As winter starts to bite here in the UK, it’s fabulously bizarre to be discussing potential World Cup starting XIs and reading match reports from the tropics of Qatar.
To me, staging a World Cup at this time of year is akin to hosting the Wimbledon championships in February- somewhat disconcerting, and utterly surreal. The idea of an international captain lifting the Jules Rimet trophy seven days before Christmas feels like a ripping up of sporting heritage, but money talks, after all.
Although I don’t like the feeling because international football has always meant a great deal to me, I've never felt more detached from or disinterested in a major football tournament as I do Qatar 2022.
France 1998 was a classic and still my favourite ever World Cup, and tournaments such as Euro 2000, Japan/South Korea 2002, and the 2018 World Cup all left some wonderful memories behind.
As for this one? It feels synthetic, soulless and a poor fit all around.
Set against a backdrop of harrowing human rights issues and murky geopolitical wrangling, it’s impossible to separate the sporting action from the wider picture, despite countless attempts by the authorities to do so.
With that in mind, there’s something to look forward to for Sunderland supporters as we gear up for this Saturday’s visit of Millwall to the Stadium of Light- the first game of what will doubtless be a challenging festive schedule for the Lads.
Personally speaking, I genuinely can’t wait to get back to the stadium and immerse myself in the matchday experience again. It feels like an age since we descended on our home, and I’ve missed it.
After three weeks without a Sunderland game to get excited by, and having gone into the break on a real high after beating Birmingham, optimism should grow as the week unfolds.
Granted, from a red and white perspective, the only real talking point of recent days came in the form of a farcical ‘friendly’ against Al-Shabab, a game that should’ve never been played, but perhaps the low-key nature of things has allowed the squad and the staff to go about their business quietly - the results of which we’ll hopefully see in the games to come.
Prior to the pause in league action, Tony Mowbray spoke about the Dubai trip as a chance for the team to continue to build, to improve their patterns of play and for the players to strengthen their bond.
Since he arrived, the schedule has been fairly remorseless and genuine downtime scarce, which has resulted in some haphazard performances and little in the way of consistency as the players have adjusted to the Championship.
If there’s been a regular criticism of the head coach, it’s been in the form of his supposed ‘lack of a plan-B’, and although this might’ve been true in certain instances- Burnley and Cardiff at home, for example, he acknowledged mistakes in those games and tried to make amends in subsequent matches.
Also, when you can call on a player like Amad, who can score the kind of goal he did at St Andrews, plan B could be shorthand for ‘bit of magic’. The on-loan Manchester United attacker was really shining before the hiatus, and hopefully he’ll pick up where he left off when we resume our league campaign.
This break will have given Mowbray a proper chance to assess the squad, and with any luck, the injury crisis that forced him into all kinds of reshuffles has now eased. If we can’t field a fully-fit squad on Saturday, we shouldn’t be far off, and when you consider the names on that list, it’s exciting.
Aji Alese was able to get some minutes under his belt last week, Trai Hume and Niall Huggins are sure to have benefited from the break, and the talismanic Ross Stewart is slowly but surely edging towards the return that we all crave.
We all know how intense, congested and challenging the Christmas schedule is, but the players should be refreshed and reinvigorated after recent weeks, and starting this Saturday, they need to grab the opportunity and kick off December with a positive result.
For those of us who feel coldly indifferent towards the World Cup, the waiting is almost over, and in front of the Sky cameras this Saturday, there’ll be a stellar crowd and a positive atmosphere. Qatar might be a shiny and modern edifice, but for genuine passion, the Stadium of Light is the only place for me this weekend.