to play for his country. Canada’s next match (all are on the streaming service onesoccer.ca) is Sunday against Cayman Islands.
It’s been hard to find key qualifying games on TV but cable channel TLN smartly stepped in to acquire non-English rights to the first set of games from Portugal, Italy and Spain. So, on Wednesday you could watch Portugal struggle to beat Azerbaijan 1-0 in an empty stadium in Lisbon. That struggle shouldn’t happen. The problem and the core issue is Portugal’s greatest player, 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. While dropping him would be unthinkable, in the years he’s spent pushing Portugal to victory – reigning European champions until another Euro tournament happens – a new generation of gifted players has arrived. Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix are among the very best in Europe. Ronaldo’s not the one valuable centrepiece any more.
On Wednesday the team’s tactic appeared to be a sleight of hand – push down the flanks and then pretend to get the ball to Ronaldo, but give it someone else instead, and then eventually get it to Ronaldo. That baffled the opposition for about 10 minutes, and Portugal’s cumbersome approach, anchored in Ronaldo’s presence, made a flowing team look knotted. Portugal faces tougher opposition against Serbia on Saturday (TLN, 3:30 p.m.) and more questions about how to untie the Ronaldo knot.
After failing even to qualify for the previous World Cup, Italy is a team under fierce pressure to breeze through qualification and return to contender status in Qatar. It has been impressive, unbeaten in its past 22 international matches. It did what it had to do against a well-organized Northern Ireland on Thursday in Parma. Tiny Northern Ireland would have been more than happy with a draw and Italy needed to score early to open up the game. That happened when an early goal from Domenico Berardi, the liveliest player on the field, scored a splendid goal in the 15th minute and Ciro Immobile added a second before halftime.
The second half was a different story as Northern Ireland grew confident and began to control the midfield space, using physical presence to push Italy into defending. A more slick team than Italy faced here would have taken serious advantage of Italy losing its shape and lapsing into lazily losing possession. Italy plays Bulgaria on Sunday (TLN, 2:30 p.m.) and manager Roberto Mancini may want to lecture his players about concentration levels that work for the full 90 minutes.
There are other narratives emerging about particular teams and individual players. Current World Cup champion France laboured to a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in Paris. Although France had near-complete control it could not find scoring chances after Antoine Griezmann’s opener. The lack of ruthless attacking will definitely increase pressure on manger Didier Deschamps to sort out his toxic relationship with Karim Benzema, who hasn’t played for France for several years now, while still in his prime and often the engine that drives Real Madrid.
The Netherlands has acquired a reputation as a brash young team, but looked disastrously ill-equipped to face Turkey, who trashed it 4-2, with Turkey’s veteran captain Burak Yilmaz scoring a hattrick. Speaking of veterans, it is downright bizarre that Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to play for Sweden after retiring from the national team five years ago. Now 39, he looked sharper than players a decade younger and assisted on Sweden’s sole goal in a 1-0 win over Georgia. The man with an ego the size of Scandinavia insists he’s ready for the full World Cup qualifying journey.
Meanwhile England has yet to be tested in what should be a less-than-challenging qualifying group – it’s in a group with Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino. England’s biggest issue will be team selection, because only Poland and Hungary come anywhere near the level England is at now. With any luck, by the time England storms through the World Cup in Qatar the roar of the crowd will have returned everywhere in world soccer.