Pedigree England, France, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands have all missed the World Cup more recently than South Korea, which has now made every finals since 1982, even if qualification this time around was a little less smooth than normal.
The Star Barely two weeks before its opening game, South Korea confronted its nightmare: the sight of Son Heung-min, the Tottenham forward and the country’s lone superstar, being removed from a Champions League game with a fractured cheekbone. Son has assured fans he will be ready to play. The lingering fear is that he may not quite be at his thrilling best.
Key Question South Korea might have contributed one of the most memorable moments in Russia four years ago — eliminating Germany — but its result was still a disappointment. The question this year will be the same as it was then: Does Son have enough of a supporting cast to shine?
Pedigree For the better part of a decade, Uruguay has been South America’s third force: Indeed, its performance over the last three World Cups has not been vastly different to Brazil’s. This tournament proved one too many for the mastermind of that rise, though, with the avuncular, beloved Óscar Washington Tabárez dismissed halfway through qualification.
The Stars A dozen years on from his first encounter with Ghana, Luis Suárez is still there. So, too, are the likes of Edínson Cavani and Diego Godín. The veterans are joined, though, by the standard-bearers of a new generation: Liverpool’s electric, unformed Darwin Nuñez; Barcelona’s Ronald Araújo; and, most of all, the irrepressible Federico Valverde.
Key Question Tabarez’s replacement, Diego Alonso, guided Uruguay to Qatar without much fuss. How he fares will be determined by the extent to which he is prepared to trust the future, rather than relying on the past.
Uruguay’s Qatar 2022 squad
Goalkeepers Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray) Sebastian Sosa (Independiente) Sergio Rochet (Nacional)
Defenders Diego Godin (Velez Sarsfield) Jose Maria Gimenez (Atletico de Madrid) Sebastián Coates (Sporting) Guillermo Varela (Flamengo) Marten Caceres (Los Angeles Galaxy) Jose Luis Rodreguez (Nacional) Ronald Araujo (Barcelona) Mathias Olivera (Napoli) Matias Vina (Roma)
Midfielders Matias Vecino (Lazio) Lucas Torreira (Galatasaray) Manuel Ugarte (Sporting) Federico Valverde (Real Madrid) Rodrigo Bentancur (Tottenham Hotspur) Nicolas de la Cruz (River Plate) Agustin Canobbio (Athletico Paranaense) Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Flamengo)
Forwards Facundo Pellistri (Manchester United) Luis Suarez (Nacional) Darwin Nunez (Liverpool) Edinson Cavani (Valencia) Facundo Torres (Orlando City) Maximiliano Gomez (Trabzonspor)
Pedigree Qualification was a little stressful for Ghana: It required three coaches, a controversial penalty kick and a fraught playoff victory over Nigeria to carry the Black Stars — so close to being semifinalists in 2010, but absent entirely in 2018 — to Qatar.
The Story Otto Addo, the last of those three coaches, has seen his resources bolstered by a steady supply of newly registered, dual national recruits, including Tariq Lamptey, a Brighton right back, and Iñaki Williams, the Athletic Bilbao forward whose brother, Nico, has been included in Spain’s squad.
Key Question The extent to which Addo succeeds in blending together those new faces with the established figures in his squad — the likes of Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan — as well as an exciting crop of emerging youngsters will define how Ghana fares in what is, admittedly, a tough group.
Ambition Portugal will travel to Qatar believing — though possibly not verbalizing — that it can win the tournament. Lionel Messi, after all, is not the only player with a credible claim as the greatest of all time who will be taking the curtain after this World Cup, and if anything Cristiano Ronaldo has a better supporting cast.
Cristiano Ronaldo The simmering furor over his treatment at Manchester United this season — where he has largely been reduced to playing in the Europa League, rather than the Premier League — may have a silver lining. Ronaldo, 37, will certainly not be going into his last World Cup worrying about fatigue.
Key Question There is no prospect of Fernando Santos, Portugal’s gruff, obdurate coach, even thinking about trying to build a team that does not center on Ronaldo, which means he must confront the issue that has foxed three Manchester United coaches: how to accentuate his benefits while masking his drawbacks.
Pedigree Cameroon has, impressively, missed out on only one World Cup since 1990, but its presence in Qatar was a close-run thing. As late as the 118th minute of the second leg of its playoff against Algeria, Cameroon was out, right up until the 124th minute, when Karl Toko Ekambi scored the goal that changed everything.
The Star The career of Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting is impossibly curious. An also-ran at Stoke City, a middling sort of Premier League club a decade ago, he has since played for both Paris St.-Germain and Bayern Munich, where he appears to have turned into the natural heir to Robert Lewandowski.
Ambition Under Rigobert Song, a totemic former player turned inspirational coach, Cameroon finished third at this year’s African Cup of Nations — only a penalty shootout defeat to Egypt cost it a final on home soil — and will believe it can leave Qatar as the best of the African contingent.
Pedigree With minimal fuss, Switzerland has become an admirably common feature of both World Cups and European Championships. Murat Yakin’s team earned a place in its fifth straight World Cup by finishing on top of a qualifying group that included Italy, the European champion, and it did so without losing a game.
Ambition Switzerland generally, and correctly, regards reaching the knockout rounds as a sort of par finish. Traditionally, it is then eliminated in the most boring game of the tournament: Its three round-of-16 games this century have produced only two goals (neither of them for Switzerland). It would be nice if, this time, it could go down in a blaze of glory.
Key Question Switzerland has long been a kind of low-key Belgium: a small country punching well above its relative weight. Like Belgium, the group of players responsible for that success are now past their primes. This may prove to be a tournament too far.
Pedigree Serbia secured a place in Qatar in the most dramatic fashion imaginable — Aleksandar Mitrovic’s last-minute header condemning Portugal to defeat in Lisbon — but the emphasis on Portugal’s failure disguised what was an impressive qualifying campaign. Beating out Portugal, after all, is no mean feat.
The Star Midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been one of the best players in Italy for five years, if not longer. The president of his team, Lazio, values him at $150 million and claims he is better than Paul Pogba. At 27, it is about time he lived up to that billing on a global stage.
Key Question Serbia should, on paper, be a threat. Its team is drawn largely from Europe’s major leagues; Milinkovic-Savic is a reliable, creative presence; Dusan Vlahovic, Luka Jovic and Mitrovic provide an embarrassment of riches in attack. And yet that is the same before every tournament, and Serbia never quite manages to deliver on its promise. The question is: Why?
Pedigree Brazil last won the World Cup 20 years ago, a drought the country generally regards as 19 or so years too long. Tite’s squad is a fearsome one, encompassing the two best goalkeepers in the world, a miserly defense, an intelligent and industrious midfield, and a slightly absurd forward line. There is no reason Brazil cannot win its seventh crown.
The Star The supporting cast of Vinicíus Junior, Raphinha and Gabriel Jésus is impressive, but Neymar shines even among Brazil’s enviable collection of gems. He has admitted that this may be his last World Cup, and he has given the impression at the club level in recent weeks that he is determined to make it count.
Key Question Brazil’s form in recent years has been formidable, but — thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic — it has not faced a European team since March 2019, and it has not faced one of Europe’s major forces since losing to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. That is the one test it has not passed.