FIFA World Cup

World Cup 2022: Group of War

Kokoy Severino
World Cup 2022: Group of War

DECORATED. England's Harry Kane celebrates scoring a goal.

Carl Recine/Reuters

The English live under tremendous pressure to perform at the very highest levels of expectation since they are, after all, credited with inventing the game

This is Part 2 of Rappler’s World Cup 2022 series.

Part 1: Group of Underdogs

Group B – England, Iran, USA, Wales

Match Day 1 of Group B took place on February 24, 2022, when Russian forces rolled into Ukraine. Much of the world’s response was swift, including that of the footballing sector. 

The football associations of Poland, Czech Republic, and Ukraine all declared their refusal to play the Russian national team in the World Cup Qualifiers if the results went that way. FIFA’s subsequent ejection of anything Russian, from club ownership to Champions League and corporate sponsorships, was so sweeping and so immediate, it didn’t require any European Union vote or NATO support. Not even the UN Security Council could veto it. 

Russia was out, and therefore Ukraine got the bye to play Scotland and then Wales, who ultimately took the final seat in Group B by eliminating the war-torn country, whose national team players had to take a break from the battlefield to hit the soccer field.

I’m not sure how I feel about the weaponization of football, certainly not because I don’t feel Russia deserves to be sanctioned and isolated for their actions. For one, it’s the subjectivity of FIFA’s decisions. Why, for example, is Saudi Arabia allowed to continue their World Cup qualification even as they bomb neighboring Yemen, the poorest country in the region, causing catastrophic destruction of civilian infrastructure thrusting millions of children on the brink of starvation? 

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition intervening in the Yemeni civil war, further complicating its intractability. Over 400 Saudi-led air strikes have destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, and countless other civilian structures. An estimated 130,000 people died due to the war. 

Saudi blockades of Yemeni ports have hampered efforts by aid organizations providing relief for the suffering millions. Yet no one batted an eye as the Green Falcons opened the 2018 edition in a 0-5 loss to the hosts, who just happened to be Russia, and as they topped their third-round group in the Asian qualifiers last March to book their Qatar ticket. 

Only after evidence was found of Iranian drones used by Russia in recent bombing raids of Kyiv did calls come from certain European countries for FIFA to expel Iran and replace it with themselves in Group B, namely Ukraine and Italy. 

It is yet to be seen how seriously FIFA is taking these suggestions, but no such clamor arose in 2015 when Iran became an active supplier of arms to Bashar El-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war. 

What about China’s ongoing manipulation of Hong Kong’s political system, whittling away at its democratic institutions and cracking down on dissent, in explicit violation of international agreements? The Chinese owners of some big-time clubs such as Inter Milan and Wolverhampton have not been stripped of their control. 

The United States’ all-out invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on bogus claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, yet the Yanks’ World Cup campaign continued unabated in 2006 and beyond, along with that of their coalition partners. 

Argentina’s 1982 takeover of the Falklands ignited an international war with England, yet the Albiceleste were allowed to continue their run to win the championship in Mexico in 1986. 

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan? The US invasion of Afghanistan? Rwandan genocide in 1994? Are the conflicts in East Africa causing widespread famine? The continued Israeli occupation of annexed Palestinian land? 

China’s qualifying matches for the 1990 World Cup continued with impunity after the Tien An Men massacre during which an estimated hundreds if not thousands (the exact number of dead is unknown) of student protesters demanding basic democratic freedoms were summarily gunned down by the military. China went on to finish in fourth place in the final round in October 1989, a mere five months after the massacre. 

Yemen, Syria, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, China, Argentina, the United States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are all as equal as Russia and Ukraine in the membership of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. There seems to be selective, if not biased, application of moral standards by FIFA. 

Furthermore, no evidence has been presented that Russia’s disqualification and comprehensive banishment from the football world has had any influence in deterring Putin from continuing his aggression in Ukraine. 

Under FIFA regulations in fact, each member country’s football association is required to function independently of government control, as it is seen not as a government agency, but as an organization belonging to the people. Any attempts by government officials to influence or otherwise involve themselves in the operations of the national soccer association is considered meddling and subject to FIFA sanctions. 

Clubs parting ways with Putin crony owners is understandable. But disqualifying the Russian National Team is punishing the wrong people. The cancellation of Russia eliminated yet another possible tool for diplomacy, a potential breakthrough toward peace the world desperately needed. Continuation in the World Cup qualifying tournament would also have provided a primetime platform for players to express their views of the invasion.

Seeing how many common Russian citizens have reacted, it seems more than likely that Dzhikiya and Kuzyayev and the company would have conveyed opposition to the war. That would have been a much more powerful message for the Russian government leadership to see and hear than the exclusion and consequent silencing of the Russian people’s voice in the world’s most popular sport.

This is all circumspect at this point. What’s done is done. Play on! 

This is however the Group of War. We can only surmise how deeply the historical conflicts between the Group B countries play into their collective and individual psyches. When Harry Kane launches a sizzling rocket toward the goal, is he thinking, “Take that, you tax-evading tea-hater!” to avenge the British loss in the American Revolution? And is Matt Turner muttering to himself as he is lunging across the goalmouth to make another spectacular save, “Not on my watch, you rotten red coat!”? Probably not.

All political conflicts between these two staunch NATO allies have been relegated to high school textbooks. What is likely foremost on English minds is expanding the slight edge they hold in their series against the Americans on the World Cup pitch, starting way back in the 20th century.

“The British are coming! The British are coming!” These words immortalized in American folklore are attributed to Paul Revere, who rode with William Dawes and Samuel Prescott from town to town in the middle of the night, to warn the people of an impending British attack from the surrounding Massachusetts countryside.

In actuality, Revere never shouted those words, as he and his compatriots were trying to ride as discreetly as possible. Nevertheless, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem written almost a century later extolling Paul Revere’s heroic ride, at some point became the accepted version of events. Some two and a half centuries later, those words, as fabricated as they are, should nonetheless be heeded by the Yanks, the Welsh and the Iranians in preparation for the English onslaught of Group B. There is no question who are the favorites of the group. 

The English have had to live under tremendous pressure to perform at the very highest levels of expectation; they are after all credited with inventing the game. As such, the English have had sporadic success. In almost 100 years’ worth of World Cups, England has  made it to only one final, the one they hosted and won in 1966.

Since then, the best the Three Lions have achieved has been fourth place twice. At the continental level, the English have achieved even less. Prior to their latest outing in Euro 2020 when they finished as runners-up, England has managed to finish in third place twice. Other than that, their Euro record is littered with quarterfinal and group of 16 exits and dismal group stage eliminations – in the years that they qualified. 

But the British are coming in 2022. England almost pulled off the European championship in 2020, taking Italy into overtime and then relinquishing it in penalties. In the club system, since 2018, Premier League teams have won half of both the European championships and the Club World Cup – Liverpool in 2019 and Chelsea in 2021, both all-England Champions League finals against Tottenham and Manchester City respectively. 

In the most recent edition last May, Real Madrid narrowly beat Liverpool to reclaim the title for their 14th trophy. These are the warnings that the poetic Paul Revere would be riding about; this is the Great Birnam Wood moving towards Dunsinane Hill signaling Macbeth’s impending demise. Group B opponents be warned.

In classic English style, head coach Gareth Southgate likes to understate things, putting on a tone of royal humility, speaking of the challenges ahead, injuries and personnel out of form. Wales, Iran and the US would do well not to be taken in by such misleading psychology. With highly decorated battle-hardened foot soldiers like Kane, Sterling, Maguire, Saka, Henderson, Pickford, the English intend to get downright colonial and control the Group B continent. 

While the British look like they’re going to plant their stamp and claim every yard of grass they step on in Qatar, the indicators I see coming from the United States are portending quite the opposite. I’m afraid the Stars and Stripes have been kind of shaky lately, and I’m getting a bad feeling.

The draw may look favorable to those who have a short historical memory, but 1998 is casting a long ominous shadow on the USA. The last time the Americans were drawn in a group with two European teams plus Iran, they finished in 32nd place in a heat of 32, with zero wins, zero points, and a -4 goal differential. Americans are notorious for having very short historical memories. 

But I remember that 1998 tournament quite well, watching every minute of every match and every English-language and some Spanish-language pre- and post-game commentary from my living room in Houston, Texas where I was serving the public sector as an educator and middle school soccer coach  in the nearby Pasadena school district.

I remember American ESPN analysts talking repeatedly about what the USA needed to do against Yugoslavia and Germany to get the points they needed. They sounded like the match against Germany was a sure loss, but optimistic that a win against Yugoslavia would send the Yanks into the next round (captained by Thomas Dooley incidentally, the future Philippines National Team Head Coach). 

I kept thinking to myself, “What about Iran?” I had this distinct feeling that the USA was implying an assumption three points against the Islamic Republic were guaranteed. If the American commentators were at all reflecting what the rest of America was thinking, including the US national team, then we’re in trouble. I couldn’t help but think that the US coaching staff and scouts just wrote Iran off, symptoms of that combination of naivete and arrogance that are hallmarks of popular American culture.

The Iranians hit the pitch playing like they had everything to prove, and the US played like they had nothing to prove. Iran took no hostages that day; they dominated the field like they were guarding nuclear secrets.

This year’s unit commanded by head coach Gregg Berhalter are a different generation though. In 1998, six out of 22 players were on the rosters of European clubs, only two with English Premiere League giants – goalkeepers Kasey Keller who won the 1997 EFL Cup with Leicester City and Liverpool’s Brad Friedel. The other four were on lesser teams of the German and Dutch leagues. The rest of the roster were spread around Major League Soccer, then only in its third season and a very minor league by global standards. 

Today, top European clubs are licking their chops at the prime recruiting ground into which the United States has developed. The American player has become one of the most sought-after talents in the world. Of the 58 players Berhalter has called into the national team pool over the past 12 months for World Cup Qualifiers, CONCACAF Nations League, and various friendlies and training camps, 35 are currently under European contract. The rest are stalwarts in Major League Soccer, which in the 25 years since its inauguration has become a major destination for international stars in the hemisphere, more and more of whom are coming in their prime.

And the MLS, now expanded to 32 clubs and growing, has transformed into a regular challenger to Mexico’s Liga MX for continental supremacy. Some of the most elite professional clubs in the world have established youth academies around the United States, including Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and Chivas de Guadalajara. Every MLS club runs a youth development component, producing players with increasing caliber scouted by the top leagues in the world.

But the most elite of the forces of the Nations League champions are undeniably in Europe, spearheaded by Christian Pulisic. At only 24 years old, Pulisic has already blazed a trail where no American has gone before, garnering a long list of firsts during his stint with Chelsea – from the youngest player in club history to score a hat trick to the first US player to play in and win a Champions League final and the first American Club World Cup champion.

The performance of midfielder Weston McKennie has been garnering much attention since his years at Schalke and now even more so at Juventus, where he has helped the Italian powerhouse earn some domestic silverware. Winger Tim Weah, son of the former FIFA World Player of the Year and Arthur Ashe Courage Award recipient George Weah now president of Liberia, helped his current club Lille finish atop Ligue 1 in the 2020-2021 season.

Since transferring to Arsenal this February after four seasons with New England, goalkeeper Matt Turner has gone undefeated in all four of his Europa League starts, including three clean sheets. Sergiño Dest spent two seasons as the first American to play for legendary Barcelona FC before he was loaned to AC Milan where he is now. These are just a few of the Americans who have been doing very well lately at the very highest club level. 

Still, there are many recent signs causing unease in the United States’ immediate World Cup future.

Despite a stellar record with Chelsea, Pulisic has been frustrated by a lack of minutes under two successive coaches since the post-invasion shakeup that expelled Russian crony Roman Abramovich from its ownership ranks along with his technical staff. The US national team captain found playing time hard to come by during Thomas Tuchel’s year in charge and now under Graham Potter, even though the latest coach was appointed in September by Chelsea’s new American owners. 

Game minutes at the highest level are critical to staying in top form as the big dance approaches. America’s main man was reportedly disappointed that Chelsea had not loaned him out or sold him to an outfit in more need of his playing time by the end of the most recent transfer window. Injuries to Turner, McKennie, Dest, Leeds United’s Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre of Celta Vigo, and Sam Vines at Royal Antwerp have cast doubt over their fitness by USA’s first match date against Wales on November 21. 

A whopping 58 players in Berhalter’s rotation within the year leading up to the main event could hamper the selection’s gelling come Match Day 1. In comparison, England only had a pool of 40 players in rotation over the last year’s Nations League, World Cup Qualifiers, and various friendlies. Wales had a total of only 36 players called up in the last 12 months, and Iran 46. 

This current American squad is also very young. Only 14 of the 58 Berhalter is eyeing for the final roster are over 25 years old, and only Deandre Yedlin has logged any previous World Cup minutes. After an impressive performance coming off the bench in three matches in Brazil 2014, Yedlin went on an eight-season stint with four different European clubs, joining Inter Miami this year back on home grass.

And then there is my pet peeve – the USA’s monopolization of Gold Cup hosting. For decades, I have advocated for the CONCACAF’s top championship tournament to rotate host countries, just like in all the other confederations. By keeping every Gold Cup tournament in the United States, while it may be great for us fans, it is an obstacle to the US national team’s World Cup crusade, as it deprives players of the sole opportunity they would have to experience a top-level competition in foreign territory. 

In order to rise to the standard beyond the Group of 16, teams have to be accustomed to the tension and rigor of winning in away environments when everything is on the line. Except for the once-in-a-blue-moon instance when they are hosting, every national team in the world plays their continental championship tournament in foreign stadia, immeasurable psychological preparation especially for a young squad in an environment and format that replicates the World Cup. Every national team in the world does it, except that is the United States, who play every game of their continental championship with home-field advantage. 

Their seven Gold Cup championships to date should come with an asterisk *all played at home. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then when the USA posts some disappointing, and worrying, results in friendlies on foreign soil, such as the recent 0-2 loss to Japan in Dusseldorf, a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, both in September, and even competitive matches that do count, like the 1-1 Nations League tie in June against El Salvador in San Salvador. 

With Pulisic’s playing time severely limited, key players on the casualties list, and some recent lethargic away results, the USA are walking into the World Cup on the low end of the performance spectrum. It’s looking more and more like Qatar 2022 is going to be a rebuilding year for the USA. The collective experience and memory of what it takes to succeed in the biggest and most important tournament of their lives will be the critical component to launch this young American squad into the 2026 semifinals when they will be back at home and in a much more favorable environment for them to go further than the USA have ever gone.

With the English threatening and the Americans in a slump, the Welsh are waiting to pounce. They’re having none of that rapprochement between the two former warring states; they’ve lived in the shadow of England way too long, and they’re not so willing to forgive and forget the English invasion by King Edward I in the 1200s, about 800 years before FIFA could apply sanctions.

The Welsh are very well aware that the English are the top seed in just about everything. But they are in Qatar to ambush the English road to the next round and sabotage whatever plans they have to conquer the group. And they’re certainly not going to let any former English colony get in the way either. 

Like the hosts, no member of the Wales national team has posted a single minute of action on a World Cup finals pitch. In fact, no member of the team, player or coaching staff, was even alive in 1958 when Wales was eliminated in the quarterfinals in their first and only other World Cup tournament. 

The Dragons have a high-quality cadre of mature players to lead the youth, including Wales’s all-time leading scorer and captain Gareth Bale, who just completed a much-celebrated transfer to newly crowned MLS champions LAFC after eight seasons with Real Madrid where he scored 106 goals in 258 appearances on his way to three La Liga titles, five European championships, and three Club World Cup finals. 

After his exit from the storied club, Queen Elizabeth bestowed upon him the Member of the Order of the British Empire for donating over a million euros in 2020 to hospitals in Wales and Spain to help fight COVID-19. At 33 years old, Bale has proven that he can still deliver crucial minutes when everything is at stake, as evidenced by his heroic entry into the MLS championship match this past weekend. At long last, this is likely Bale’s one and only chance to win some glory for his country, along with his Vice-Captain Aaron Ramsey. 

Like Bale, Ramsey is accustomed to doing what it takes to raise trophies, having won an FA Cup with Cardiff City, another three with Arsenal, a Serie A title and a Coppa Italia with Juventus, and a Scottish Cup with Rangers. Bale and Ramsey will lead the Welsh defense against the English onslaught, counter-attacking on the break.

The Welsh know the physical English style well, not only because they share a once-contentious border, but two-thirds of their national team pool this year currently play club ball in England, nine of them in the Premiere League. The Welsh will have no problem roughing it up with England, like they’ve done for centuries, a grudge match, the closest we will get to a rugby game in a football tournament. For this reason, when it comes down to the two teams in the group with zero to few minutes of World Cup experience – Wales and the USA – I’m afraid the Welsh have the edge. 

Out of all 32 countries represented in the biggest sporting event in the universe, Iran is in the most turmoil. For the past month and a half, a growing protest movement has besieged the government, which has turned to more and more draconian measures to try and silence the Iranian people’s demands for justice and freedom. Sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, who arrested her for alleged violations of the strict dress code, this tidal wave of protest has plunged the country into the worst domestic crisis it has seen in decades. 

Lead by the women of Iran who have endured repressive and discriminatory laws for way too long, the movement has exploded to now include men, students, young and old, workers and intellectuals, people from diverse backgrounds all across the country. The government has responded with escalating violence. Still the movement has been spreading and growing, defying the brutality of the regime. We will see how the upheaval affects Carlos Queiroz’s squad, whether it will serve as an inspiration or a distraction. The Portuguese manager was appointed to the Iran position for a second stint and third World Cup on September 7, less than a couple of weeks before the protests began.

Qualifying for the third time in a row, there have been calls for Iran’s expulsion from the 2022 World Cup because of the government’s response to the protests and its discriminatory practices against women, including from within Iran. Again, I advocate allowing a primetime opportunity for the people’s voice to be heard on the biggest platform in the world.

When Sardar Azmoun scores an equalizer against the Welsh on November 25th, I want to see him lift the front of his jersey to reveal Mahsa Amini’s portrait and name handwritten in big bold letters on his Under Armour projected to the five billion viewers around the world watching in every country including, yes including, Iran, an image that will be tweeted and retweeted and shared and reshared millions of times. Mahsa Amini’s name and face and the struggle she represents would forever be enshrined in the annals of World Cup lore. 

Is this just a fantasy dreamed up by a football idealist? It is not as far-fetched as it would seem. One of the biggest Iranian stars today, Sardar Azmoun leads active Team Melli players in goal tallies with 41 over 65 caps. Now in his second season with Beyer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, Azmoun previously spent his entire professional career in the Russian Premiere League where he collected numerous titles with Rubin Kazan and Zenit St. Petersburg. In his transfer from the former to the latter, 

Azmoun became the second most expensive player in Iranian football history. Today, Sardar Azmoun is among scores of Iranian celebrity athletes who have come out to publicly condemn the government regime and demand justice and freedom for the Iranian women and people. His global displays of solidarity with the protesters and the women of Iran could also be joined by one of the most lethal strikers in Iberian football today. 

Over four seasons in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Mehdi Taremi has tallied 42 goals in just 78 total appearances for Rio Ave and Porto, helping the latter win the league title in 2021-22. Azmoun and Taremi would probably be joined by Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi. The veteran of two World Cup campaigns, the AEK Athens left-back has already had a previous run-in with the Iranian government when he was banned from the national team in 2017 for playing with his then-club Panionos against Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv, to be later reinstated after he was allegedly required to post some religious messages on his social media account. Why the football association of Iran was not sanctioned by FIFA at that time for violating its non-interference laws is a question I’d like to pose to Gianni Infantino. 

With the courage to defy one of the world’s cruelest and most repressive governments, I don’t think Azmoun, Taremi, Hajsafi, and their Team Melli mates will find any difficulty in defying FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s letter this week to all World Cup national teams imploring them to keep politics off the field. 

This is my response to the FIFA president: Now is not the time for hypocrisy and prevarication. The Iranian people are putting their lives on the line for their freedom. Should the national team and Carlos Queiroz and FIFA decide to push through with Iran’s participation, then let it be to bring the Iranian people’s voice to the global stage, bring the protests onto the most sacred of sporting grounds for billions to see, and hear, let the people’s representatives battle the repression and brutality of the government with the weapon of the world’s most beautiful game, the game of the masses. And if these protests against the Iranian government do not materialize on the pitch, then let the English, the Welsh, and the Americans bounce Iran out of the big dance in shame.

Group B standings prediction
  1. England
  2. Wales
  3. USA
  4. Iran

(Next: Part 3 – The Group of Living Legends)

– Rappler.com

Kokoy Severino is a career educator and nationally certified youth soccer coach in the United States who now  lives in his home country of the Philippines. For over 23 years, he implemented the beautiful game as a gang-intervention program in high-poverty urban school districts in the Greater Houston area of Texas. He has also worked with economically-disadvantaged communities in the Philippines, using football to mentor youths out of poverty. He is on the coaching staff of the Football for Peace movement, the Elmer Lacknet Bedia Football Academy, and a core member of Initiatives and Hearts for Indigenous People, a collective of volunteer soccer coaches who work with youths in poverty, particularly among the marginalized ethnic minorities of the Philippines. 

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