What to know for this weird World Cup

Here are some key storylines to follow as the planet's most popular sporting event gets set to kick off in a strange time and place.

Some key things to follow as the planet's biggest sporting event comes to tiny Qatar

This could be Lionel Messi's last great chance to win an elusive World Cup title. (Andres Kudacki/AFP via Getty Images)

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This Sunday, the most popular sporting event on the planet will kick off at a time and in a place where it doesn't really belong. Tiny (but fossil-fuel rich) Qatar — a fifth the size of Nova Scotia, less populous than metro Toronto and with little pre-existing soccer infrastructure — is the smallest and least-equipped country ever to host the World Cup. The extreme summer heat in the Persian Gulf forced the event out of its traditional June and July slot to the brink of winter, requiring soccer's most powerful clubs and leagues to pause their seasons to accommodate it. Qatar's dodgy human-rights record has thrown cold water on the anticipation for the tournament and could continue causing mixed feelings even once the matches begin.

The vibes on the field are off too. Squeezing the World Cup into the middle of the European club season means most national teams have only days, instead of weeks, together to prepare. Meanwhile, there's no clear favourite, one of the most successful soccer countries in the world is absent and, as you may have heard, Canada qualified for the first time in 36 years.

To help you navigate these strange times, here are some key things to know for the weirdest World Cup in memory:

The title is very much up for grabs.

Since its inception in 1930, only eight countries have won the World Cup and close to two-thirds of the 21 trophies have been captured by just three teams: Brazil (5), Germany/West Germany (4) and Italy (4). The Italians would seem like a lock to qualify, given that they're ranked No. 6 in the world and won the European Championship just 16 months ago. But that buys you nothing in World Cup qualifying, and the Azzurri shockingly got bounced by minnow North Macedonia in a European playoff back in March.

Brazil is the top team in both the world rankings and the World Cup betting markets, but their 4/1 title odds imply Neymar and company have only about a 20 per cent chance of capturing the Selecao's first World Cup in 20 years. Next is fellow South American power Argentina (15 per cent), followed by defending-champion France (13 per cent), Euro runner-up England (11 per cent) and Spain (also 11 per cent). No one else — including, in order of their title odds, Germany, three-time World Cup finalist Netherlands, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and No. 2-ranked Belgium — cracks double digits in win probability.

France might be the most fascinating team in the bunch. Led by the explosive Kylian Mbappé and reigning world player of the year Karim Benzema at forward, Les Bleus have tons of talent. But key midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante are out with injuries and team chemistry seems to be an issue. To that point, Pogba allegedly hired a witch doctor to put a spell on Mbappé.

Another darkhorse could make a run.

At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 18th-ranked Croatia rode the brilliance of tournament MVP Luka Modric and a relatively soft path all the way to the final before falling to France. Given the lack of a dominant team and the general wackiness of this Qatar World Cup, conditions seem ripe for another Cinderella story.

Outside of the top nine favourites listed in the section above, the trendiest — and most sentimental — sleeper pick is Denmark. The Danes' best player, midfielder Christian Eriksen, nearly died on the field of cardiac arrest during their opening match at the 2021 European Championship. Incredibly, his teammates went on an inspiring run to the semifinals before falling in extra time to England. If France isn't at its best, Denmark could steal the top spot in Group D and be a tough out in the knockout stage.

If you want to go really deep into the sleepers, consider Qatar. The 50th-ranked host team is not going to win this tournament, and the betting markets give them worse than a 1-in-4 chance of getting out of Group A. But only one host team in World Cup history has failed to advance (South Africa in 2010) and much-maligned Qatar certainly has the motivation and the resources to put its best foot forward when the entire world is watching.

This might be the last dance for Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Strange as it sounds, the two greatest players of their generation have never won a World Cup. Messi came the closest, taking Argentina to the 2014 final before an agonizing extra-time loss to Germany. Portugal's best result with Ronaldo was a semifinal appearance in 2006. Both teams were eliminated in the round of 16 four years ago in Russia.

Neither superstar has said this will be his final World Cup, but that's a possibility with Ronaldo now 37 and Messi 35. There's more pressure on Messi in Qatar because his team is among the favourites and he's been vilified by Argentines for failing to deliver a World Cup title as the legendary Diego Maradona did in 1986. But this looks like a great chance for Messi to break through after leading Argentina to victory at last year's Copa America, where he scored a tournament-high four goals and his team beat host Brazil in the final. That performance lifted Messi to his record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or as world player of the year. Argentina is a prohibitive favourite to win Group C, where it faces Poland, Mexico and weak Saudi Arabia.

Ronaldo ranks right behind Messi with five Ballons d'Or and sits atop the all-time men's international goals list with 117. But no one seems to expect all that much from him in Qatar as the dimming superstar endures a tough season at Manchester United. Plus, it feels like Ronaldo has been playing with house money since leading Portugal to a surprising Euro title in 2016. Ronaldo's team is a slight favourite to win Group H, where it could face a stiff challenge from Uruguay and will also meet Ghana and South Korea.

Canada will almost certainly have its best World Cup ever.

That's an extremely low bar to clear, considering the Canadian men's only other appearance, in 1986, ended with them failing to score while losing all three matches. The current squad should be able to at least celebrate a goal, and possibly more than that.

Canada's group (F) is hard to pin down. On one hand, there's no dominant front-runner. Belgium, which is modestly favoured to take the group, is ranked No. 2 in the world but just ninth in the more-revealing betting odds to win the tournament. On the other hand, it's a deep group. Croatia made it to the final of the last World Cup and is ranked 12th (officially and by bookmakers) going into this one. No. 22 Morocco is no pushover either.

Canada comes into the tournament 41st in the world rankings, though that system is not really designed to catch up with such a fast-rising team. Led by electrifying youngster Alphonso Davies, who can attack from all over the field with his blistering speed, Canada shocked the world by finishing first in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament while looking clearly superior to old-school regional powers Mexico and the United States (ranked 13th and 16th, respectively). The Canadian lineup also features a world-class forward in Jonathan David, who's near the top of the star-studded French league in scoring (behind Mbappé and Neymar and ahead of Messi), another dangerous scorer in Cyle Larin (with Belgium's Club Brugge) and a top-notch midfielder in Stephen Eustáquio, who's been turning heads in the Champions League with Portugal's FC Porto. Respected head coach John Herdman has the tactical savvy and emotional intelligence to get the best out of his guys.

The betting markets are not exactly bullish on the Canadians' chances in this group, giving them only about a seven per cent shot at finishing in the top two and advancing to the knockout stage. Canada is a clear underdog in its matches against Belgium (Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. ET) and Croatia (Nov. 27 at 11 a.m. ET), while the Morocco game (Dec. 1 at 10 a.m. ET) is more or less a toss-up, according to the oddsmakers. But beating the odds seems to be what this Canadian team is all about.

For more basics on the World Cup and Canada's outlook, read this bandwagon fans' guide by CBC News' Laura McQuillan. For more on the Canadian team's final preparations, read CBC Sports soccer correspondent Chris Jones' latest dispatch from Qatar. And keep up with the Canadians by watching the latest segment from Soccer North with host Andi Petrillo.

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