World Cup 2022 Preview: Group F

As we move on throughout the groups, just to let you know it’s not easy to make a call on which groups are going to qualify and which aren’t. Even the surest of sure shots aren’t a guarantee.

Some may wonder why I include past games as references for how I feel teams are going to do. Sure, it’s most often a case that they did not play the same teams before in the recent past, like the past year and a half. However past play can tell a lot about a team. It may not tell everything, but it does give a good sense of how the team is doing. I’m also aware that such a viewpoint isn’t all that accurate either. A team could be lackluster in qualifying and in friendlies but suddenly come alive at the World Cup. Plus the COVID pandemic changed a lot. Players were out of training as a team for months, games were cancelled and tournaments were delayed. How each team dealt with the pandemic differed team by team. How some of the bigger-name teams do here in Qatar will tell a lot of how the pandemic affected them. Whether they dealt with it best or whether they were hit hard.

Next group of focus is Group F. Interesting is that two of the teams in this group are teams that both finished in the Top 3 of the last World Cup! It’s all about the luck of the draw how we get these World Cup groups, or sometimes lack thereof.. This is a very interesting mix of nations, as I’ll review henceforth:

-Belgium (2): The run of The Red Devils’s luck actually started with their failure to qualify for Euro 2012. It began as they hired Marc Wilmots who played for three World Cups as coach. Soon the changes were noticed. They qualified for the 2014 World Cup with one game to go and got as far as the quarterfinals during the Cup. Their “Golden Generation” was just being born, but not without bumps. After they only got as far as the quarterfinals in Euro 2016, Wilmots was replaced by Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. Martinez led Belgium to its best-ever World Cup finish in Russia 2018: third. Belgium still ranks as one of the top teams in the world.

Despite only going as far as the quarterfinals in Euro 2020, Martinez is still head coach. Many of the big names from 2018 — Vertonghen, the Hazard brothers, de Bruyne, Alderweireld, Witsel, Lukaku — are back, along with some new faces. The World Cup squad has eight players that rank among Belgium’s ten most capped players ever. Recent wins include Estonia, Poland and Burkina Faso. They drew against Ireland and had a win and a draw against Wales. They also lost both their recent games against the Netherlands. Qatar is the stage for Belgium to continue their greatness and even reach new levels.

-Canada (41): For Canada, the World Cup has been mostly an ethnic affair. In the past, the team only qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Since then, Canadians normally cheer for the team of their ethnic background at the World Cup or just simply pick a favorite. Things really changed leading up to the qualifying rounds. In 2018, they hired John Herdman, who guided Canada’s women’s team to be a top power, to be their coach. The turnaround was amazing. In the first round of CONCACAF qualifying, Canada won all four of their games. In the second round, which consists of a single game, Canada won their match against Haiti thanks to a single goal by Cyle Larin. In the third round which consisted of eight teams and fourteen games, Canada clinched qualification with one game to go! They ended the round with the best results of all CONCACAF teams.

You can be sure the Maple Leafs want to deliver a good show this World Cup. Back in 1986, they lost all three of their group stage games, scored no goals and conceded five. Most of the current squad play for teams of the MLS. Active on the team are Atiba Hutchison, Milan Borlan and Samuel Piette who all rank among Canada’s ten most capped players ever. Also on the team are Cyle Larin and Jonathan David who are Canada’s two biggest goalscorers ever. Not to mention forward Alphonso Davies, who is a rising talent at 22 and considered one of the best full-backs in the world. As for their Group F opponents, Canada has never previously played Croatia, and they’ve never had a win against Belgium or Morocco. Their most recent wins came to Mexico, the US and Japan. They had a recent 2-2 draw to Bahrain. They’ve also had recent losses to Costa Rica, Uruguay and Honduras. Whatever the situation, Qatar is the area for Canada to go better than they ever have before, and maybe even pull a surprise or two.

-Morocco (22): Morocco is a sentimental favorite for many. They are the first African team to qualify for a World Cup, back in 1970. They are the first African team to qualify for a World Cup knockout stage, back in 1986. However they’ve continuously been trying to get their team’s top form back and even trying to take the team to new levels. Their last World Cup had them out in the group stage and their last Africa Cup in 2021 had them out in the quarterfinals.

Managing the Atlas Lions is French-born Moroccan Walid Regagui who played for France’s Ligue 1 team Toulouse and represented Morocco at the 2004 African Cup. Regagui was named Moroccan head coach this August 31st. The current team plays for a wide variety of teams in European leagues and leagues in Arab countries. Recent wins they’ve achieved include Chile, Ghana and South Africa. They’ve had a win and a draw against DR Congo. They’ve also endured recent losses to Egypt and the United States. 2022 is Another chance for Morocco to write another chapter for the team.

-Croatia (12): There’s one World Cup rule that you should never dismiss the “minnows.” That especially holds true for Croatia. They’ve only been in five previous World Cup s since their independence but when Vatreni are on, they go way further than expected. That was especially made true when they made it to the World Cup final in Russia 2018. Their player Luka Modric was also awarded the Golden Ball for being the top player of the Cup and won the Ballon D’or that same year.

The team’s coaching staff is predominantly Croatian with Zlatko Dalic head coach since 2017.Modric is back and is captain of the team. Returning with Modric are other renowned players Ivan Perisic, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida. Most of the team plays for teams in either Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A , or Croatia’s Prva HNL. Recent wins include Bulgaria, Denmark and France (for the first time ever!). Recent draws also include France along with Slovenia. Their only loss came to Austria in UEFA Nations Cup play. Nothing is guaranteed in football. One thing that can be certain is Croatia can go further than you expect it to.

My Prediction: It never fails. Once I’m done reviewing, I have to predict the two that will advance. For this group, I anticipate the advancers to be Belgium and Croatia. Best chances for an upset will be Morocco. With the World Cup being played in a desert climate, they could do it.

And there you go. This is my review of the Group F teams and prediction. Only just six days to go until the start of the big event. Already close to 3 million tickets have been sold. Stay tuned!

VIFF 2022 Review: Love Will Come Later

Samir El Hajjy is a young Moroccan man dreaming of love and a better life in Europe in the documentary Love Will Come Later.

DISCLAIMER: I know VIFF ended on October 9th. I’m still posting my film reviews as they can either be streamed or will be released at a later date.

It’s not that often I go to see a documentary, never mind see one during the VIFF. The first film I saw at the VIFF was a documentary entitled Love Will Come Later. It’s an eye-opener of a story as it focuses on a topic that is quite common, but not too many people are aware of.

The film begins with Samir El Hajjy, a Moroccan male in his early 20’s, having a text conversation with a woman. The woman lives somewhere in Europe. The conversation is intimate. Soon we hear from Samir himself. He tells of his dreams and ambitions. He dreams of marrying a European woman, particularly one in France, and dreams of a better life for himself. This may be difficult as he has an arranged fiance.

As the documentary continues, we learn more about Samir and his family. We learn that Samir has attempted to apply to European Universities without success. We learn that he has an older brother whom has married a European woman and is starting a family. We learn that he has sisters who are very religious and very tradition-minded, especially when it comes to the subject of love and marriage.

The subject of love and marriage is one that comes very much in conversation. We hear frequently from Samir’s friends of what they have to say about it. We hear from Samir’s barber of how he married. We heard from other men telling their stories of how they married. Sure, they were arranged, but love came over time. We hear from Samir’s sisters and how they have a negative opinion of marrying a European woman. We even see a scene when Samir’s brother flies into Marrakech with his family. It becomes evident this is the life Samir aspires to have. We also see how Samir faces the pressure to marry a woman he’s arranged to marry.

The film also focuses on Samir’s daily life and the city he lives in. We see Samir as he’s having fun with friends. We see Samir as he’s getting his hair cut. We see Samir ride his motorcycle slowly across the narrowest of streets of old Marrakech. We see Samir as he is in his prayers to Allah. We see frequent celebrations in Marrakech. Some celebrations are national. Some are more local, like weddings or neighborhood festivals.

The film doesn’t stray away from his marriage goals. Many times, we get a focus on the conversations he has with the European women. Some are through messenger, some are text message, some are Zoom meeting where by Islamic morals she is not to have her face shown. We see one case of an actual phone conversation with one of the women Samir is pursuing. During the time, Samir reveals his beliefs. In one of his conversations, he talks with the woman of his beliefs of the roles of the man and the woman. He reveals he’s not as tradition minded and doesn’t side with the man dominating. He believes in 50/50. That becomes increasingly apparent as he gets into a religious discussion with someone and even points out that in the Koran there’s no mention a woman should wear a burka.

Eventually the frustrations weigh down on Samir and he feels he should forget his dream, ‘grow up,’ and marry the woman he’s arranged to. The film ends with Samir in his latest pursuit. She’s a woman from France. In the final scene, of Samir in a bus, he tells of his dreams of love and marriage. This appears to be the love pursuit he is committed on making work. As for love itself, he feels it’s something that will come and grow over time.

The story of Samir pursuing love in Europe is a common thing in African countries. French-language countries like France and Belgium have a high number of immigrants from Congo, Cameroon, Morocco and Algeria. Even one documentary I saw at the VIFF years ago showed how in many African countries the belief is to pursue Europe or die trying. It seems to be a common belief of the young in Africa that they have a future, but they can’t see it happening in their own countries. They feel their future is in Europe. It would not be uncommon to see cases where they will want to marry into Europe. Samir is possibly thousands of young men in African countries who want to do just that.

However the film is not just about a Moroccan trying to pursue love in Europe. The story is about Samir. They story paints an intimate portrayal of Samir El Hajjy himself. He wants to marry, but he doesn’t devalue marriage. He knows marriage is as much about love as it is an institution. As the cameras follow him, his life and make his conversations visible, we get a good sense of his life and his desires. We get a sense why he is not too interested in the woman he’s arranged to marry, or any woman in Marrakech. We get a sense of daily Moroccan life for families like killing a lamb for dinner and daily prayers to Allah.

On the subject of marriage and tradition, we get a sense of his family situation. We see how his brother who married in France is quite comfortable, but the sisters are disapproving. They feel it’s against Islamic traditions and they have a negative attitude towards European women. We get a sense of Samir’s loyal faith and we also see Samir’s own beliefs about the role of women and how it correlates with Islamic faith. Samir is not naïve in his Islamic faith and his beliefs. We see how many people view his goals of marrying in Europe to be a sign of immaturity. We also see how the pressure does come down on him. There are scenes near the end where he’s tempted to give it all up and marry his arranged fiancé. Tradition and the modern world frequently clash in the film. It’s not the type of clash that’s heavy on action but heavy on emotion.

Top respect to Swiss director Julia Furer for putting this documentary together. Her film allows Samir to tell his own story and allow the cameras follow him along in his story telling. With a topic like this, it’s best to let the subject tell the story than the director to send their message. Julia also shows a lot of shots that first appear to be irrelevant to the film, but eventually do add to the story when you look back. Shots of Samir on his motor bike show what living in Marrakech is like with its homes and bazaars. Shots of festivals show of the common traditions and celebrations in Morocco. Julia focuses on the good and the bad of life in Marrakech. One thing she shows as she showcases Samir’s story is that there are two different Marrakeches: the Marrakech tourists see and the Marrakech of daily life that only residents know. Shots of airplanes flying off may first appear to just add time in the film, but as the story progresses, each plane taking off from the airport appears to be another missed dream for Samir. Furer does a very good job of making this as much of a story of Morocco as it is the story of Samir.

Love Will Come Later is an intriguing story that first comes off as a story of a Moroccan man searching for love. If you look closer, it says a lot more. Not just about him, but of his family, his town, his faith, his country, and even about what being a young man in Morocco is all about.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group B

The funny thing about World Cup draws is the surprises they end up having. The biggest surprise about Group B is how close the countries are to each other! As in 2014, Spain is in Group B. However their Iberian neighbors Portugal is in the same group! Their very first match of the Cup will be another episode in their Iberian rivalry and the first on the World Cup stage! Then there’s Morocco just underneath Spain. And Iran isn’t too many thousands of miles away. Actually I think Group B is the group with the least geographical separation! Here’s my take on the Group B teams:

Portugal Fixed

-Portugal (4): The 21st century has seen the coming of age of The Navigators. Their biggest breakthrough came at the 2016 Euro where they went from drawing all their games to claiming the Cup in the end. This will prove to be an exciting World Cup as many believe this will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to try to win the World Cup, as he will be 37 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.

Portugal is more than just Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s striker Ricardo Quaresma, midfielder Joao Moutimho and star defensemen Pepe and Bruno Alves. Portugal looks consistent leading up to the Cup. They’ve had a good record since their Euro win. However they’ve had some notable losses like 3-0 to The Netherlands back in March and 3-2 against Sweden last year. They’ve also had some noteworthy draws such as 1-1 to the US and 2-2 to Tunisia. Portugal could just be able to come back to action here in Russia.

Spain Fixed

-Spain (8): Things have been a real struggle for La Roja after the 2014 World Cup. The most notable being ousted in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016. It bit Spain so badly, Vicente del Bosque was sacked as team coach. They now have a new coach: Julen Lopetegui. He comes off of coaching Spain’s youth teams and Portugal’s Porto team. The change of coaching has worked very well. Spain came on top of the World Cup qualifying group. Spain have also not lost a match since Euro 2016 and even had a spectacular 6-1 win against Argentina back in March. However Spain has had some noteworthy draws like a 3-3 draw to Russia and a 1-1 draw to Germany. Much of that is due to Spain’s set of strikers being young and lacking experience.

Leading to Russia 2018, Spain will be led by captain Sergio Ramos; one of four players on the team with more than 100 caps. Spain’s team consists of all but seven players who play for La Liga. Spain also has a lot of strong midfielders in Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and David Silva. Along with Ramos, Spain has Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba adding to their strong defense. 2018 can be another stellar year for Spain.

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-Morocco (42): Nigeria may be most lauded African team but Morocco deserves some credit. They are the first African team to advance past the Group Stage; all the way back in 1986. This will be Morocco’s fourth World Cup and their first in 20 years. They were lackluster in play over the last two decades or they’d just pull a surprise and soon fade away during that time. That has changed since 2016 when they acquired French coach Herve Renard. Renard had coached Zambia to the 2012 African Nations Cup. Ever since Renard helped Morocco qualify for the World Cup, he’s signed with the team until 2022.

Morocco has had an impressive record these past two years. Despite losses like 2-1 to The Netherlands and 1-0 to Finland, they have scored notable wins like 2-1 against Serbia, 2-0 against the Ivory Coast and 3-1 against South Korea. Not too much is expected of Morocco with Spain and Portugal being favorites, but they could pull off an upset in Russia.

Iran

-Iran (36): This is Iran’s fifth World Cup. No doubt they’re hoping this will be their first where they make it past the group stage. Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has been kept on as manager of Iran since 2011. He’s the coach that has coached the most games involving the national team. Most of the team’s players play for Iran’s Persian Gulf Pro League and Greece’s Superleague. Iran’s victories in the last while have been mostly to Asian teams. However they have drawn 1-1 against Russia and South Korea sending the message that they are capable of more than what most expect. Russia 2018 could just be their moment.

And there’s my look at the teams of Group B. As for who will advance to the Round of 16, I’m going to go with my best hunches and declare Spain and Portugal. However either Morocco or Iran could pull off a surprise.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two ore stadiums added to the mix. Both will host four matches, all in the Group Stage. And both with host a Group Stage match for Group B. So without further ado:

-KALININGRAD: Kaliningrad Stadium

kaliningrad stadium

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 35,212

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, D, E, G

Kaliningrad Stadium is known for its unique location. It’s in the city of Kaliningrad which is part of the tiny Kaliningrad Oblast: a Russian Oblast bordered by Poland and Lithuania and situated over 400 miles west of the Russian mainland! It’s location at the Baltic Sea explains why Kaliningrad Stadium is also nicknamed Arena Baltika.

This new stadium wasn’t cheap. It came at a cost of € 257 million and had lost its original developer when it filed for bankruptcy in 2014. The stadium is located on Oktyabrsky Island and is expected to reduce its capacity to 25,000 after the World Cup. After the World Cup, the Stadium will serve as the host stadium for team FC Baltika Kaliningrad.

-SARANSK: Mordovia Arena

Mordovia

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 44,442

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, G, H

Like Kaliningrad Stadium, Mordovia Arena will also be practically fresh for the World Cup. However this World Cup Stadium is more about its design. The design is based on the image of the sun, the main symbol of ancient myths and legends of the Mordovian people. The stadium is situated around the Insar River and is part of a big land development for the city of Saransk. Part of the development includes a new residential neighborhood, a new park, and a space for recreation, public festivities and leisure activities.

The stadium has hotels, fan zones and attractions located within walking distance. After the World Cup, the stadium is expected to reduce its capacity after the World Cup to 28,000 and will serve as the host venue for team FC Mordovia Saransk. The stadium will also be turned into the largest sports, cultural and leisure center in Saransk and Mordovia.

So there you have it. Another Group Stage group summary and two more stadiums in the spotlight. More World Cup reviews coming.