Didier Deschamps vowed the show must go on for France after the latest crushing blow to their World Cup hopes saw Karim Benzema ruled out of the tournament.

Pain in the quadriceps of his left thigh – a femoral rectus injury to be exact – means Real Madrid's Ballon d'Or winner will play no part in the Qatar 2022 finals.

Benzema, who missed Les Bleus' triumph at Russia 2018 while out of favour amid an ongoing blackmail investigation, was hoping to play a big part in the trophy defence this time.

He was battling to prove his fitness after recent injury strife with Madrid, and Saturday's training session was his first full on-pitch activity with the France squad of this camp.

The 34-year-old could not make it through unscathed though, pulling out after feeling discomfort. He had been bothered by muscular fatigue in the left quadriceps while with his club, and this may be a recurrence of that problem.

Benzema underwent an MRI at a Doha hospital, the French Football Federation said, and he faces three weeks of recovery. He has been withdrawn from France's squad, with Deschamps able to call in a replacement.

Deschamps said: "I'm extremely sorry for Karim who had made this World Cup a major objective."

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also going up against Denmark and Tunisia in Group D.

Deschamps has Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as outstanding forward options, but the loss of Benzema is nevertheless a significant blow. It follows France also losing RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku this week due to knee ligament damage sustained in training.

They are also without star midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante because of injury, and must be wondering what the coming weeks have in store for them.

Deschamps is determined to strike a positive note, saying: "Despite this new blow, I have every confidence in my squad. We are going to do everything to meet the immense challenge that awaits us."

Karim Benzema will miss the World Cup after the France striker suffered an injury blow on the eve of the tournament.

The Real Madrid captain, who missed Les Bleus' triumph at Russia 2018 while out of favour amid an ongoing blackmail investigation, was set to play a big part this time for Didier Deschamps' team.

Benzema won the Ballon d'Or last month after a spectacular 2021-22 season that saw him score 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid, helping the Spanish giants win LaLiga and the Champions League.

However, he has been troubled by physical setbacks this term and the most untimely and crushing of all blows for the 34-year-old came on the day before Qatar 2022 was set to get under way.

Benzema only resumed full training with France on Saturday, after recent muscle trouble, but he could not complete the squad session due to injury.

He underwent tests that produced results ruling him out of the tournament.

The French Football Federation said in a statement: "Karim Benzema has pulled out of the World Cup with a thigh injury. The whole team shares Karim's disappointment and wishes him a speedy recovery."

The former Lyon frontman was troubled by a knee blow earlier this season before missing further fixtures for Madrid after suffering from muscular fatigue in his left quadriceps, with Saturday's blow seemingly a recurrence of that.

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also tackling Denmark and Tunisia in Group D on November 26 and 30 respectively.

Benzema's absence from the tournament is the latest in a line of major setbacks for France, even though coach Deschamps also has the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as forward options.

RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku was forced to pull out of the squad this week after suffering knee ligament damage in a training collision with Eduardo Camavinga.

They also lost star midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, who would have been central to Deschamps' plans.

 

 

 

  

Former Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Kelvin Jack believes modern football superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo must win at least one World Cup to be considered the greatest of all time.

Over the last decade, the Argentinean and Portuguese superstars have been the standard by which players have been measured.  At the club level, both have racked up unprecedented accomplishments.

The duo is mostly at the top of the list for titles, scoring records, Ballon d'Ors, and various other metrics of success.  Internationally, however, their records, as it relates to trophies anyway, are less impressive.

On one hand, both have managed to lead their countries to continental cups, with Ronaldo and Portugal winning the Euro Championship in 2016 and Messi winning the Copa America with Argentina last year.

The World Cup, international football’s biggest prize, however, remains conspicuously missing on the decorated mantlepieces of both players after four tournaments. 

Having dominated their peers, and the current era, the absence of the coveted FIFA World Cup Trophy remains the only question mark in any comparisons between themselves and the men most consistently mentioned in the greatest of all-time conversations, Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pele.

“If you want to compare Messi and Ronaldo to the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona, I believe you have to win a World Cup,” Jack told SportsMax.Tv’s IncaseYouMissedIt.

“Messi, make no mistake, this is a special player.  This is a player that has reached a level we probably have not seen before in football, but you cannot disregard the brilliance of Maradona and what he did in 1986,” he added.

“Fortunately, I’ve been able to see the career of Maradona and witnessing Lionel Messi’s career and witnessing Cristiano Ronaldo’s career but you have to win the World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo has of course won the European Championship, Messi has won the Copa America but that last step to winning the World Cup is what would possibly cement his place as the best ever.”

With Messi being 35 and Ronaldo 37, the tournament in Qatar is expected to be the final chance for both players.

Karim Benzema has suffered an apparent injury setback on the eve of the Qatar World Cup, French media reported on Saturday.

The Ballon d'Or winner and Real Madrid superstar only resumed full training with Les Bleus this weekend but could not complete the session with Didier Deschamps' team.

L'Equipe and RMC Sport reported Benzema was forced out by injury, with no initial indication of how serious the problem might be.

Benzema was troubled by a knee injury earlier this season before missing further fixtures for Madrid after suffering from muscular fatigue in his left quadriceps.

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also tackling Denmark and Tunisia in Group D on November 26 and 30 respectively.

Benzema's absence from the tournament, should it come to that, would be a major blow to France, even though coach Deschamps also has the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as forward options.

RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku was forced to pull out of the squad this week after suffering knee ligament damage in a training collision with Eduardo Camavinga.

United States head coach Gregg Berhalter is confident his side can defeat anyone on their day, as they prepare to commence their World Cup campaign against Wales.

Having failed to qualify for the tournament in Russia four years ago, the US side head to Qatar with the intent to make an impact ahead of co-hosting the tournament alongside Canada and Mexico in 2026.

Eight years ago in Brazil, Berhalter's predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann made it clear the USMNT could not win the tournament which, although a realistic assessment, was seen to be a defeatist mentality in the eyes of many.

Berhalter is not looking to rock the boat fully by declaring his side can go all the way, though he does fancy their chances against any opposition.

"What I do believe is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone," he told ESPN.

"Look, it is a great honour to play in the World Cup, but we don't want to just be participants. We want to perform.

"We think the first step is getting out of the group. And the second step is, in the knockout games, playing our best possible game and seeing how far we can go."

 

Midfielder Weston McKennie is keen to take it one match at a time, starting with Monday's opener against Wales.

"As a team, as a group, we always want to just focus game by game. So of course with Wales being the first one, there's no way that we're going to look past them or anything because we know they're a strong team.

"We know that it's going to be a hard game. But we definitely want to win the first game, to come out with three points.

"[It's been] just three, four years of just working up to this moment. I think all the guys are ready to go, and the staff are ready to go and put a game plan together. So hopeful we execute that."

The United States also face England and Iran in Group B, as they look to continue their consistent record at the World Cup – only failing to advance from the group stages in four of their nine involvements.

Belgium defender Timothy Castagne is confident Red Devils supporters will soon start to see Eden Hazard rekindle his best form.

The former Chelsea winger has endured a dismal, injury-hit three years since joining LaLiga giants Real Madrid.

Set to turn 32 in January, Hazard has managed only two goals and one assist in 15 games for Madrid in 2022, starting a mere four times and playing just 532 minutes in the first team. 

Now Hazard, who has a little over 18 months left on his contract, has a big chance to show what he can do on a different stage as he prepares to play a part for Belgium at the World Cup in Qatar.

Leicester City full-back Castagne says his team-mate will need time to get back to speed, but once he is there is no reason he cannot produce his best football again.

"Belgians would like to see again the Eden from a few years ago," he said at a news conference on Saturday.

"As players, we see during training he's still here. But we know very well that coming back without playing much is not easy.

"He needs some time and I think the 60 minutes he played [against Egypt on Friday] will be very good for him.

"And then he'll try to improve during the tournament. It won't happen immediately – he won't be incredible during the first game, but step by step, he can grow and improve."

Belgium start their campaign against Canada on Wednesday, before taking on Morocco and Croatia in Group F. 

Emile Smith Rowe says it is "annoying" to have played such a small part in Arsenal's record start to a Premier League season, but he is hopeful of returning for their next match.

The 22-year-old underwent surgery on a persistent groin injury in September and was ruled out until after the World Cup break.

Smith Rowe featured in 33 of Arsenal's 38 Premier League games last season – only three outfield players featured more regularly – but he has played just 48 minutes this term.

Arsenal are top of the division with their highest ever points tally (37) after 14 games, five points more than Manchester City, and Smith Rowe is eager to get back playing.

The three-cap England international attended Saturday's qualifying session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and provided an update on his rehabilitation.

"It's going really well at the moment," he told Sky Sports. "I'm really happy for the team but sometimes it's annoying when I can't feel like I’m involved, I can't be on the pitch. 

"It's amazing to see them doing so well and I can't wait to get back. Hopefully I'll be back by the first game after the World Cup. 

"I'm actually out here [in Saudi Arabia] doing rehab. Today was my day off and I'm back training tomorrow. I'm back on the pitch and stuff so it's going well."

Arsenal's first match after the five-week break is a home clash against West Ham on December 26, which is just eight days after the World Cup final.

Smith Rowe would have been in contention for a place in England's squad for Qatar if not for his injury issues this season, but he is supporting his team-mates from afar.

"I'm really confident in the team. Obviously we missed out at the last minute in the last big tournament (Euro 2020)," he said.

"I believe the boys are going to bring it home this time. The squad is really strong and it's looking good."

History will be made when hosts Qatar get the World Cup under way with a clash against Ecuador and head coach Felix Sanchez says "you never know what can happen".

Al Bayt Stadium will be the venue for the opening match of the tournament on Sunday and Qatar's first World Cup game.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup champions are not expected to qualify from Group A, which also includes Netherlands and Senegal.

Sanchez is realistic over the host nation's prospects but is relishing the challenge of trying to defy expectations.

The Spaniard said: "Obviously, I'm not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup, but competing at a good level against those three teams is our challenge.

"Then this is football, and you never know what can happen."

Ecuador are 44th in the world rankings, only six places higher than Qatar as they prepare to lock horns in Al Khor.

Defender Byron Castillo was a late omission from Gustavo Alfaro's squad due to a dispute over his nationality this week.

Alfaro knows his Ecuador side are not well fancied to make their presence felt but expects them to make life difficult for their group rivals.

He said: "The World Cup is totally different from what the qualifiers are. If we are going to play the way we played the qualifiers, most likely we won't have a chance, because we are going to play against the Asian champions, against the African champions and against the Netherlands, who are in the final four in Europe. 

"They are teams that are superior to what we are, for a reason we were in pot number four in the draw, if we had been the best we would have been in pot one or two. We have to be make things difficult, we have to be the pebble in their shoe."

If history is anything to go by, there should be entertainment on Sunday, as the past four opening World Cup games have produced 17 goals at an average of 4.25 per match.

Al Bayt Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for Qatar, as they have won their three previous matches at the venue with an aggregate score of 9-0.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Qatar – Almoez Ali 

Striker Ali was the leading scorer when Qatar were crowned the champions of Asia three years ago, scoring nine goals in seven games.

That impressive tally was achieved from only 10 shots on target and was a record for a single edition of the tournament. Qatar will need him to be clinical on the biggest stage of all on home soil.

Ecuador - Pervis Estupinan 

Left-back Estupinan can make an impact at both ends of the field for Ecuador.

The Brighton and Hove Albion full-back created 22 chances during a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, more than any other defender.

 

PREDICTION

Ecuador are fancied to spoil the party and get off to a winning start. 

According to Stats Perform’s AI model, Alfaro's men have a 41.4 per cent chance of securing all three points, with the draw rated at 29 per cent.

Qatar have a 29.6 per cent chance of coming out on top, according to the model, in what looks like being their best opportunity to register a historic victory.

Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro says the absent Byron Castillo "will be with us" in an emotional sense after a controversial nationality dispute led to the defender not going to the World Cup.

Castillo was the subject of a complaint made by Chile in May, with the Chilean Football Federation alleging he was born in Colombia rather than Ecuador.

The case initially put Ecuador's World Cup qualification in doubt until the FIFA investigation was closed in June, and FIFA's Appeal Committee confirmed no further action was being taken three months later.

Chile appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who acknowledged Castillo's birthplace as being in Colombia, but the claim was dismissed on the basis of Ecuador legally recognising the player as Ecuadorian.

Nevertheless, Ecuador were still hit with a three-point deduction for the next World Cup qualification campaign for using a "document containing false information", and Alfaro was made to leave Castillo out of his squad for the World Cup as the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) wanted to avoid "further unfair sanctions".

Speaking ahead of Sunday's clash with host nation Qatar, the opening game of the 2022 World Cup, Alfaro said: "I gave my opinion. He should be here, that's my opinion.

"I expressed my opinion about the CAS decision. I'm head coach, not a lawyer, I expressed an opinion, I talked to lawyers.

"I respect the decisions [of the Federation]. Byron should be here, but I respect the decision. We'll wait to see if they clarify why the three points [deduction] in the next qualifying stage, but the World Cup started in October. If he's ineligible for the World Cup, then he was [ineligible] for [October]. Ecuador is always facing hardship.

"We didn't cap him while the investigation was open. But after two sentences that said Byron was Ecuadorian, we did cap him.

"If you had only seen the pain Byron has had to endure…the love from the squad to Byron, he's now our symbol, and he'll be with us on the pitch even if he's not with us [physically]."

While there was undoubted sadness in Alfaro's voice as he discussed Castillo's situation, he otherwise spoke with great pride on Saturday as Ecuador prepare to take part in the World Cup's opening act.

He allowed himself a moment to reflect on his own history and the World Cup exploits of his Argentinian compatriots in the past, specifically Carlos Bilardo and Cesar Luis Menotti, winners in 1986 and 1978 respectively.

"First of all, as an Argentinian national, a coach, it fills us with pride [to work at a World Cup]," he continued. "In Argentina, the coaches all make a great effort to be professionals and reach this level, especially coaches like me who've had to work from the bottom up.

"I coached in the lower divisions and have a broad experience with different teams. Now this is my first national team [job] and World Cup. Looking back, there are so many famous Argentinian coaches who acted as beacons.

"Myself, Lionel [Scaloni, Argentina coach], Tata Martino [Mexico coach], we want to continue that legacy. It's up to us to represent Argentinian coaches now.

"Many have been in this position before. It's a great privilege for me to be part of that exclusive list of coaches at a World Cup, but on the other hand there aren't that many of us who've been able to coach our team in the opening game.

"Today, I feel very proud to come from Rafaela, to have been part of regional football in Argentina, and also the top division.

"I dreamed of being a coach there when everything felt so hard. I overcame many challenges and hurdles.

"I was told I wasn't good enough, wasn't up to the expectations, but when we dream we are able to achieve, I now have the privilege of being here talking to you."

FIFA president Gianni Infantino slammed coverage of so-called "fake fans" as "pure racism" during his remarkable pre-World Cup address.

Infantino gave a lengthy speech on the eve of Qatar 2022, commenting on a vast range of the controversial subjects that have dominated the tournament's build-up.

One of the topics highlighted was the coverage of fans in Qatar over the past week, with teams beginning to arrive in the country.

Social media has been awash with suggestions that many of the fans pictured in parades and congregating at team bases have not been the same nationality as the team they appear to be celebrating – or, "fake", to some.

It emerged a group celebrating the England team's arrival were Indian, and Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy called the scepticism of their passion "disappointing and unsurprising".

Infantino went a step further.

"Help, don't divide. Try to unite. The world is divided enough," he told reporters. "We are organising a World Cup, not a war. Where anyone can come and enjoy. Look at the city – it's beautiful, it's happy, they celebrate.

"They went to see the teams, and what happened when they did – 'well they don't look like English, they look like Indians!'. 

"Can someone who looks Indian not cheer for England? Or Spain or Germany? You know what this is – it's racism, pure racism. Everyone in this world has a right to cheer for who they want."

The promotion of 'togetherness' was a common motif throughout Infantino's press conference, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

He brought it up again when asked about the validity of Iran taking part in the World Cup despite a backdrop of women's oppression in the country.

Women cannot attend football matches in Iran, and widespread demonstrations in the country were recently sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody two months ago after being arrested for not wearing a hijab properly.

It was highlighted to Infantino that FIFA's own statutes say discrimination of any kind is banned, including gender discrimination, but Infantino defended Iran's inclusion in the tournament.

Asked why England should have to face a country with such ideologies, Infantino said: "Because it's not two regimes playing each other, not two ideologies, it's two football teams. It's football. If we don't have football to bring us together… You want another World War? Okay, go ahead, without me. We have to bring people together.

"If we could go with a tournament in Iran, let's go because maybe that will change something. Of course we'd need certain guarantees, but together we can play in a tournament. In Iran there are 80 million people living.

"Do you think they are all bad? All monsters? I don't think so. How many people live in England? Are they all good?

"Do we have to exclude everyone because not everyone is good or says the right thing? We'll fight and fight to bring people together, and the more we can do that, the better it will be because no one else is doing that."

Brazilian players Rodrygo and Marquinhos have warned their teammates about the dangers of buying into their own hype, saying nothing good can come from expecting to win as favourites.

Boasting one of the strongest teams on paper, Brazil's squad includes world-class centerpieces such as Neymar and Vinicius Junior, and they have made two Copa America finals since the 2018 World Cup, winning in 2019 and falling 1-0 to Argentina in 2021.

They will also play in Group G, where they will be joined by Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland in three matchups Brazil will be heavily favoured in.

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Real Madrid's Rodrygo said while he understands the pressure on his side to perform in Qatar, he would prefer to let their play do the talking.

"We know that we have a great national team, that we are among the favourites," he said. "But there are also other very good teams as well.

"It's no use saying we are favourites and then arriving on the pitch and not showing it. We know that everyone was in good form with their clubs and that's why they're here – many good players were left out."

Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Marquinhos agreed, saying they will need to play hungry to fulfill their potential.

"If we think we are favourites, that we are the best, we will not go forward," he said. "We've seen how things are in this competition, which is very difficult. 

"All the teams are ready and very balanced, they can make life difficult. That's the [World] Cup. 

"It's no use coming here and talking about the future. We have to get through the [group stage] first. It will be three very difficult games."

Brazil kick off their campaign on Thursday, November 24 against Serbia.

Lionel Scaloni will consider making changes to Argentina's squad ahead of their World Cup campaign getting under way should players not prove their fitness.

Argentina head coach Scaloni named his 26-man travelling part for Qatar 2022 on Sunday ahead of his side's opening Group C fixture against Saudi Arabia on November 22.

Paulo Dybala made the cut after recently returning from injury for club side Roma, though he played no part in Wednesday's 5-0 win over the United Arab Emirates.

Teams can make injury-enforced changes to their squad from a list of 55 players previously submitted until the day before their opening game, something Scaloni is open to.

"We have some little problems and still have some days to decide the list," he told TyC Sports. "We can make changes, hopefully not, but there is the possibility. 

"There are several players who today have been left out of the side because they were either not fit to play or there was a risk of injury.

"I can't guarantee that these players are fine. In principle, they are, but you have to be cautious. That's why we have been careful with the minutes."

Argentina had no trouble extending their unbeaten run to 36 matches with their five-star showing against the UAE, with Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi playing big parts.

Di Maria scored twice and assisted one for Messi, who had earlier played in Julian Alvarez for the opener, before substitute Joaquin Correa added a fifth in the second period.

"We played with a World Cup mentality today," said midfielder Rodrigo de Paul. "I think this was a good test but we played well and also kept a clean sheet.

"If we want our opening [World Cup] match to go well, we have to arrive with this same mentality. We expressed ourselves well and continually want to improve."

Reigning South American champions Argentina follow up their opener against Saudi Arabia with game against Mexico and Poland.

Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria played starring roles as Argentina eased to a 5-0 win over the United Arab Emirates in their final outing ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Lionel Scaloni's men had no trouble in extending their unbeaten run to 36 matches heading into the tournament thanks to a commanding victory in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

Di Maria scored twice and assisted one for Messi, who had earlier played in Julian Alvarez for the opener, as Argentina raced into a four-goal half-time lead.

Substitute Joaquin Correa scored the only goal of a disrupted second half as the reigning South American champions signed off for Qatar in style.

Messi was played clean through on goal but unselfishly squared for Alvarez to squeeze past Khalid Eisa as Argentina made their early dominance count with 17 minutes played.

Di Maria opened his account with a crisp volley that went in off the far post and then showed brilliant footwork to get away from his man, round the goalkeeper and add his second.

The UAE, who finished behind Iran and South Korea in qualifying to miss out on a place in Qatar, were further behind before half-time when Messi fired past Eisa after being played in by Di Maria.

Despite making four changes at the break, with Di Maria making way, Argentina continued to dominate and Correa slotted home a fifth on the hour despite being under pressure.

Caio Canedo went closest to pulling one back for the UAE with a shot that was cleared off the line late on, but La Albiceleste saw out a fifth clean sheet in a row.

Ecuador have left Byron Castillo out of their World Cup squad to avoid "unfair sanctions", despite the defender being cleared to play by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Castillo was the subject of a long-running dispute after Chile and Peru complained to FIFA that he was ineligible to play for Ecuador in their successful qualifying campaign.

The Federacion de Futbol de Chile provided proof that Castillo was born in Colombia and not Ecuador, as stated on his official documents.

FIFA dismissed all charges in June and again in September when the fresh evidence came to light, but Chile and Peru took the case to CAS with a further appeal.

However, this month's hearing adjudged "no violation of the rules on eligibility has occurred", leaving Ecuador and Castillo free to compete in Qatar.

But Ecuador, who face host nation Qatar in the opening game of the tournament on Sunday, did not include Castillo in their 26-man squad on Tuesday.

The Ecuadorian Football Federation said in a statement: "The process we've had to endure has not been easy to navigate, much less for the player, who is part of our family.

"In order to avoid further unfair sanctions, the Ecuadorian Football Federation feels obligated to not include Byron Castillo Segura in the final list that was submitted to FIFA."

Castillo appeared eight times in qualifying for Ecuador, who finished in the fourth and final automatic qualification spot.

Peru finished fifth and were beaten 5-4 on penalties by Australia following a goalless draw in the intercontinental play-offs, while seventh-placed Chile missed out entirely.

Ecuador follow up their curtain-raising showdown against Qatar with games against the Netherlands and Senegal in Group A.

Gareth Bale is "100 per cent fit and ready to go" for Wales at the World Cup in Qatar after battling injury issues.

The former Real Madrid winger's fitness had been a concern before Robert Page named his 26-man squad for Wales' first appearance at the World Cup in 64 years.

Bale has only started twice for Los Angeles FC since joining from Madrid in July, managing just 370 minutes on the pitch.

However, he scored an extra-time equaliser as a substitute against Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup final, which LAFC won on penalties on November 5.

Bale initially gave Wales reason to be concerned after the final as he said he felt "not 100 per cent fit", but has since backtracked on those comments before travelling to the Middle East.

"I'm 100 per cent fit and ready to go," the Wales international told Sky Sports after revealing his struggles with a "slight issue".

Bale suggested playing the United States, England and Iran in Group B in the space of nine days would be "no problem", with the mental aspects of being sidelined more of a problem than the physical side.

"I'm fully fit and ready to go. If I need to play three 90s, I'll play three 90s," he added. "It's been difficult, mentally more than anything.

"I guess for everybody, the last three or four weeks, it's been difficult, even hearing stories of players going down and knowing they're going to miss the World Cup.

"Speaking to a few of the boys, even for them having to play this weekend was tough mentally, and we're just praying not to have an injury at all because it's such a big occasion."

The tournament has been somewhat overshadowed due to human rights issues in Qatar.

Bale will be among eight captains to wear a distinctive heart-adorned armband, raising awareness for the OneLove campaign against discrimination in a country where same-sex marriage is prohibited.

"For us as footballers, it's been a difficult subject to talk about," said Bale. "But we can shed a light on the problems there that are going on.

"We've spoken to the FAW [Football Association of Wales] and they've been speaking to Welsh government, who've been speaking to Qatar and FIFA, working on these issues.

"For us as players, we're fully behind and support everything we can do. As footballers, the most we can do is raise awareness and it's for people higher up to make those decisions, and hopefully make change for the better."

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