Soccer's World Cup is back.
After the four-year wait, the new edition arrives at a new time of year (the end of fall) and in a new host country (Qatar) and, unlike four years ago, the United States men's national team will be part of the show.
As the clock ticks down toward Sunday's soccer kickoff, the Times-Union takes an A to Z look at the 2022 World Cup, plus some of the ties that link this year's tournament to the First Coast and the Sunshine State.
A is for American soccer, and, yes, it is back. The United States missed out in 2018, the nation's first qualification failure since 1986, but they squeezed into the 32-team field with the third and final automatic qualifying berth in North America. How far can they go? They'll need a top-two finish to escape Group B against Wales, England and Iran, and given the Americans' goal-scoring struggles of late, that's far from a lock.
B is for Julian Brandt, a German midfielder who has already made a First Coast stop on his way to the World Cup. In January 2015, he came off the bench for German club Bayer Leverkusen at EverBank Field in the Florida Cup exhibition tournament against Corinthians of Brazil.
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C is for Cameroon. It's the nation of Jean-Pierre Tokoto, who in 1982 became the first player to go from the Jacksonville Tea Men of the old North American Soccer League to the World Cup when he entered the opening match against Peru. Cameroon returns to the event for the first time since 2014, drawn in Group G against Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland, but they're underdogs: Their last seven World Cup matches have ended in defeat.
D is for Distance. In Qatar, there won't be a lot of it — eight stadiums packed into a compact space in and around the capital of Doha. Just how compact? The aerial distance from the northernmost venue (Al Bayt Stadium) to the southernmost (Al Janoub Stadium) is about 35 miles, roughly the distance from Yulee to Nocatee in Northeast Florida.
E is for Early Exit. First-round elimination has been the fate of four of the last five reigning World Cup champions (France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018). On paper, the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema give France a strong chance to avert that fate in Group D with Denmark, Australia and Tunisia, but anything can happen...
F is for Five, the number of career World Cups for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi the moment the Portuguese and Argentine legends step onto the field in Qatar. Mexico's Andres Guardado and Guillermo Ochoa are also participating in their fifth World Cups, instantly doubling — from four to eight — the all-time list of five-time World Cup players.
G is for Germany, the country on the wrong end of one of Jacksonville's soccer memories when the United States beat them 3-0 at Alltel Stadium in 1999. The Germans field proven champions like goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and veteran attacker Thomas Müller, but they got KO'd in the opening round four years ago. In Group E with Spain, Japan and Costa Rica, there's little margin for error.
H is for Hundred. Only two players ever have scored more than 100 international goals, and Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is one of them, with 117 to be exact. Even at 37, Ronaldo is always in the headlines, but his last few months at Manchester United in England have been decidedly suboptimal. This month is likely his last chance to lift the trophy.
I is for Italy and also for Isn't, as in isn't at the World Cup. The Azzurri, reigning European champions and four-time World Cup winners, missed out for the second consecutive World Cup in an unprecedented back-to-back failure after losing a playoff at home to North Macedonia.
J is for Jaguars. In addition to the Jags, Shad Khan also owns London-based Premier League club Fulham, which will be well represented on World Cup rosters. Fulham players in Qatar include defenders Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson for the United States, midfielders Daniel James and Harry Wilson for Wales, midfielder Joao Palhinha for Portugal and robust striker Aleksandar Mitrovic at the front of the Serbian line.
K is for Knight. Sean Johnson, who played college soccer for UCF's Knights in 2007 and 2008, is set to become the first former UCF player at a World Cup after earning the call for the U.S. squad. Now at New York City FC in Major League Soccer, Johnson is expected to back up Matt Turner of Premier League leader Arsenal.
L is for Landon Donovan. A decade ago, the three-time World Cup striker came to Jacksonville and tallied a hat trick for the United States in a 5-1 win against Scotland. This time, he's using his voice instead of his feet, calling matches as part of the Fox Sports broadcast crew.
M is for Messi. Will there be one last round of World Cup magic for Lionel Messi, now 35, in what is likely his final chance to capture the game's biggest prize? Well-balanced across the field, Argentina didn't lose any qualifying matches and showed off their strength in Wednesday's 5-0 rout of the United Arab Emirates. The first order of business: overcoming Poland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia in Group C.
N is for New York Cosmos, the former North American Soccer League rival of the Jacksonville Armada and one of the previous clubs of United States forward Haji Wright. Wright, who now plays with Antalyaspor in Turkey, has played only three international matches for the U.S. team but got the nod ahead of Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok, both scoring regularly this season in Europe.
O is for O Canada. The neighbors to the north dominated the qualifiers to reach the World Cup for only the second time ever and the first since 1986, including three former Orlando City players in Cyle Larin, Richie Laryea and Kamal Miller. With young talent like Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and Jonathan David of Lille in their ranks, Canada should inject some energy, but getting out of Group F — which includes 2018 runner-up Croatia, 2018 third-place finisher Belgium as well as Morocco — will be no easy feat.
P is for Palm Coast, the hometown of former U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson. Johnson, who represented the United States at the 2006 tournament in Germany, is still the closest player to the Jacksonville area to appear in a men's World Cup.
Q is for Qatar. For the Middle Eastern country, which won hosting rights from international governing body FIFA with a population of fewer than 3 million, the issues are many: lingering controversy surrounding the December 2010 hosting vote, multiple human rights concerns, an abrupt change in alcohol policies for fans and the challenge of conducting a World Cup in stifling desert heat (90 degrees during the past week). Qatar's task on the field is no smooth ride, either: After opening the tournament Sunday against Ecuador, they'll also play African champion Senegal and the Netherlands in Group A.
R is for Rodrigo Bentancur. Seven years ago, he lined up as a teenager for Boca Juniors in a club exhibition against the Jacksonville Armada at EverBank Field. Watch for him this month in Uruguay's midfield, part of a national team that delivered a vigorous finishing kick to qualify despite advancing age — strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, defenders Diego Godin and Martin Caceres and keeper Fernando Muslera are all 35 or older. They face Ghana, Portugal and South Korea in Group H.
S is for Swoop, the official rallying cry of the University of North Florida. Back in the mid-1990s, Kasper Hjulmand was ranging the midfield at UNF, on a near wide-open expanse of land before the construction of today's Hodges Stadium. Now, the former Osprey is Denmark's national coach, leading a balanced and disciplined team that reached the European Championship semifinals last summer.
T is for Thanksgiving. Not in the mood to watch the Lions thrown to Buffalo and Josh Allen in Thursday's NFL action? For the first time, fans can trade in football for World Cup futbol to accompany their Thanksgiving turkey. On the menu: Switzerland-Cameroon at 5 a.m., followed by Uruguay-South Korea, Portugal-Ghana and finally Brazil-Serbia at 2 p.m. Eastern.
U is for... well... U. Normally the trusty sidekick of Q, the 21st letter is nowhere to be found in the word Qatar. Plan your spelling accordingly.
V is for Very Young. Going back to the 17-year-old Pele in 1958, new stars have taken the soccer world by storm at the planet's biggest stage. The youngest player this time is Germany's Youssoufa Moukoko, a striker for Borussia Dortmund who turns 18 on Sunday. More names well worth jotting down for the present and the future: England's Jude Bellingham (19), Germany's Jamal Musiala (19), Spain's Gavi (18) and Pedri (19) and the United States' Yunus Musah (19).
W is for Winning. When it comes to the World Cup, Brazil has done it five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002). Will that count change in one month's time? Based on their undefeated march through qualifying, beating opponents by a combined score of 40-5, a sixth Brazilian triumph is a distinct possibility.
X is for Granit Xhaka. The captain of Switzerland's national team, the central midfielder is playing some of the best soccer of his life at the moment while helping Arsenal to a surprising first place in England's Premier League.
Y is for DeAndre Yedlin, the United States fullback who lines up for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer. He's one of two Florida-based players on World Cup rosters (the other is Uruguayan forward Facundo Torres of Orlando City) and the only player on the United States team with prior experience at the tournament.
Z is for Z's, and die-hard World Cup fans will be getting fewer of them than usual. From Tuesday through Nov. 28, the tournament will be kicking off quadrupleheaders of soccer beginning at 5 a.m. Eastern time. Set those alarm clocks.
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX, and sign up for the First Coast Varsity newsletter at https://profile.jacksonville.com/newsletters/first-coast-varsity/.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: 2022 FIFA World Cup: Northeast Florida connections to international soccer championship