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QATAR 2022: ‘Last dance’ for Messi, Ronaldo as global showpiece begins

Two of the greatest players in the history of football, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, will be hoping to win the sport’s biggest prize by the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

The tournament kicks off today with hosts Qatar facing Ecuador, and 30 other teams will be competing for the trophy and hoping to reach the final on December 18.

Argentina captain Messi and his Portugal counterpart Ronaldo will be the main focus as both eye the one team title that has eluded them in the course of their illustrious careers.

With Messi 35 and Ronaldo 37, this will most likely be both superstars’ final World Cups and triumph will tilt the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate in favour of whoever wins it.

In Qatar, both Messi and Ronaldo will be joining an elite group of players who have featured in five World Cups, both of them having played in all the editions since making their debuts in Germany in 2006.

If Argentina advance to the final of the tournament, Messi will become the player with the most appearances in the event, having already featured in 19 matches. Lothar Matthaus holds the record with 25.

For Ronaldo, the aim, apart from winning the title for the first time, will also be to break the goalscoring record of Portuguese legend Eusebio at the World Cup.

Eusebio led Portugal to the semi-final of the 1966 tournament, scoring nine goals to win the Golden Boot.

Ronaldo needs three more goals to become Portugal’s highest scorer at the World Cup finals after netting seven times in 17 games spread across four tournaments.

The under-fire Manchester United forward became the oldest player to score a hat-trick when he bagged a treble in the draw with Spain in Russia in 2018.

Apart from these two iconic figures and their teams, there are other favourites for the title.

Five-time champions Brazil are always contenders and they reached the quarter-finals in 2018.

The South American giants have one of their most talented squads in recent years, with star players like Neymar, Vinicius Jr, Alisson, Casemiro, Richarlison and Thiago Silva.

Germany had a poor campaign last time out in Russia four years ago, but they are four-time champions and under the guidance of former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick they have an exciting mix of youth and experience that could go all the way.

Defending champions France have been weakened by the injury-enforced withdrawals of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema, but they still have Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann and the veteran Olivier Giroud.

Russia 2018 finalists Croatia, semi-finalists Belgium, two-time champions Uruguay and dark horses Denmark will also fancy their chances.

Without the Super Eagles, Africa’s hopes are carried by Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco and Tunisia, who have all been to the World Cup in the past.

Indeed three of them, Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon, have all advanced further than any other African team in the competition, all reaching the quarter-finals finals at different editions.

The Indomitable Lions were the first African team to get to the last eight in 1990 with the inspirational Roger Milla. The Teranga Lions of Senegal did in 2002 at their first Mundial, while Ghana’s Black Stars did in 2010 and were a hair’s breath away from the semi-finals.

This is not as straightforward as previous World Cup editions, as it is taking place smack in the middle of the club season in order to avoid Qatar’s harsh summer.

The timing has not been ideal for most of the teams and this has led to a rash of players being ruled out through injuries.

Apart from the aforementioned French trio, Senegal’s Sadio Mane, England’s Reece James and a few other players are casualties of the timing of the tournament.

The Qatar 2022 World Cup has come under severe scrutiny due to the hosts’ strict Islamic laws and human rights issues associated with migrant stadium construction workers, but the tournament will go ahead after the host nation committed around $200 billion to its preparations.

The objections to Qatar hosting the globe’s most followed single sport event will all be forgotten, even if temporarily, when the opening ceremony starts around 3.30pm Nigerian time today.

Then the big kick-off follows at 5pm to usher in 32 days of sporting spectacle that will hopefully push Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other forms of international strife to the background.

After all, the show must go on.

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Naija Times