Picture the scene just outside Paris, on Friday. The players of Paris Saint-Germain will be gathering at their well-appointed training ground, many of them back together for the first time in nearly two weeks, having been away on international duty.
And there’s the issue that cannot help but divide the dressing-room. Some of the superstars of PSG will be eagerly focused on the 6pm draw (8pm UAE) for the World Cup finals. Some will want to avoid all talk of it.
Not least the goalkeeper who PSG signed last summer. Eight days ago Gianluigi Donnarumma watched a stoppage-time shot from Aleksandar Trajkovski, of North Macedonia, spear its way past him, the goal that eliminated Italy in their World Cup play-off semi-final.
It capped an awful month for Donnarumma, blamed for allowing Madrid to come back from 2-0 down in the Champions League last-16 tie, beaten three times by Monaco and, at the tender age of 23, now a member of two Italy squads that have failed to qualify for successive World Cups.
Donnarumma has yet to shake off the idea that he was one of the statement signings PSG made for this season that they did not actually need, that the club’s Qatar-based owners recruitment strategy was partly designed on having PSG well represented on the pitch at the Qatar World Cup.
Donnarumma, like Marco Verratti, his countryman and teammate, will not be there. Donnarumma is not yet the unchallenged owner of the goalkeeping gloves at PSG either. Keylor Navas, who has been keeping high standards in Paris for several years, and the Italian share duties on an almost equal basis, rotated regularly by manager Mauricio Pochettino.
It is an awkward coexistence. Nor will Donnarruma and Navas be on the same wavelength on Friday. Costa Rica, for whom Navas has won 100 caps and helped to within a penalty shoot-out of the semi-finals at the 2014 World Cup, will be very attentive to the outcome of the Fifa draw.
Costa Rica finished fourth in the North and Central American qualifying, which means they face a play-off in June against New Zealand for one of the three undecided slots at Qatar 2022. Their country’s name will be drawn, with an ‘either/or’ next to it, as is the case for the UAE, with their play-off against Australia and perhaps Peru still ahead.
PSG’s Sergio Ramos, plagued by injury since he joined the Paris club, will also watch the draw with doubts over whether the big ceremony in Doha has any relevance for him either. He holds Spain’s record number of caps, but won his 180th, and most recent, more than a year ago. He turned 36 on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the cherished dream of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will be 41 in October, of playing for Sweden at World Cups 20 years apart, faded on Tuesday night, Poland defeating the Swedes in their play-off for a single ticket.
There will be no Mohamed Salah or Riyad Mahrez in Qatar, thanks to the cliffhanger endings to Egypt and Algeria’s play-offs. This season's most in-form striker in elite club football, Barcelona’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, must, at 33, begin to fear he may never appear at his sport’s biggest event. He has scored more goals for Gabon than any player in history but never enough to have qualified his country for a first-ever World Cup.
Erling Braut Haaland, perhaps the most coveted goalscorer in the game, will not be involved either this winter, his Norway having failed to reach even the play-offs.
But Haaland, only 21, has plenty more chances ahead of him, especially as future World Cups, from 2026, will start with 48, rather than 32 nations, competing. Until then he and the others who are hurting that the great festival will go ahead without them, can reconcile themselves with the knowledge that their combined talents would make up a formidable Absentees XI.
It would be strong enough to give the likes of Brazil, France, Argentina, Spain or England a tough game, and it would be a side with enough firepower to grace a World Cup final.
Here’s how it might look: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy/PSG); Juan Cuadrado (Colombia/Juventus), Leo Bonucci (Italy/Juventus), Stefan Savic (Montenegro/Atletico Madrid), David Alaba (Austria/Real Madrid); Marco Verratti (Italy/PSG), Franck Kessie (Ivory Coast/AC Milan); Riyad Mahrez (Algeria/Manchester City); Mohamed Salah (Egypt/Liverpool), Erling Haaland (Norway/Borussia Dortmund), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon/Barcelona)