Just when the sports scene was already humming with the NFL in its midseason, college football going into its final month of the regular season and the NBA and NHL starting up, enter the world’s biggest sporting event to the party.
For the first time, the World Cup will be held in November and December instead of its customary time slot of June and July.
The biggest reason is that Qatar — some believe suspiciously and by corrupt means — was chosen by FIFA as site of the event back in 2010, and it’s simply way too hot there in June or July to play such a competition.
So the tiny country on the Persian Gulf will welcome the world in a more manageable time of year in terms of its climate.
Here’s a viewers guide to what should be a historic and entertaining month in Qatar.
What is the format?
There are 32 teams competing, with the most notable squad failing to qualify being defending European champion Italy.
The teams are divided into eight groups of four teams, with each squad playing three games against the other members of its group. The top two teams in each group advance past the group stage into the Round of 16/knockout stage.
From there, losers go home and winners advance through the Round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals until a champion is decided in the final on Dec. 18.
Group A - Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands.
Group B - England, Iran, USA, Wales.
Group C - Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland.
Group D - France, Denmark, Tunisia, Australia.
Group E - Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica
Group F - Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia.
Group G - Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon.
Group H - Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, Korea Republic.
What is the TV schedule?
The U.S. television rights belong to Fox, which will show games on its main channel and also FS1. Peacock will also stream games, most of which will be available only for paid subscribers.
After the opener between host Qatar and Ecuador on Sunday at 11 a.m. ET, there will be three games on Monday, including the USMNT’s opener against Wales at 2 p.m. ET.
Beyond that, each day through Nov. 28 will feature four games at 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. All of those times are eastern. It will be roughly 11 hours of soccer viewing potential each of those days.
For the final games of group play from Nov. 29 through Dec. 2, there will be two simultaneous games between four teams in a group each of those days at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET.
For example, on Nov. 29, the final games of Group A, Ecuador vs. Senegal and Netherlands vs. Qatar, will be held simultaneously at 10 a.m. The last Group B games, Iran vs. the U.S. and Wales vs. England, will be held simultaneously at 2 p.m.
Playing the final games of group play at the same time has been a customary practice so teams don’t know the result of the other match, and thus not be tempted to sit their best players or try to play for a tie.
When can we watch the USA play?
The last World Cup was a nightmare for Fox because the USMNT didn’t qualify, but the network was thrilled to see that didn’t happen this time around.
Following the USMNT’s first group stage against Wales at 2 p.m. on Nov. 21, the next game will be a delightful Black Friday matchup against England at 2 p.m. If you’re a soccer enthusiast, get your shopping in early that day.
The final game for the Americans will be at 2 p.m. on Nov. 29 against Iran.
The last two times the Americans have qualified for the World Cup in 2010 and 2014, they advanced beyond the group stage, but were beaten in the Round of 16.
Will the quality of soccer be as good?
One concern about the event being held this time of year is that it’s right in the middle of the season for prominent club teams around the world.
Leagues in Europe such as the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga played their last games before the World Cup break this past weekend, meaning there’s barely a week for players to get together with their national teams and prepare.
Not only will there be little time for teams to gel before the games start, but there have also been rampant injuries suffered by key players during the club season that will affect the World Cup.
For example, prominent Germany forward Timo Werner is out for the World Cup after suffering an ankle injury less than two weeks ago, while French stars Paul Pogba (knee injury suffered in July) and N’Golo Kante (hamstring injury suffered in October) also are out.
Those are just three of many who are out or are banged up heading into the event.