What makes the perfect World Cup group stage match? Hard to entirely pin it down, but one thing we know for absolute certain, that wouldn’t meet any criteria for it, is the word November.
And yet here we are, and we’re all going to have to make the best of it, whether that’s boycotting it altogether, following Gianni Infantino’s advice and simply “concentrating on football” for four weeks because it’s that easy, or writing tortured 4000-word thinkpieces admitting we’re going to be giddy as fuck because it’s a World Cup but we feel snowflakily guilty about it.
What we’ve done here by way of copium is try to put the whole “November” and “Qatar” elements to the back of our minds and rank every single one of the group-stage matches by how much they still manage to feel like a World Cup group-stage match despite everything.
Our very scientific process amounts to just going “Yeah, that feels right” or… not. Many factors come into consideration. Kick-off times, World Cup pedigree, whether I needed a poo when thinking about a particular game. It’s all very complicated. Anyway, here it is, the official final word on which game over the next couple of weeks qualifies as the single most World Cup group stage game of them all…
48. Qatar v Ecuador, Group A, Sunday 20 November, 1600 GMT
Nope. Qatar is not remotely World Cuppish as either host or competitor which puts this game firmly on the back foot long before you get round to considering the entirely bog-standard kick-off time. The opening game has a mixed history but even if this one is good it’s still bad because of everything else and the fact the actual football won’t yet have lured in the noble but obviously doomed to cave refuseniks. We can’t imagine Peter Drury working away on a pre-prepared line of joyous mock-impromptu celebration for this one. “A goal for all sportswashing!”
47. Qatar v Senegal, Group A, Friday 25 November, 1300GMT
Unavoidably true that Qatar games are going to be ones where the World Cup buzz is most conspicuously harshed. Just far harder to put the whole Qatar unpleasantness of it all to the back of your mind when one of the teams playing is literally Qatar.
46. Netherlands v Qatar, Group A, Tuesday 29 November, 1500GMT
One of the most potent World Cup vibe teams meets the least World Cup vibe team ever in the last game of Group A. Hopefully at this point we’ll be able to at least say goodbye to the Qatar team, but you just know they’re going to sneak second place somehow and we’ll have to listen to people telling us what a feelgood underdog story it all is. Already annoyed. Hasn’t even happened yet.
45. Canada v Morocco, Group F, Thursday 1 December, 1500GMT
Canada didn’t sit right even before their World Cup games started being in actual December.
44. France v Australia, Group D, Tuesday 22 November, 1900GMT
It does feel very much like a hugely important match in a World Cup, but that World Cup is the Rugby World Cup.
43. Croatia v Canada, Group F, Sunday 27 November, 1600GMT
Canada on Super Sunday, you adore to observe it. Might be a “So can the Croatians do what Belgium did to Canada in the opening game, Ian, because goal difference could be crucial in this group, couldn’t it?” affair. Overall, though, there’s no denying this is low World Cup energy, no offence.
42. Belgium v Canada, Group F, Wednesday 23 November, 1900GMT
Canada have almost no Proper World Cup vibes. They’ve been in twice as many Cricket World Cups as actual World Cups. The 2023 Rugby World Cup will be the first one of those they’ve ever missed. And they’re not really known for playing those sports either. They’re known for playing ice hockey. They have won 27 Ice Hockey World Championships, a number surprising only because, like, how many Ice Hockey World Championships does that mean there must have been altogether? Several, we suppose.
41. USA v Wales, Group B, Monday 21 November, 1900GMT
Wales’ minimal World Cup finals pedigree is going to work against them in all their games, no matter how excited we are to actually watch them. USA v Wales on a November Monday night kicking off at 7pm just screams “international friendly played at Craven Cottage for some reason”. It does not scream World Cup.
40. Spain v Germany, Group E, Sunday 27 November, 1900GMT
Spain and Germany? Sunday evening? ‘Tis a fine World Cup final, but sure ‘tis no group-stage clash, English. D’oh-eth!
39. Wales v Iran, Group B, Friday 25 November, 1000GMT
Not even a Friday morning kick-off time can save this one, I’m afraid.
38. Serbia v Switzerland, Group G, Friday 2 December, 1900GMT
Almost impossible for a game between two European sides to pull off a full World Cup group stage vibe. If both teams are too big, it feels like a knockout. Here you’ve got the opposite problem of two teams not quite big enough. Which makes it a Euros group game. Just no getting past the fact this is a game that feels like it ends in a 1-1 draw which is enough to take Switzerland through as winners of Group C, while the hard-earned point means Serbia are now almost certain to join them as one of the best third-place sides.
37. Denmark v Tunisia, Group D, Tuesday 22 November, 1300GMT
Moderate. Neither Denmark or Tunisia are sufficiently regular qualifiers for this to have the biggest possible World Cup vibes, but a 1pm Tuesday kick-off definitely helps as does the fact they have made an impact on the World Cup consciousness in their relatively few appearances; Denmark for their kit and team in 1986, Tunisia for quite often being drawn against England.
36. Poland v Saudi Arabia, Group C, Saturday 26 November, 1300GMT
That is a mid-season friendly international, we’re afraid, in which Robert Lewandowski shamelessly pads his stats and nobody else either notices or cares.
35. England v USA, Group B, Friday 25 November, 1900GMT
A lot of people will be pretty happy about an England World Cup game on a Friday evening, but for our purposes it’s a bit of a shame because that does undeniably sap quite a bit of World Cup energy out of a fixture that should have oodles of the stuff. The famous World Cup history of this fixture, and the fact it has mainly involved English humiliation, is strong stuff and both are countries you just fully expect to find at a World Cup. Both countries are also stupid arseholes who like each other and everyone else rightly hates, thus are quite likely to play each other in a friendly. That friendly would be quite likely to be on a Friday evening.
34. France v Denmark, Group D, Saturday 26 November, 1600GMT
The Saturday afternoon kick-off time means this perfectly solid World Cup group-stage fixture is instead imbued with a Euros knockout vibe that is hard to shift.
33. Tunisia v Australia, Group D, Saturday 26 November, 1000GMT
If you’re going to play a weekend game, like boring old regular normy football, then at least be the 10am kick-off. Fair play to Tunisia and Australia on that score at least.
32. Wales v England, Group B, Tuesday 29 November, 1900GMT
It is for multiple obvious reasons an absolute giant beast of a game, not least because everything in what could be a tight group may well be riding on it. But Wales’ minimal World Cup pedigree and a bog-standard midweek evening kick-off time make it all a bit Home Internationals. Which is no bad thing in and of itself, but just isn’t particularly World Cup.
31. Tunisia v France, Group D, Wednesday 30 November, 1500GMT
France against any North African side always has a bit of extra sauce on it, so this should be a fine game to be enjoyed by all. Only mid-level World Cup feels, though, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.
30. Australia v Denmark, Group D, Wednesday 30 November, 1500GMT
Just not quite right, is it? Group D just isn’t quite landing for some reason.
29. Croatia v Belgium, Group F, Thursday 1 December, 1500GMT
A lovely, intriguing game of football (we’re pretty confident it will get slightly more eyeballs than the Morocco-Canada game on at the same time) between two relentlessly watchable football teams but it’s quite clearly a European Championship quarter-final rather than a World Cup group-stage clash.
28. Netherlands v Ecuador, Group A, Friday 25 November, 1600GMT
This would feel very World Cuppy if Nike hadn’t achieved the near impossible and butchered the Netherlands kit. They’ve managed to take a kit perhaps second only to Brazil for iconic status in international football and turn it into what appears to be a crushed velvet Austin Powers costume. Shame.
27. Brazil v Serbia, Group G, Thursday 24 November, 1900GMT
You look at Brazil and you ask yourself how much more World Cup could they be? And the answer is none. None… more World Cup. But their opening game doesn’t quite bring the energy you’d want, with a Thursday evening kick-off making it all feel a bit “low-key summer friendly”.
26. Ecuador v Senegal, Group A, Tuesday 29 November, 1500GMT
Would have worked better as a 10am or 1pm kick-off earlier in the group stage, but still pretty solid and definitely more World Cup than the concurrent Group A closer by virtue of not featuring Qatar.
25. Japan v Costa Rica, Group E, Sunday 27 November, 1000GMT
Japan and Costa Rica slugging it out in the background in a match that may well decide third place in Group E while you’re enjoying a leisurely hungover Sundayday breakfast? Bliss. World Cup bliss.
24. South Korea v Ghana, Group H, Monday 28 November, 1300GMT
Two teams who have produced compelling underdog stories at 21st century World Cups and thus provide a compelling combination. Decent kick-off time, too, and they are in what on paper looks like it could well be the most interesting group, containing a vulnerable heavyweight in Portugal.
23. Iran v USA, Group B, Tuesday 29 November, 1900GMT
Please, guys, can we just leave politics to one side and focus on the football? Even the least politically dubious World Cups (and all World Cups are at least a little bit politically dubious) throw up one of these, so this therefore scores quite high.
22. Senegal v Netherlands, Group A, Monday 21 November, 1600 GMT
Solid. Africa against Europe often delivers good stuff in the group stage, and that kick-off time is pure major tournament energy.
21. Cameroon v Serbia, Group G, Monday 28 November, 1000GMT
Cameroon’s powerful World Cup vibes and a Monday morning kick-off keep this one feeling nicely World Cup. Serbia are officially FIFA’s successor team to Yugoslavia, meaning they have all those old records, but for World Cup feels they simply can’t match Croatia. We’re not making a political point here, it’s just how it is.
20. Spain v Costa Rica, Group E, Wednesday 23 November, 1600GMT
If you can’t already picture the “Cautious Spain frustrated by Costa Rica in cagey Group E opener” headlines then do you even World Cup?
19. Brazil v Switzerland, Group G, Monday 28 November, 1600 GMT
Yep. Getting into the really good ones here that if it was June would just feel absolutely correct. Switzerland have held Brazil to a 1-1 draw in the group stage at each of the last seven World Cups. Not really, obviously, but you wouldn’t be that surprised if it were true.
18. Portugal v Ghana, Group H, Thursday 24 November, 1600GMT
Group H has huge potential to be the most mercurial and fun group, and all its games have decent World Cup energy. Curiously counterintuitive as it may seem, a World Cup group that has but a single European team in it is quite unusual but actually produces the most World Cup-feeling set of fixtures.
17. Belgium v Morocco, Group F, Sunday 27 November, 1300GMT
If Belgium have done what we expect them to have done to Canada in their opening game, then expect the build-up to this one to represent the high-water mark for dark horse/golden generation chatter, before the fact all their players are about 50 years old and playing in 200 degree heat catches inevitably up with them. Quite possibly in this game.
16. Switzerland v Cameroon, Group G, Thursday 24 November, 1000GMT
Football fans of a certain age will always go misty-eyed at the mention of Cameroon, thoughts drifting hazily back to 1990 when the world was young and so were they. Roger Milla wasn’t young, though. He was really old! And kept doing a dance by the corner flag when he scored! And they spent a whole game kicking Claudio Caniggia up in the air, which was great! Switzerland, meanwhile, are a team that you sort of think are always at the World Cup but then you can’t ever actually remember a single thing they’ve ever done at a World Cup and you discover they’ve only been at 12 World Cups altogether but each of the last five, numbers which manage to therefore feel simultaneously correct and wrong.
15. England v Iran, Group B, Monday 21 November, 1300 GMT
Ticks lots of boxes. One o’clock on a Monday afternoon is an exemplary World Cup kick-off time, quirky enough to feel intoxicatingly strange but not so weird you have to set alarms at weird times or be in the pub for breakfast like a deviant or a perfectly normal person who happens to be about to go on an aeroplane. It’s a kick-off time that absolutely screams “TVs wheeled into classrooms” if schools still have big TVs on giant wheeled stands. Or indeed classrooms. Iran are good opponents too, once we’ve managed to bury deep all our nagging thoughts that aren’t about football. We’re trying, Gianni! Non-European, obviously key for that World Cup feel, but also a team that for assorted reasons England would be wildly unlikely to meet in a friendly. It takes a major tournament to throw this whole combination together. It takes a World Cup.
14. South Korea v Portugal, Group H, Friday 2 December, 1500GMT
Yeah, lovely World Cup feel to that. Build-up narrative all based on two Premier League stars as well, given a compelling good versus evil vibe because Son Heung-min seems a lovely man and Cristiano Ronaldo is mates with Piers Morgan.
13. Morocco v Croatia, Group F, Wednesday 23 November, 1000GMT
This looks like the game where a lot of noble and commendable efforts to boycott the tournament might crumble. It’s just so beguiling a cocktail of ingredients. We’re definitely looking forward to the 10am games most. Morning football hits different.
12. Uruguay v South Korea, Group H, Thursday 24 November, 1300GMT
Put this at 10am and it might have made the top three. Absolutely A1 World Cup group stage areas here.
11. Japan v Spain, Group E, Thursday 1 December, 1900GMT
Nodding away at this. Very World Cup, very group stage. Our only note would be that it feels like one that should have an afternoon kick-off, but that’s nitpicking for the sake of it really.
10. Argentina v Mexico, Group C, Saturday 26 November 1900GMT
Gah, curse that Saturday evening kick-off time. A huge contender for top spot given a midweek afternoon slot. Everything else about it oozes World Cup from every pore, although if we were to nitpick even further could you perhaps argue it feels less like a group game and slightly more like precisely the sort of last-16 game where Mexico always come unstuck after finishing second in their group on goal difference?
9. Costa Rica v Germany, Group E, Thursday 1 December, 1900GMT
Strong. Germany, obviously, are extremely World Cup and Costa Rica have had World Cup vibes ever since pulling Scotland’s pants down all those years ago. Scores highly for somehow feeling like it could only be a group game despite Costa Rica having reached the knockouts in two of their five previous World Cups.
8. Saudi Arabia v Mexico, Group C, Wednesday 30 November, 1900GMT
Group C is definitely the World Cuppest group of this World Cup’s group stage. Not even a Wednesday evening slot for its closing games can hold it back.
7. Germany v Japan, Group E, Wednesday 23 November, 1300GMT
Absolutely, yes. The only way you can get more World Cup than the Germans is Brazil, and Japan haven’t missed one since first qualifying in 1998.
6. Ghana v Uruguay, Group H, Friday 2 December, 1500GMT
Oooof. This year’s group-stage grudge match is a belter. The only previous meeting between these two remains the 2010 quarter-final when Luis Suarez produced one of the great moments of cheating to deny Ghana a winner in the last minute of extra time. Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty, Uruguay won the shootout while the sent off Suarez celebrated wildly. Genuine chance qualification rests on this game as well. The fact that game was a quarter-final obviously hurts the group-stage element of this, but come on. When two countries have only ever met once before, and that meeting was at a World Cup, and is one of the most infamous games in the entire history of the tournament, it’s going to score quite highly.
5. Mexico v Poland, Group C, Tuesday 22 November, 1600GMT
Last-16 perennials Mexico are a magnificently World Cup group-stage team. They always qualify, they always make enough of a splash in the group stage to get through it, they always then immediately go out. As such, there is arguably no other team to match them for sheer World Cup group stage feels. We’re extremely confident that Mexico v Poland is a fixture that has kicked off at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon in the group stage of at least the last six World Cups.
4. Portugal v Uruguay, Group H, Monday 28 November, 1900 GMT
Very much so. Not even an evening kick-off can stymie this one. Powerful World Cup vibes here. Actually met in the last 16 in 2018, when Edinson Cavani scored twice to knock out Portugal and set up a quarter-final with France. But “Portugal v Uruguay” seems like a fixture that would have much more ancient World Cup pedigree. Seems like there could very easily be a legendarily filthy group stage match between these two from 1958 or some such, with five red cards and no goals. That sort of thing. There isn’t, but it absolutely feels like there could be. And that is far more important.
3. Argentina v Saudi Arabia, Group C, Tuesday 22 November, 1000GMT
Now that is a World Cup group stage fixture. It could scarcely be anything else and is just a lovely thing to find waiting for you at 10am on a Tuesday morn. There aren’t many World Cuppier teams than Argentina, who are now level with Italy on 18 finals appearances and behind only Brazil and Germany. They’ve been at the last 13 World Cups. Saudi Arabia’s record cannot match that, but they have been at six of the last eight tournaments. A 10am kick-off with no European involvement but a semi-regular group-stage participant facing up to one of the pre-tournament favourites? Yes please.
2. Poland v Argentina, Group C, Wednesday 30 November, 1900GMT
Even held back by a midweek evening kick-off time, this one is hard to beat. You’re probably thinking there are absolutely massive “1970s World Cups that England failed to qualify for” vibes to this and you’d be absolutely right. They did indeed meet in the group stage of both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. And those are iconic World Cups. A win apiece, if you were wondering. Mario Kempes scored twice for Argentina in a 2-0 win in 1978 and that gives any fixture powerful World Cup pedigree.
1. Cameroon v Brazil, Group G, Friday 2 December, 1900GMT
Glorious. The very last game of the group stage (as long as you ignore Serbia v Switzerland at the same time, which let’s be honest I reckon most of us will probably manage) is also the very best. Brazil are the most World Cup of all the teams, clearly, while Cameroon remain the most World Cup of all the African teams despite not actually making it past the group stage since 1990. That tournament retains such a powerful hold on our collective World Cup conscious. But that lack of knockout football managing to be combined with fierce World Cup energy makes them perhaps the perfect group-stage opponent for Brazil. This might actually be unimprovably good as a World Cup group stage game, as long as you ignore the December, Qatar and to a lesser extent 7pm elements of it.