PARIS (AFP) – European nations led by reigning champions France will on Monday (Dec 7) learn their opponents in qualifying as they begin the long and congested road towards the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The draw for the qualifying stage will take place in a virtual ceremony at Fifa’s headquarters in Zurich, allowing France and leading lights like Kylian Mbappe to start tracing out their route to a successful defence of the trophy in Doha.
Two years since their triumph in Moscow, the French look the strongest side around, and recently qualified for the finals of the Nations League that take place next October.
“We mustn’t start believing we are better than we are but we do have the feeling that we can still do some great things,” France coach Didier Deschamps said this week as he looked ahead to a packed 2021.
Qatar and Fifa recently celebrated marking two years to go until the start of the controversial tournament, which will start on Nov 21, 2022 and conclude with the final on Dec 18 after being moved to the northern hemisphere winter.
Playing with the dates of football’s biggest events has become commonplace due to the coronavirus pandemic, and qualifying is scheduled to start with three rounds of matches next March, before the delayed Euro 2020 tournament goes ahead in June and July.
France will be joined in the first pot of seeds for Monday’s draw by the world’s top-ranked side Belgium, reigning European champions Portugal and Croatia, the team they defeated in the 2018 final in Moscow.
England, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands will also be top seeds, with only the winners of each of the 10 groups qualifying automatically for the finals.
The 10 runners-up will go into playoffs alongside the two best Nations League group winners who miss out on qualifying via the traditional path.
Those playoffs will produce three more qualifiers in total, with Europe having 13 spots out of the 32 at the finals.
France, Belgium, Italy and Spain will all be placed in qualifying groups of five teams by virtue of having qualified for the final four of the Nations League in Italy next October.
It all points to a continuing pile-up of matches.
For example, a team that reaches the final of Euro 2020 can expect to play 17 competitive games between March and November next year.
Club managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp have bitterly criticised the number of games their players are being asked to play for club and country, and that issue is likely to come to the fore again over the course of 2021.
The continent’s more modest nations have had their access to the European Championship opened up by that competition’s expansion to 24 teams, but reaching the World Cup promises to be a far more arduous task.
For example, after qualifying for Euro 2020 to reach their first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, Scotland will face an uphill struggle to make it to Qatar.
Their world ranking of 48 means they are in the third pot of seeds, so could go into a group with, for example, France and Switzerland.
Scotland’s prospects of making the World Cup were not helped by their failure to top their Nations League group last month.
“The playoff route via the Nations League has gone – we’ll just need to qualify from the group. That has got to be the aim,” said Scotland manager Steve Clarke.
World Cup qualifying has already started elsewhere, including in South America which began its marathon 10-team round-robin tournament in October.