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A replica of the World Cup is display outside Lusail Stadium in Lusail in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. Final preparations are being made for the soccer World Cup which starts on Nov. 20 when Qatar face Ecuador. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Maybe you’ve noticed something different about the people you know who love soccer — the ones who eat, drink, sleep the sport (aka “the beautiful game”). They’re acting a little rambunctious, overanxious or maybe just downright loopy lately. The reason is because they can’t contain their excitement.

The FIFA Men’s World Cup is here.

The world’s biggest sporting spectacle (sorry, Olympics) begins Sunday in Doha, Qatar, with the Qataris playing against Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium. For the next month, soccer fans will be glued to screens watching the last 32 teams of the latest World Cup qualifying cycle — also known as the “World Cup finals” in most parts of the world, since it is the final destination of a three-plus-years competition.

This is a safe space for questions about the 2022 World Cup — why it’s being played in the winter, what are the big controversies surrounding the host nation, how the tournament was determined and who are the biggest stars to watch. Also, rules — like offside — are explained.

THE HOST COUNTRY

Where is Qatar?

The country of nearly 3 million people lies east of Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf. With a total area slightly larger than Hawaii, it is the first country in the Middle East to host the men’s World Cup at the senior level.

Why is the World Cup being played there?

Two words: Corruption and money. You can read up on all of the investigations, including the U.S. Department of Justice’s years-long probe, or watch the Netflix documentary that highlights all the shadiness that led to Qatar being chosen as the 2022 World Cup host instead of the United States.

FIFA has long touted its mission of spreading soccer to all parts of the world with its global initiatives. It also succeeded in bringing the men’s World Cup for the first time to the African continent (South Africa in 2010) and voted to have the U.S. co-host the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico. But the stain of the 2022 bidding process remains.

Why is the World Cup being played during winter months?

FIFA moved the 2022 World Cup to November and December to avoid the searing summer heat in Qatar, which averages daily high temperatures of 105 degrees in June and 106 degrees in July — the usual months of the tournament.

Professional leagues, namely in Europe where the world’s best players compete at the highest level, have halted their seasons to allow players to leave their clubs and represent their countries at the World Cup.

What are the controversies engulfing Qatar as World Cup host?

Qatar’s “kafala” system has been decried for its human-rights abuses, racism and discrimination of migrant workers who were brought to the country to build the tournament’s infrastructure. One 2021 report alleged that the construction of the eight World Cup stadiums cost the lives of 6,500 migrant workers, but that number has been questioned. Reforms were made to improve workers’ conditions, but watchdog organizations claim these new rules aren’t being enforced.

Qatar also outlaws male homosexuality, a ban that has players and their federations walking a fine line about showing support of LGBTQ rights. U.S Soccer has a crest of seven different colors emblazoned on the walls of the USMNT training facility., and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said he will wear the “One Love” captain’s armband to defy FIFA rules.

The lack of women’s rights in Qatar also has been called into question. However, on Saturday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino scolded World Cup critics in defense of Qatar.

THE TOURNAMENT

How many teams compete at the World Cup?

Thirty-two. The World Cup will be increased to 48 teams for the 2026 World Cup hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

What was the qualifying process?

World Cup qualifying lasted three years from June 2019 to June 2022 involving regional confederations in Asia (AFC); Africa (CAF); Europe (UEFA); North America, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF); Oceania (OFC); and South America (CONMEBOL).

Qatar, as the host nation, was the lone automatic qualifier. The following 31 teams came through qualifying to reach the final tournament in Qatar.

  • ASIA (6): Australia, Iran, Japan, Qatar (host), Saudi Arabia, South Korea.
  • AFRICA (5): Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia.
  • EUROPE (13): Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Wales.
  • NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA AND CARIBBEAN (4): Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, United States.
  • SOUTH AMERICA (4): Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay.

How is the World Cup champion determined?

The World Cup draw, held on April 1, placed the 32 teams into four-team groups (Group A through Group H).

Teams play one game against each group opponent, gaining three standings points for a win and one standings point for a tie/draw. The top two finishers in each group advance to the knockout stage, with goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed) being the first tiebreaker.

The tournament transitions to a single-elimination format starting with the Round of 16 and progressing with the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game (aka World Cup final). Semifinal losers play for third place the day before the Dec. 18 title match.

THE TEAMS AND PLAYERS

Who are the favorites to win the tournament?

Oddsmakers list Brazil as the favorite. Other top contenders are Argentina, France, England and Spain. All of them are past World Cup winners, with the French looking to defend their 2018 world championship won in Russia.

Brazil has won the most World Cups with five titles (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002). Germany and Italy are tied for second with four World Cup championships.

Who are the biggest stars to watch?

Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. They are widely regarded as the game’s greatest players since Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona.

Messi, 35, and Ronaldo, 37, have dominated the past decade-plus in an unprecedented rivalry, most of which featured head-to-head encounters in Spain while Messi played for Barcelona and Ronaldo played for Real Madrid. Messi has won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player a record seven times. Ronaldo has won the award five times.

Both have moved on from their Spanish clubs when they were at the peaks of their powers, but they are still capable of scoring goals. This World Cup will surely be their last, so every game they play in Qatar should be savored and saved on DVR.

Other world-class talents to watch: The speed and strength of France forward Kylian Mbappe, the flashy dribbling of Brazil's Neymar and the pinpoint passing of Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.

When are the games played?

Group-stage games will be held from Sunday, Nov 20 to Friday, Dec. 2 with matches played at 5 a.m. ET, 8 a.m. ET, 11 a.m. ET and 2 p.m. ET for the first two rounds of group play.

The final games of each group will be played at the same time — for example, the U.S. will play Iran at the same time England plays Wales. Group-stage finales are scheduled for 10 a.m. ET and 2 p.m. ET.

What are the best matches to watch?

The knockout-stage games — Round of 16 through the World Cup final — are all must-see.

As for the group-stage matches, you’ll want to set a reminder for the following, including all three group games of the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT).

  • Mon., Nov. 21: USA vs. Wales, 2 p.m. ET — The U.S. opens the tourney against a very tough Wales team.
  • Tue., Nov. 22: Argentina vs. Saudia Arabia, 5 a.m. ET — In the only early-morning kickoff worth waking up for, Messi takes the field in Qatar for the first time.
  • Sat., Nov. 24: Portugal vs. Ghana, 11 a.m. ET — Ronaldo makes his Qatar debut.
  • Sat., Nov. 24: Brazil vs. Serbia, 2 p.m. ET — It’s the first look at the tournament-favorite Brazilians, whose roster is stocked with top players starring in Europe’s best leagues, namely Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain.
  • Fri., Nov. 25: England vs. USA, 2 p.m. ET — Pause your Black Friday shopping to watch the Americans in their biggest test of the group stage.
  • Sat., Nov. 26: Argentina vs. Mexico, 2 p.m. ET — Messi takes on Mexico, the USMNT’s biggest rival.
  • Sun., Nov. 27: Spain vs. Germany, 2 p.m. ET — Two former World Cup winners clash. They will be out to prove they can win it all again.
  • Mon., Nov. 28: Portugal vs. Uruguay, 2 p.m. ET — Ronaldo and his countrymen go up against the two-time world champion Uruguayans, whose biggest star Luis Suarez bit a player at the 2014 World Cup.
  • Tue., Nov. 29: Iran vs. USA, 2 p.m. ET — Will the Americans advance to the knockout stage? This game will likely determine it.
  • Wed., Nov. 30: Poland vs. Argentina, 2 p.m. ET — Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski faces ex-Barcelona star Messi with knockout-stage qualification potentially at stake.

Fri., Dec. 2: South Korea vs. Portugal, 10 a.m. ET — This could be Ronaldo’s World Cup farewell if Portugal is fighting to avoid elimination.

THE RULES

What is offside?

Offside (not offsides) is called when an attacker is positioned beyond the last defender at the moment a pass is made. So, in basketball terms, no cherry-picking is allowed. A goal will be disallowed if an attacking player is deemed to be offside during the sequence that led to the goal.

What is stoppage time?

It is the minutes added after one half of game play has reached its regulation time. The referee keeps the official match time on his watch and can add more minutes for injury delays and time-wasting antics to ensure that the fully allotted game play has been achieved.

What is extra time?

Extra time (or overtime) is played when games in the knockout rounds are tied after the regulation 90 minutes. Two 15-minute halves are played to determine the winner. If the game is still tied, then it will be decided by a penalty-kick shootout.

When do penalty-kick shootouts take place?

Penalty-kick shootouts — aka penalties or PKs — begin with the Round of 16.

If a match is tied after the regulation 90 minutes and extra time (which consists of two 15-minute periods), then it will be decided by a penalty-kick shootout in which players try to score by placing the ball on the penalty spot — 12 yards from the goal — and then trying to kick the ball past the opposing team’s goalkeeper, who must have at least one foot on the goal line when the ball is kicked. The referee will have the PK retaken if the goalie is determined to have left his goal line too early.

The team with the most successful penalty kicks after the first five rounds wins the game. If the shootout is tied after five rounds, it continues with “sudden death” rounds until a winning kick decides the shootout and match.

All 11 players of a team must attempt a penalty kick before a player can take a second PK.

Is there instant replay?

Yes. The video assistant referee (VAR) reviews decisions by the match referee and can alert the referee for video review on “clear and obvious” errors involving goals, penalties (fouls inside the 18-yard box that result in a penalty kick), red cards and mistaken identity.

If signaled by the VAR, the referee stops the game and goes to the sideline monitor to review multiple angles of the play in question. The referee makes the final decision, agreeing with VAR to overturn the call or choosing to keep the decision and resume play.

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