World Cup: Which England will show up in Group B?
Who needs a Group of Death when you can have a Group of Death to England?
Step aside Group E, with your anointed Group of Death tag and your combined five-time World Cup winners Germany and Spain, and pay homage to the entertainment, and enmity, of Group B.
Not only do England, Iran, the United States and Wales have the highest average Fifa ranking (15th) of any of the eight groups, they have something better – the historical or sociopolitical animus that ensures all their rivals are especially keen to slay the Three Lions.
And that’s what football is about, isn’t it? Good old tribal rivalry.
Former British colony turned senior partner in The Special Relationship, the US would like nothing better than to update their famous 1950 World Cup upset of the English with a sequel.
Minor partners in Great Britain, you don’t have to harken back to 14th century Welsh pro-independence icon Owain Glyndwr to understand the match’s importance to Wales.
Just listen to actor Michael Sheen’s viral, impromptu World Cup oratory call to arms on Sky’s A League of Their Own. Yma o Hyd! (We’re Still Here, in Welsh)
For Iran, the US might be the “Great Satan” but “Little Satan” England might be a more devilish scalp on the football pitch.
Amid the acrimony of their group rivals, England have their own existential battle with expectation to contend with.
Three consecutive tournament results, each one better than the last – fourth at World Cup 2018, third at Nations League 2019 and runners-up at Euro 2020 – ushered optimism for Qatar 2022.
But then England unveiled their Mr Hyde side. The Three Lions head to Doha on a six-match winless run – which includes a 4-0 thrashing by Hungary in June, their biggest loss on home soil in 94 years – begging the question of which England will show up.
Glitter of golden generation?
The US have never had it this good, not in the men’s game, at least.
They are enjoying a bumper crop of talent in virtually every position, but particularly in attacking areas. They are now producing the type of creative players they rarely used to in the likes of Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Giovanni Reyna and Timothy Weah.
But things have not clicked yet, as evidenced by their qualifying struggles. They needed goal difference to pip fourth-placed Costa Rica to Concacaf’s final automatic spot, and their last two friendlies resulted in a 2-0 defeat by Japan and a 0-0 draw with the Saudis.
While it is clear the north star target is to make a mark in 2026, when the US will co-host the World Cup and their young squad should be closer to their peak, there needs to be an indication in Qatar that they are on the right path.
End of Wales’ golden era?
The Welsh are in the most successful period of their history following an unprecedented semi-final run at Euro 2016, reaching the last 16 at Euro 2020 and qualifying for just their second World Cup.
Before this spell of success, they had qualified for only one major tournament – the 1958 World Cup.
There is a new generation coming through in Brennan Johnson (21), Neco Williams (21) and Ethan Ampadu (22), but it will be hard to match the peak of Euro 2016 heroes Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. The Dragons’ unprecedented cycle of success may be grinding to an inevitable halt.
SHADOW OF PROTEST
While coach Carlos Queiroz’s return has been a fillip, expectations on the pitch have been overshadowed by the realities on the street in Iran, where protests have erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22. She died while in police custody for allegedly flouting the strict dress code imposed on women.
The incident has already had an impact on the team with their three most high-profile players, Feyenoord winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh and strikers Mehdi Taremi (Porto) and Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen), showing their support for the protesters.
Azmoun said he sees “no problem” if his speaking up costs him his spot in the team, explaining: “I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women.”
GROUP B FIXTURES
England v Iran (Nov 21, 9pm)
US v Wales (Nov 22, 3am)
Wales v Iran (Nov 25, 6pm)
England v US (Nov 26, 3am)
Wales v England (Nov 30, 3am)
Iran v US (Nov 30, 3am)
Last World Cup: Group stage
Best World Cup performance: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014, 2018)
Fifa ranking: 20th
Record in qualifying: 14 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss
The coach: Carlos Queiroz
It’s not ideal preparation when you sack your coach less than three months before the World Cup amid reports of constant conflict with key players. But that’s why Iran have Queiroz at the helm instead of Dragan Skocic.
The Portuguese, most famous for being Alex Ferguson’s No. 2 at Manchester United, has been here before, having helmed Team Melli for 100 games from 2011 to 2019.
The 69-year-old former Real Madrid boss is now a veteran of the international stage, having coached the likes of Portugal (twice), Colombia and Egypt. His initial results since reverting to a more compact, obdurate 4-1-4-1 formation have been impressive – a 1-0 win over Uruguay and a 1-1 draw against African champions Senegal.
The star: Mehdi Taremi
One of Asia’s best players, Taremi has scored at least 21 goals in the past three seasons and has featured in the Portuguese Primeira Liga’s Team of the Season in all three campaigns.
This term, he has five goals and two assists in five Champions League games, highlighting his ability at the top level.
But, as important as he is on the field, the 30-year-old might be more important off it.
He was one of the players who had issues with Skocic before his departure and he has not been afraid to speak up on social issues, saying he was “ashamed” to see videos from his homeland of violence against women during the protests.
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals (1958)
Fifa ranking: 19th
Record in qualifying: 6 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
The coach: Rob Page
Very much the accidental manager. He was put in interim charge of Wales when then-manager Ryan Giggs was arrested in November 2020 on charges of domestic violence.
Giggs stepped down in June 2022 and his former deputy was handed the role full-time in September after helping the Dragons reach the World Cup for just the second time.
Page has put his stamp on the team, switching from a flat-back four to either a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2.
The star: Gareth Bale
Wales have produced excellent players like John Charles, Ian Rush and Giggs but Bale has probably surpassed them all. At his zenith, he was world class and the priority he placed on putting on the Welsh jersey sets him apart from his peers.
But the 33-year-old is now plagued by injury, like his partner-in-crime Ramsey. After Los Angeles FC’s MLS Cup triumph on Nov 5, when he scored their late equaliser to set up a penalty shoot-out win, he admitted he was still battling a leg injury and that preparing for Qatar had been a mental struggle.
Having done more than anyone to drag Wales back to football’s top table, it will be a letdown to not see at least fleeting glimpses of this Dragon’s fire.
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Third (1930)
Fifa ranking: 16th
Record in qualifying: 7 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses
The coach: Gregg Berhalter
Hired in 2018 in the wake of the United States’ failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Berhalter has managed to right that calamity.
But it was not without a struggle as the US finished behind Canada and Mexico respectively in qualifying.
While Berhalter has led his side to the inaugural 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League and the 2021 Gold Cup, largely playing a 4-3-3, the nagging question remains: Is he the best man to lead the US’ golden generation?
The star: Christian Pulisic
Pulisic seems to be a microcosm of this fledgling US team, the precociousness of the talent is undeniable but it’s just not clicking, at least not consistently enough.
When Captain America burst onto the scene at Borussia Dortmund in his teens, he looked like he could become something special.
A €64 million (S$89.4 million) move to Chelsea ensued in 2019, but he hasn’t kicked on. Still, the 24-year-old remains key for the Stars and Stripes, netting 21 goals in 52 caps, and is their prime creative outlet.
Last World Cup: Fourth
Best World Cup performance: Winner (1966)
Fifa ranking: 5th
Record in qualifying: 8 wins, 2 draws
The coach: Gareth Southgate
When Southgate ascended to the Three Lions throne in September 2016 following Sam Allardyce’s sacking after just 67 days for behaving “inappropriately” during a newspaper sting, it was hard to imagine he would become England’s most successful manager since Alf Ramsey.
Yet, he heads to Qatar under pressure after a wretched six months of Nations League football that produced a six-game winless run, which culminated in a 4-0 embarrassment by Hungary at the Molineux.
The star: Harry Kane
Despite not playing exceptionally well at the last edition in Russia, the 29-year-old bagged the Golden Boot with six goals.
On 51 goals from 75 caps, he is on a relentless march to become England’s all-time top scorer and he could dethrone Wayne Rooney from that spot with three goals in Qatar.
England will hope for even more from the HurriKane but Southgate must find the right pieces to fit around his star striker. As irrepressible as Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham are, this is still Kane’s England.