Alphonso Davies will make his World Cup debut in a boost for Canada, which returns to soccer’s biggest stage for the first time since 1986.
The winger is easily Canada’s top player but his status for the tournament was in doubt after he strained his right hamstring playing for Bayern Munich earlier this month. Davies was given the go-ahead to play Wednesday when Canada faces second-ranked Belgium.
“He’s clear that he wanted to play,” Canada coach John Herdman said. “I think our medical team, we wanted him to play, as well. But you’ve just got to go through the mathematical algorithms that are put in front of you to progress him to top speed and he hit that, so that was brilliant. He’s been in full training and he’s got that big smile back on his face, which is great.”
The 22-year-old Davies has 12 goals in 34 international appearances, including five goals in World Cup qualifying, and will be needed as Canada faces Belgium, a 2018 semifinalist and second in the FIFA rankings.
It is Canada’s second ever appearance at the World Cup, and it’s first trip to the tournament since a hapless three-loss performance 36 years ago.
Belgium, meanwhile, has been a contender in recent years, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and losing to Italy in the quarterfinals at last year’s European Championship. But its aging team has injury problems and striker Romelu Lukaku will miss the match against Canada and perhaps also the second match against Morocco.
The 29-year-old Lukaku hasn’t played since Oct. 29 because of a left thigh injury. He last played a full 90 minutes in early August. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, longtime Belgium holdovers, are healthy but both 31 years old.
Canada, which earned an automatic berth into the World Cup by winning the final CONCACAF qualifying group ahead of the United States and Mexico, is bullish about its chances.
“Canada is starting to expect things from us. If you go to France, Germany, Italy, England, Brazil, Argentina, they’ll ask, ‘Who’s Canada?’” Herdman said. “But I think internally, as a country, we’ve started to believe things are possible, and it’s just the same mentality — one game at a time.”
Germany opens its World Cup campaign against Japan as it attempts to recover from its 2018 elimination from the group stage as the defending champions.
The embarrassment in Russia marked the earliest knockout in World Cup history for Germany, which is seeking a fifth title. But the team didn’t seem so strong in a 1-0 win over Oman in its final warmup game, and Germany has lost six of its last seven matches.
The Germans will be without winger Leroy Sané because of a knee injury. He could be replaced by 19-year-old Bayern Munich teammate Jamal Musiala.
Japan is attempting to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in its seventh straight World Cup appearance. The team has faced questions about winger Takumi Minamino, who has yet to excel since moving from Liverpool to French club Monaco.
Spain plays Costa Rica, while Morocco faces Croatia in a full day for Group E.
Spain is the 2010 World Cup champion, the second of three straight major titles it won between the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. But Spain was eliminated from the group stage in 2014 and knocked out on penalties in the round of 16 in 2018 by host nation Russia.
Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals in 2014, its best World Cup showing, but failed to win a single match and was eliminated from the group stage four years ago.
Croatia was runner-up in 2018 and its team returns almost the entire squad, including 37-year-old Luka Modric in his final chance to win the World Cup. Modric was named the tournament’s best player in Russia, where Croatia lost to France 4-2 in the final.
Morocco failed to qualify for the World Cup on four of five attempts but did make the field in 2018. The team earned only one point in three group matches but returns to the tournament now ranked 22nd by FIFA and qualified with a perfect record by winning all six of its group games.
Morocco reached the round of 16 in 1986.
One of the biggest upsets in World Cup history occurred Tuesday when Argentina and Lionel Messi were beaten 2-1 by Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament.
The loss for the South American champions was a depressing start to Messi’s quest to win the one major title that has eluded him. Playing in his fifth World Cup, Messi said he felt “dead” after the loss.
“It’s a very hard blow because we did not expect to start in this way,” Messi said.
The upset ranks alongside Cameroon’s 1-0 win over an Argentina team led by Diego Maradona in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup; Senegal’s 1-0 victory over defending champion France in the 2002 tournament opener; and the United States beating England by the same score in 1950.
The tournament continued to be plagued by problems away from the field as fans again struggled to upload their tickets for a second consecutive day on the FIFA application, and spectators donning rainbow-inspired gear complained they were hassled attempting to enter stadiums.
The ticketing issue began Monday when England played Iran and fans said a glitch in the app caused hundreds to miss the start of the match. The next day, hundreds were lined up at a “Ticket Resolution Point” at a convention center in central Doha showing the error messages on their mobile apps.
The Rainbow imagery, meanwhile, is a symbol of LGBTQ rights and its display at the World Cup is controversial because same-sex relations are criminalized in Qatar. The Welsh soccer federation has asked FIFA for clarity on reports some of its fans were stopped from wearing their rainbow-colored bucket hats into stadiums.
Ecuador’s 2-0 win over Qatar in this year’s World Cup opener was seen by 7.2 million television viewers in the United States.
The game Sunday was seen by 3.228 million on the English-language telecast on FS1 and Fox’s streaming services. It was viewed by 4 million on the Spanish-language broadcast of Telemundo, Peacock and Telemundo Deportes’ digital platforms, all parts of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal.
Fox’s viewership was up 88% from the 2018 opener, a 5-0 romp by host Russia over Saudi Arabia that was televised by the main Fox network on a Thursday in mid-June. Both matches started at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
Telemundo’s audience was up 164% from 1.54 million in 2018.