THE HUMAN RIGHTS WORLD CUP STARTS HERE (SORT OF)
In 607 days’ time, pandemic allowing, the 22nd edition of the World Cup will begin in Qatar. A month-long celebration of transparency, love and the dignity of labour for which The Fiver cannot wait. It will in some respects be a unique experience, the first to be held in the Arab world and the first not to be played in May, June or July. However, in other ways expect more of the same: a few goals will fly in during the group stage, everyone gets giddy with excitement and rushes on to the internet to disagree aggressively with anyone who doesn’t proclaim it to be the Best World Cup Ever, then after the fact folk reluctantly admit that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as 1954, 1970 or 1982, how could it be? Oh, and Lionel Messi will underperform. Shoo-ins, the lot.
It’ll be where you’ll find the in-crowd, and so the stampede to get there is on. A couple of confederations have been running their qualification competitions for a while already, so we know we won’t be seeing the likes of Guam, Chinese Taipei or Bangladesh, while the hopes of Nepal, Mongolia and Bolivia hang by a thread. But no dreams are yet to be extinguished in Europe, where qualification begins on Wednesday! Are England embarking on another campaign that will whisk them all the way to the last four? Could Scotland qualify for the first time since 1998? Will the Republic O’Ireland do a goal? Call us crazy, but anything is possible.
O’Ireland go to Belgrade hoping to take something off Serbia, though that may prove a tall order given eight of their regular starters are out and they’ll be forced to play a 19-year-old who can’t currently get a game for Bournemouth in goal. Still, Luxembourg are up next, so there’s that. Though if they face a tough start, that’s nothing on their Welsh counterparts, who begin what in theory is the toughest challenge in All Football: a trip to face the world’s No 1 team on their own patch. Not an ideal opener for a country that hasn’t qualified since 1958.
Wales go to Belgium, who haven’t lost a competitive match at home for 11 years, and Rob Page’s men could be forgiven for writing off the entire caper as a textbook exercise in futility. That’d be The Fiver’s inclination, but Wales are made of stronger stuff, and go into the game with genuine hope, not least because they’re on a four-game unbeaten run against the Belgians, the most recent meeting being that quarter-final at Euro 2016. More Robson-Kanuesque magic, please! “We know it’s going to be difficult but we’re going to give everything to get a result,” tooted Gareth Bale. “We want to take this opportunity to qualify.” Fans will be heartened to hear their star man speak with such determination, because Bale is notorious for looking like he wishes to be somewhere else – Madrid while at Spurs, the golf course while at Madrid, Madrid while back at Spurs – and he usually gets exactly what he wants. Qatar ahoy!
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Not bad for five training sessions and one pre-season friendly” – the Highland League’s Brora Rangers remain deadpan after a sensational 2-1 Scottish Cup win over 2019 and 2020 finalists Hearts in the second round. There were dressing-room scenes, of course.
“I never write these sorts of letters, but a combination of Tim Miller’s praise of Nathan Redmond, plus the tribute to Frank Worthington in his Leicester strip (yesterday’s Fiver), prompted me. Sorry! My father, a lifelong Leicester fan, took me to my first match in 1971 at Stamford Bridge, where I saw Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-1. My main memory, however, was of John Fitzpatrick passing across goal, albeit outside the penalty area, towards Tony Dunne. Alan Hudson intercepted, whacking it past Alex Stepney. This goal prompted my mild-mannered father to chunter on for some time about how you should never pass across the goal. Of course the current United team now make it a badge of honour to do that virtually every game, as close to the six-yard box as possible, and indeed conceded again just last weekend because they seem to not have mastered some obvious truths. My father’s heart, god bless him, would not have survived the current United approach, although he would have been gratified by Fred’s generosity. He died just before the season Leicester won the Premier League and I like to imagine it was not just Nigel Pearson who was an absent influence on their success. A whole fallow lifetime of support meant my father was always going to do something about that once he got past the pearly gates” – Neil Wells.
“Playing right-back for Walford Boys Club, I was, one Sunday in Scotland, tasked with marking Peter Lorimer in a charity football match. Neither of us felt like running around too much; he was nearly 50 and I was still smoking 30 B&H a day, so we had plenty of time to chat. He came across as a warmhearted and friendly man, who spent most of the afternoon trying not to humiliate me, which considering we lost 13-0 was quite an achievement. RIP” – Chris McHallem.
Send your letters to email@example.com. And you can always tweet The Fiver via @guardian_sport. Today’s winner of our prizeless letter o’the day is … Neil Wells.
NEWS, BITS AND BOBS
Manchester City’s run of nine straight wins came crashing to a halt in Women’s Big Cup as Barcelona gave them a 3-0 schooling in the first leg of their quarter-final. “I think we can turn this around,” spluttered boss Gareth Taylor, while looking for inspiration in this match report.
City, meanwhile, will install more than 5,500 rail seats in preparation for a possible utopian future when fans not only go to games again – but also stand safely at them.
Slavia Prague’s Ondrej Kudela is expected to be questioned over accusations of racist abuse against Glen Kamara if he returns to the UK for their tie against Arsenal.
Marcus Rashford has vowed to reach the 390,000 vulnerable children in the UK who have never owned a book. “[It’s] time for that to change,” he said. “I want this escapism for all children. Not just those that can afford it.”
Xabi Alonso has apparently not agreed to become Gladbach boss next season despite, erm, Monday’s Fiver claiming otherwise.
And Egyptian painter Islam Battah is putting his supposed likeness to Lionel Messi to good use by entertaining kids at an orphanage. “When I started growing my beard, my friends told me that I look like Messi,” he honked. “When I grew my beard even more, the resemblance was clearer. The kids’ happiness is indescribable. When you make someone happy, God rewards you. I wanted to share this with them.”
STILL WANT MORE?
England might have an array of whizzy attackers but their hopes of finally lifting a shiny pot in the near-future rest in defence, reckons Barney Ronay.
Martin Laurence picks 10 players who could throw a spanner in the England works.
Ryan Giggs is the elephant in the room for Wales, reports Ben Fisher.
Having been short-changed in 2019-20 and with bigger concerns on their minds, will fans remain generous when stumping up for season tickets, asks Ewan Murray.
Which footballers have played alongside both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi? The Knowledge answers this burning question and more.
Frank Worthington was a pure entertainer on and off the pitch, writes Simon Burton in this lovely piece.
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