Hosts Qatar will lock horns with Ecuador in the first match of the 2022 World Cup at the Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday (today).
Ever since Germany 2006, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the standout players of their generation, have been the undisputed poster boys for all the tournaments that have followed.
If things both go to plan for Portugal and Argentina, the two legendary rivals could meet in the Qatar final in December.
Yet Brazil will be among the sides looking to put a stop to that, with 30-year-old Neymar out to make up for lost time in what will be his third World Cup tournament.
The three players have widely been touted as the best of their generations and have achieved great success in their club careers at all conceivable level but none have won at the biggest stage in world football.
Ronaldo’s World Cup record
Appearances: 17 Wins: 7 Goals: 7 Assists: 2 Man of the Match: 6 Best finish: Semi-finals 2006, 4th
Ronaldo has won both Euro 2016 and the 2019 Nations League with Portgual, but the World Cup has eluded him in his four attempts.
He made his World Cup debut in 2006 at the age of 21 and scored once against Iran as his country reached the semi-finals, ultimately finishing fourth losing 3-1 in the third-place match to Germany.
His follow-up appearance in South Africa four years was even worse, with just one goal in four games – an 87th-minute strike in a 7-0 win over minnows North Korea – before a round of 16 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Spain.
Ronaldo looked to turn the tide at Brazil 2014 as the reigning Ballon d’Or holder and a Champions League winner with Real Madrid but struggling for fitness, the then-29-year-old only managed one goal and was powerless to prevent a group-stage exit for Portugal; their poorest run since he joined the team.
Russia 2018 was much more impressive from Ronaldo though, as he more than doubled his overall goal tally at the World Cup.
He scored four times in the competition including a fantastic hat-trick against Spain to secure a 3-3 draw but again Portugal crashed out at the last-16 stage with a 2-1 loss to Uruguay.
Messi’s World Cup record
Appearances: 19 Wins: 13 Goals: 6 Assists: 5 Man of the Match: 6 Best finish: Final 2014, 2nd
Messi also has two international trophies to his name like Ronaldo; the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 Cup of Champions but again has never seen his Argentina side get over the line in four previous attempts.
The comparisons between the two don’t stop there, with Messi also making his first appearance at football’s grandest stage at the 2006 World Cup.
The then-18-year-old came off the bench in Argentina’s second group game against Serbia and Montenegro and within 13 minutes had scored and assisted another in a 6-0 win.
That goal made Messi Argentina’s youngest scorer at the World Cup but he was an unused substitute in their eventual quarter-final penalty shootout defeat to hosts Germany.
Four years later, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Lionel Messi was his country’s main man this time around, but things did not go according to plan.
The PSG star went goalless in five games before Argentina went out to Germany in the quarter-finals, finishing the competition with just one solitary assist.
Messi came back with a vengeance on enemy soil in Brazil 2014, with four goals and one assists in seven matches and it looked like Argentina were going to go all the way before his side fell to a lone goal in the final yet again to Germany for the third time – despite him winning the the best player of the tournament.
Messi couldn’t replicate that feat in Russia as he struggled for form throughout the tournament with just one strike and a missed penalty before Argentina’s round of 16 4-3 loss to eventual champions France, meaning the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has never scored in a knockout game at the World Cup.
Neymar’s World Cup record
Appearances: 10 Wins: 7 Goals: 6 Assists: 3 Best finish: Semi-finals 2014, 4th
Before Qatar, the most expensive signing ever has only appeared at two World Cups, first breaking into the international set-up after the 2010 edition.
All eyes were on Neymar as the marquee player on home soil for the Brazil World Cup in 2014 and the young star lived up to the expectations, with four goals in his first four games.
His World Cup run with Brazil was cut short however in the quarter-finals after he was left with a fractured vertebrae from a Juan Zuniga knee which hit him from behind in a win over Colombia.
As a result, Neymar missed Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany in the last four, with Brazil also suffering a 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands in his absence in the third-place playoff.
Following that disappointing end to the 2014 World Cup, Neymar came into Russia four years later with a point to prove.
But he was rushing back from a long term injury lay off and only managed one goal in Brazil’s three group games in the 2018 edition.
Neymar looked to be finding his form in a 2-0 win over Mexico in the Round of 16 after he opened the scoring then created the chance for the second but his joy was cut short as he failed to prevent Brazil’s quarter-finals exit to Belgium after a 2-1 loss.
Ronaldo and Messi are presented with their last chance to lift the Mundial as they will be 41 and 39 respectively at the next edition of the tournament. However, should the opportunity slip through Neymar’s fingers yet again, he will still be younger than Messi is now by 2026 and could go for one last attempt.
Messi Argentina will kick-start their campaign against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, November 22 while Ronaldo’s Portugal will face-off against the Black Stars of Ghana on November 24 and three hours later, Neymar’s Brazil will line-up against Serbia.
Ronaldo and Messi are not the only familiar faces set for a World Cup farewell. At the age of 39, Brazil’s Dani Alves and Portugal’s Pepe will surely grace the tournament for the final time, as will 38-year-old Thiago Silva, 37-year-old Luka Modric, 36-year-old Manuel Neuer and Olivier Giroud, and Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Hugo Lloris, who are all 35.
With France striker Karim Benzema, Spain midfielder Sergio Busquets and Poland forward Robert Lewandowski all 34-years-old, and Germany forward Thomas Muller 33, the list of players potentially appearing on the world stage for the last time is as lengthy as it is illustrious.
Whether this might be Kevin De Bruyne’s or Neymar’s last World Cup remains to be seen, but make no mistake, international football will be left with a void which could take another generation to fill.