Qatar will have to spring a surprise to avoid becoming only the second host nation to be knocked out of a World Cup in the first round, with the Netherlands and Senegal favourites to progress from Group A.
The Asian champions will open the tournament on November 20 against Ecuador in Al Khor, after the tournament start date was moved forward to allow the home side to play the first match.
The Qatar squad spent almost four months in near-lockdown to prepare for the tournament, but have struggled in recent friendlies – losing to Canada and a Croatia Under-23 team.
“They are preparing for a World Cup for the first time in their lives. These players are sacrificing their time, they are staying away from home, from their families,” former Qatar player Mohamed Mubarak al-Mohannadi told AFP in September.
The only time the hosts fell at the first hurdle was when South Africa went out in the 2010 group stage.
Qatar will be quietly confident of making an impression in their first appearance at the global showpiece, though, having won the 2019 Asian Cup and reached the semi-finals of the Arab Cup 12 months ago.
Ecuador have qualified for only their fourth World Cup and will be the underdogs in the group.
Three-time losing finalists the Netherlands, featuring Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk and several exciting young players including PSV Eindhoven’s Cody Gakpo, take on Senegal the following day.
All five African teams failed to reach the knockout phase of the 2018 edition in Russia, although Senegal will be expected to get through this time after the heartbreak of missing out to Japan four years ago only due to their worse disciplinary record.
Sadio Mane, who finished second in this year’s Ballon d’Or voting to Karim Benzema, will lead a strong squad who won their first ever Africa Cup of Nations title in February. But he’s surrounded by an injury concern.
Aliou Cisse’s men will have to cope with the weight of expectation, as their fans hope to see the side become the first from Africa to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Coach Cisse was part of the Senegal team which made a surprise run to the 2002 quarter-finals, beating defending champions France on the way.
The Dutch return to the finals after missing out on qualification for Russia.
Louis van Gaal, who took them to a third-place finish in 2014, is back in charge and the Oranje are unbeaten since being dumped out of Euro 2020 by the Czech Republic, without the injured Van Dijk.
The winners of Group A will face the runners-up of Group B – containing 2018 semi-finalists England, the United States, Iran and Wales – in the last 16.
“My personal goal is to become world champion and I want to pass that on to my players, even if it sounds like I’m being arrogant,” said the 71-year-old Van Gaal.
“I’m not doing it for myself but for Dutch football.”
Van Gaal, who earlier this year revealed he had been receiving treatment for prostate cancer, will end his third spell as Netherlands coach after the tournament and be replaced by Ronald Koeman.
The Netherlands will be without experienced midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum who suffered a broken leg just one game into his loan spell at Roma from Paris Saint-Germain.
Country profile - Netherlands
Best World Cup performance: Runners-up in 1974, 1978, 2010
Other honours: European champions in 1988
FIFA ranking: 8
Main clubs: Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord
How they qualified: Netherlands finished first in European qualifying Group G
Coach: Louis van Gaal, 71, was appointed in August 2021 after coming out of retirement to take the national team reins for the third time. Made his name as coach of a brilliant young Ajax side in the 1990s before moving on to Barcelona, winning back-to-back La Liga titles. Van Gaal failed to qualify the Dutch for the 2002 World Cup but took them to the semi-finals in 2014 in his second stint, losing on penalties to Argentina. Also coached Bayern Munich, Manchester United and AZ Alkmaar. Revealed in April he had undergone successful treatment for an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
Key player: Frenkie de Jong burst onto the scene in the 2018-19 season as part of another talented young Ajax team that was seconds from reaching that year’s Champions League final. His eye-catching performances earned him a move to Barcelona as the Spanish giants fought off a host of Europe’s top clubs for his signature. De Jong’s creativity and versatility have turned him into an indispensable part of a resurgent Dutch side, where his presence in Qatar will be all the more important following an injury to midfield partner Georginio Wijnaldum.
Goalkeepers: Justin Bijlow, Andries Noppert, Remko Pasveer
Defenders: Virgil van Dijk, Nathan Ake, Daley Blind, Jurrien Timber, Denzel Dumfries, Stefan de Vrij, Matthijs de Ligt, Tyrell Malacia, Jeremie Frimpong.
Midfielders: Frenkie de Jong, Steven Berghuis, Davy Klaassen, Teun Koopmeiners, Marten de Roon, Cody Gakpo, Kenneth Taylor, Xavi Simons.
Forwards: Memphis Depay, Steven Bergwijn, Vincent Janssen, Luuk de Jong, Noa Lang, Wout Weghorst.
November 21: Senegal v Netherlands
November 25: Netherlands v Ecuador
November 29: Netherlands v Qatar
Country profile - Qatar
Best World Cup performance: First appearance
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 2019
FIFA ranking: 50th
Main clubs: Al Sadd, Al Duhail, Al Rayyan
How they qualified: Automatic qualification as hosts
Coach: Felix Sanchez, 46, moved to Qatar in 2006 after 10 years coaching Barcelona youth teams. The Spaniard guided Qatar to the Asian Cup title in 2019 and now has a mission to get the World Cup hosts past the first round. Sanchez started at the Aspire Academy, training the Gulf state’s young athletes, but was under-19 coach and under-23 coach before taking on the national side. Sanchez helped Qatar win the Asian under-19 title in 2014 and has brought many of the players into the national side for the World Cup campaign.
Key player: Qatar are counting on Akram Afif for the goals needed to get the victories required in the group. Afif, who will be 26 two days before the November 20 start of the World Cup, was born in Doha to a Tanzanian footballer father and Yemeni mother. He played for the Qatari-owned Eupen team in Belgium as well as Sporting Gijon in Spain before joining Al-Sadd, who were Qatari champions in 2021 and 2022.
Goalkeepers: Saad Al-Sheeb, Meshaal Barsham, Yousef Hassan
Defenders: Pedro Miguel, Musaab Khidir, Tarek Salman, Bassam Al-Rawi, Boualem Khoukhi, Abdelkarim Hassan, Homam Ahmed, Jassem Gaber
Midfielders: Ali Asad, Assim Madabo, Mohammed Waad, Salem Al-Hajri, Moustafa Tarek, Karim Boudiaf, Abdelaziz Hatim, Ismail Mohamad
Forwards: Naif Al-Hadhrami, Ahmed Alaaeldin, Hassan Al-Haydos, Khalid Muneer, Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Mohamed Muntari
November 20: Qatar v Ecuador
November 25: Qatar v Senegal
November 29: Netherlands v Qatar
Country profile - Ecuador
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2006
Other notable performances: Fourth place at the Copa America in 1959 and 1993
FIFA ranking: 44th
Main clubs: LDU Quito, Barcelona, Emelec, Independiente del Valle
How they qualified: Ecuador finished fourth in the single South American qualifying group to take the final automatic qualifying spot
Coach: Gustavo Alfaro, 60, hails from Argentina but has been in charge of Ecuador since August 2020 when he replaced Jordi Cruyff. Alfaro had spent the best part of the previous three decades working at clubs in his native Argentina, lastly at Boca Juniors in 2019. His side held both Argentina and Brazil at home as they edged out Peru to take the last automatic spot for Qatar in the single South American qualifying group. However, Alfaro’s Ecuador also went out of the 2021 Copa America in the quarter-finals without winning a game. Alfaro, who had an unremarkable playing career, notably led modest Arsenal de Sarandi to the 2007 Copa Sudamericana title. Also had a brief spell coaching in Saudi Arabia.
Key player: Enner Valencia, who this month turns 33, is Ecuador’s captain and all-time top scorer with 35 goals. He is also a veteran of previous major tournaments, notably scoring all three of his country’s goals at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and appearing at four different editions of the Copa America. ‘Superman’ initially made his name at Emelec but later spent three years in the Premier League, first with West Ham United and then at Everton. After a spell in Mexico, he returned to Europe in 2020 to play for Fenerbahce. By the end of October he was the top scorer in this season’s Turkish Super Lig, with 11 goals in 10 games.
Goalkeepers: Moises Ramirez, Alexander Dominguez, Hernan Galindez
Defenders: Piero Hincapie, Robert Arboleda, Pervis Estupinan, Angelo Preciado, Jackson Porozo, Xavier Arreaga, Felix Torres, Diego Palacios, William Pacho
Midfielders: Carlos Gruezo, Jose Cifuentes, Alan Franco, Moises Caicedo, Angel Mena, Jeremy Sarmiento, Ayrton Preciado, Sebastian Mendez, Gonzalo Plata, Romario Ibarra
Forwards: Djorkaeff Reasco, Kevin Rodriguez, Michael Estrada, Enner Valencia
November 20: Qatar v Ecuador
November 25: Netherlands v Ecuador
November 29: Ecuador v Senegal
Country profile - Senegal
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finalists in 2002
Other honours: African champions in 2022
FIFA ranking: 18
Main clubs: ASC Jaraaf, ASC Jeanne d’Arc, AS Douanes
How they qualified: Senegal defeated Egypt in a play-off
Coach: Aliou Cisse, 46, wants to atone for an agonising exit from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where Senegal lost out on a second-round place only because they accumulated more yellow cards than Japan. After losing as a player in the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations final, he made amends by guiding his country to victory in Cameroon this year with a penalty shootout victory over Egypt at the end of a goalless final. Part of the Senegal team that reached the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals in South Korea, he was a midfielder at French and English clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain.
Key player: Captain Kalidou Koulibaly was born in France, but opted to represent the country where his parents were born. The 31-year-old centre-back played for French and Belgian outfits before beginning an eight-year stay with Napoli in 2014. He moved to Chelsea this year and teamed up with Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Koulibaly has been critical of African teams at the World Cup, saying they set their goals too low. “We must stop believing getting past the first round is a great achievement – winning the World Cup is a great achievement.”
Goalkeepers: Edouard Mendy, Alfred Gomis, Seny Dieng.
Defenders: Kalidou Koulibaly, Abdou Diallo, Youssouf Sabaly, Fode Ballo-Toure, Pape Abdou Cisse, Ismail Jakobs, Formose Mendy.
Midfielders: Idrissa Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyate, Nampalys Mendy, Krepin Diatta, Pape Gueye, Pape Matar Sarr, Pathe Ciss, Moustapha Name, Loum Ndiaye.
Forwards: Sadio Mane, Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia, Bamba Dieng, Famara Diedhiou, Nicolas Jackson, Iliman Ndiaye.
Nov 21: Senegal v Netherlands
Nov 25: Qatar v Senegal
Nov 29: Ecuador v Senegal
Text inputs from AFP