It is, once again, time for the biggest sporting spectacle on earth: the 2022 FIFA World Cup is set to kick off Sunday when host nation Qatar takes on Ecuador. Equal parts melodrama, showcase of human physical achievement, and horrific human rights violation, it’ll dictate the mood of millions of people around the world over the next month.
Soccer* fan or not, the tournament is going to be everywhere. Soon enough, your feeds will be filled with memes and expletives that you may or may not understand. So we’ve put together a guide to what you should know — Verge style. May the VAR gods be ever in your favor.
Christmas World Cup
First, to state the obvious: it’s November. This is not normally when the men’s World Cup happens. Usually, it takes place in the summer, during the break after the end of the club season. But this time, the tournament is happening in November and December. That’s because it’s being held in Qatar, where temperatures are usually around 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. It’ll still be hot — it’s the desert — but not as actively dangerous.
What’s the deal with Qatar?
There’s been controversy and corruption swirling around this men’s World Cup ever since Qatar was awarded the rights to host the tournament in 2010. There are allegations that officials from Qatar bribed FIFA officials to secure the tournament (similar allegations surround the 2018 World Cup in Russia, too). Thousands of migrant workers died building the stadiums, roads, and hotels needed to support the competition. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and a World Cup ambassador made explicitly homophobic statements in a recent interview. The country is paying for some fans to travel to the tournament — as long as they don’t criticize the tournament and agree to report social media posts from other fans who do, The New York Times reported. Anyone traveling to Qatar will have to download apps that can be used as spyware.
Players on the Australian men’s national team publicly criticized the human rights issues and called for Qatar to decriminalize homosexuality in a video released in October. Only two other countries — Belgium and Denmark — publicly backed that call, according to reporting from The Athletic. Some cities, including Paris and London, aren’t hosting public screenings of games in protest against human rights violations in Qatar.
How much you hear about homophobia and labor exploitation during the tournament, though, could depend on where you are. In the United States, for example, Fox has the rights to broadcast the games. The executive producer of the coverage said that the network won’t cover issues off the field.
Because it’s still hot in Qatar in the winter, engineers developed tech that can air-condition the stadiums. Cool air will blow out from under seats and along the field, according to FIFA. “The most important thing to cool effectively is that you don’t want the outside wind to enter the stadium. That’s why the size and design of the stadium have to be studied and altered accordingly so that they block warm air from entering the stadium,” said Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, who led the team behind the system.
Why is everyone yelling about VAR?
Ah, VAR. The thing everyone loves to hate and hates to love. It’s great when it’s benefiting your team, and the worst invention ever made when it awards a penalty against it. VAR, or video assistant refereeing, was first introduced at the 2018 World Cup. It lets the central referees communicate with a team of officials that watch the game from dozens of camera angles and who can recommend that the central ref review a call or play. Theoretically, it’s supposed to make the game fairer — a ref can recheck to see if a penalty kick should have been awarded or if a goal was scored by a player who was offside.
In reality, it just makes for more controversy. Camera angles aren’t perfect. Many rules of the game are subject to interpretation — what counts as an obvious goal-scoring opportunity might be different for two different refs. In sports, nothing is ever going to be perfectly fair. Rule-breaking and refereeing chaos are part of the game. It’s messy, and VAR is another thing making it messier. So: yet another thing for fans to yell about before, during, and after the game.
This year, we’re getting a new wrinkle with VAR. FIFA approved a new technology for this tournament that uses AI to semi-automate decisions around when a player is offside. It’s supposed to help the video assistant referees make decisions around offside calls quickly and more accurately. New cameras will track players’ extremities, and official tournament balls have a sensor that feeds data into the system. It’s all very high-tech. Everyone will probably hate it.
Why is my social media feed full of pictures of José Mourinho?
Absent being inside of an air-conditioned stadium in the desert, the best way to experience the men’s World Cup is with a phone in hand during a match so you can keep up with the memes as they happen in real time. Soccer Twitter — so long as Twitter actually survives through the end of the tournament — is an ideal way to follow along.
There are plenty of existing memes already, of course. The “special one,” aka legendary Portuguese manager José Mourinho, is the focal point of several iconic ones, whether he’s taking off headphones in disgust or explaining that “I prefer not to speak.” Los Angeles FC star Gareth Bale, who will be a big part of the Welsh team at the World Cup, is renowned for his dedication to golf. And the English fans will insist that “it’s coming home,” no matter what is going on. (And even though it already did come home earlier this year.)
But the real joy is being there when these historical events happen and watching them evolve. Each tournament has its own memeable moments. There were the vuvuzelas in South Africa in 2010, Luis Suárez having a bite of Italian in 2018, and Neymar Jr. rolling into your feeds that same year. So the best advice for understanding the internet jokes is to be there when they happen and keep one eye on social media.
How to prepare as a newcomer
If you haven’t been following the men’s World Cup for years, it can be a little intimidating. There’s a lot of history to unpack and understand that can make a seemingly dull 1-1 draw have extra layers of meaning. Thankfully, there are a few ways to use the tech you have around you to understand things a little bit better.
One good way to understand the basics of the teams and players involved this year is to play video games. FIFA 23, in particular, is more than just a Ted Lasso simulator — the game got a free update that lets you play through this year’s World Cup as any of the 32 qualified teams. This should give you a good sense of the major players competing and make it clear why Canada is in trouble when it opens the tournament against Belgium.
When it comes to the history, though, I highly recommend Brian Phillips’ 22 Goals podcast. Each episode is a hyper-detailed look at an important goal in World Cup history, looking at not just what happened but what it means. The first episode, for instance, is about Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal — a goal so important it has its own Wikipedia page — but it’s also an exploration of his life and takes a brief detour into the Falklands War. The show helps you understand both the historical and cultural elements that you really can’t learn just from watching highlights on YouTube. (But those highlights are still a lot of fun.)
And if you need a refresher on just how terrible of an organization FIFA truly is, Netflix has a new four-part documentary series called FIFA Uncovered that has all the bribery and corruption scandals you can handle.
Picking a team
The most obvious answer is to follow your own country — but it’s rarely that simple. Some national affiliations are complicated. I (Andrew) was born in Canada, for example, but have long followed Germany, where my grandparents immigrated from, largely because, well, Canada always sucked. Now they’re both in, and I don’t know what to do. (Canada’s biggest star even plays professionally in Germany, making things more confusing for me.) And there’s also a strong chance that you live somewhere that didn’t actually qualify; only 32 countries make it, after all.
So you have a few options if you’re searching for a team. One is to follow an underdog, which is always a popular choice. Canada is in its first men’s World Cup since 1986 and has seen a meteoric rise of late with a likable roster of young stars, while Ghana is not only the lowest-ranked country but also in a very challenging group against the likes of Portugal, Uruguay, and Korea. Wales hasn’t been in the tournament since 1958. Any of those is a good option.
You could also choose romance and stick with a single player. Some of the game’s biggest stars who have never previously won a World Cup are entering what will undoubtedly be their final chance. This goes for Lionel Messi (Argentina), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Luka Modrić (Croatia), and Virgil van Dijk (the Netherlands). Most neutral observers would love to see at least one of them lift the trophy.
Or maybe you have a personal connection to a nation because of a great vacation in Spain or Australia or Senegal. That works, too.
Or you could just vote for chaos and hope Japan goes on an improbable run. When in doubt, go with chaos. It’s the most fun.
Who will win?
What games shouldn’t be missed
International soccer is often just chaos — anything can happen at any time. Any game can turn into an end-to-end goalfest; any hyped matchup could end up a snooze. But the group stage has a few games that should be worth tuning in to.
The United States plays England on Black Friday, and the game is expected to be one of the most-watched soccer games ever in the US. Even if the game is bad, the jokes will likely be good, and there’s a real opportunity for one of the US men’s national team players to recreate women’s national team star Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping goal celebration.
Canada’s opening game will be its men’s national team’s first World Cup game since 1986. Wales will be playing in its first World Cup game since 1958. Those should be worth it for the emotion of the moment alone.
The biggest heavyweight matchup of the group stage, though, is Germany vs. Spain on November 27th. Both have something to prove after disappointing performances in the last men’s World Cup. I hope it ends with many, many goals.
How to actually watch
Now we come to the most important thing: the actual watching. And as with almost all live sports, where to watch depends on where you live. In the US, the games are being broadcast via Fox Sports, and you can check out the full schedule here. In Canada, they’ll be on TSN and CTV. There’s no simple streaming solution, unfortunately, so you’ll have to check your local listing before tuning in.
There are two important things to keep in mind. First, because the tournament takes place in Qatar, the games might not be on at a good time depending on where you are in the world. For those on Eastern time, for instance, some of the games are live as early as 5AM. The other thing is the realization that you can’t watch it all. There are a lot of games, to the point that keeping up with everything is basically a full-time job with overtime. So be strategic: start out by keeping an eye on the teams or players you’re most interested in, and then as the field gets smaller, you can start watching everything, everywhere, all at once.
*Follow your heart when deciding whether to call it soccer or football. It’s an intensely personal choice.