Was Qatar’s World Cup ‘the best’?

That’s what FIFA’s president says. The truth is that the football showpiece had many unforgettable moments, great as well as divisive,

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 20 Dec 2022,
Argentina s Lionel Messi lifts the trophy after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Argentina won 4-2 in a penalty shootout after the match ended tied 3-3. Photo: AP

It almost never fails. It almost always happens.

At the end of almost every World Cup, the president of FIFA, whoever he is at the time, proclaims the football pièce de résistance “the best ever”.

The same with the Olympics. “The best ever,” its head announces at its conclusion.

FIFA supremo Gianni Infantino did not break with tradition when hailing the recently concluded World Cup in Qatar. “The best World Cup ever,” he predictably cooed in a press conference.

“The best” is often what you hear from Donald Trump in his limited superlative vocabulary. In this instance, it is the claim made by the presidents of the two most famous sports tournaments in the world. But by what metrics? The best played, the biggest, the most expensive, the most watched?

As evidence, Infantino provided statistics supporting the latter. Attendance at the World Cup in Qatar was the third highest in the tournament’s history, with more than 3.1 million people attending the matches between 20 November and 18 December. That’s behind only the 1994 US World Cup that witnessed 3,568,567 spectators and Brazil 2014 with 3,441,450.

TV viewing figures approached five billion, 62 per cent of the world’s population.

Infantino did not talk about goals but he should have. 2022 was the highest-scoring World Cup with 172 goals in all, ahead of the 171 goals at the 1998 and 2014 tournaments.

Most of those goals in Qatar will fade from memory but there were a few standouts: the most acrobatic goal of the tournament scored by Brazil’s Richarlison against Serbia; Holland’s Wout Weghorst's ridiculously sneaky free-kick equaliser in the 11th minute of injury time against Argentina in the quarter-final; and the over 25-metre wonder strike against Saudi Arabia by Luis Chavez of Mexico in a tournament that had very few long-range goals and not many from free-kicks either.

Apart from these highlight reels, football in Qatar was played mostly sideways. Team defenders would pass endlessly from right to left, left to right, return back, only to start all over again before trying to spot a free winger who would deposit a cross, on the ground or in the air, in front of goal and hope for the best. At times more than 30 passes were needed just to reach the mid-field line.

There was very little electrifying dribbling, very few exquisite passes (Lionel Messi’s no-look pass against Holland the exception) as booming shots on goal from afar became virtually extinct.

Such is the nature of football these days and for many years prior. Physicality, supreme fitness and mundane, predictable teamwork have long replaced the silky skills of the long-since retired “beautiful game”.

The Qatar World Cup, the first in an Arab country, was not the first of its kind talent-wise. With legends (legends don’t need full names) Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Kempes, Rossi, Socrates, Maradona, Romario, Zidane, and the Brazilian Ronaldo, there must be at least half a dozen previous tournaments that were superior, especially when there were only 24 countries, and 16 participants before that, before the diluted increase to 32 teams.

However, in Qatar, the world saw what was probably the best final in the cup’s storied history. This most thrilling of end-games finished 3-3 between Argentina and France – the French rising from the dead twice – through extra time, with Messi scoring twice and Kylian Mbappé completing a hat trick, the first since Geoffrey Hurst’s in 1966.

Sunday’s spectacular had the full range of ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ and is why people go into cardiac arrest or experience zooming blood pressure.

At 35, Messi was the story of what is likely his last World Cup. He won the trophy as the tournament’s MVP and more importantly, finally garnered the one piece of silverware that was missing and that put him in the pantheon of all-time greats, making for him the strong case that he is, in fact, the greatest of all time.

After the 4-2 shootout had settled, Mbappé was the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals, plus being anointed soccer’s next superstar, the natural heir to the aging Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who left the quarter-finals against Morocco in defeat and tears. At 37, this was Ronaldo’s last stab at the trophy he never could put his hands on in his illustrious career.

Infantino’s press conference was given before the final. Had he waited a day or two longer, he would have definitely have called the epic “the best” but this time, he would not have been challenged. Who could argue?

Infantino produced some more evidence of success: As a sign of equality, no team in Qatar won all their games and, for the first time, teams from all five continents moved to the knockout phase. There were also “some surprises”, the greatest by far being the fairytale run of Morocco, the first African and Arab country to reach the semi-finals, before they just could not go any farther against Croatia. That game for third place, always deemed meaningless in past editions, took on high significance because of Morocco vying for it.

Second-tier upsets were Saudi Arabia stunning the eventual champions Argentina, European heavyweights Germany and Belgium failing to proceed past the group stage, hot favourites Brazil, with Neymar and their Rio carnival teammates stopped in their tracks against Croatia in the way-too-early quarter-finals, and Spain unable to score a single goal from their penalty shootout against Morocco in the round of 16.

Qatar’s three losses in the group stage might not have surprised many; they are not particularly visible on football’s world map. But if the final in Qatar was the best of all time, the opener (Ecuador 2 Qatar 0) was the worst of all time.

One would have thought that since Qatar shelled out $200 billion for their World Cup, they would have found some loose change to build a decent team. They had 12 years to do it, ever since they won the bid in 2010.

Infantino pointed out that, for the first time, a woman in Stephanie Frappart of France, refereed a match at the World Cup “and she did very well”.

There were three more firsts in Qatar. The most yellow cards in one World Cup game, 18, and one red for good measure, between Argentina and Holland.

England's World Cup opener with Iran saw an astonishing 27 minutes of stoppage time added across both halves, the longest World Cup game in regulation time. It set a trend of extra time - a lot of it - for the rest of the World Cup and will surely do so in all country and club matches henceforth.

This was also the first World Cup played in winter because of Qatar’s scorching summer heat. Infantino said playing in November and December instead of the traditional June and July made the players fresher when they would normally be drained after the end of exhausting seasons.
The disruption caused by staging the World Cup during the European league season had long been a point of contention, and the true impact of a midseason World Cup remains to be seen.

Infantino concluded with a positive take: “If there is one thing this World Cup has shown us it is that when people come together around football it is extremely joyful.”

Before the football in Qatar began there was no joy; a lot of controversy, though: from accusations that the Qatar bid was bought, to the deaths, mainly from heat exhaustion, and living conditions of migrants who built the futuristic stadiums, hotels, highways and metros for the mega-extravaganza, to the rights of the LGBTQ community, to the last-minute decision to ban alcohol in the stadiums.

None of the past 21 World Cups in the tournament’s 92-year history ever had so many contentious issues to deal with at once. It’s a wonder the tournament started at all in the midst of such a combative build-up.

The beginning of the matches deflected attention from Qatar’s off-field woes, however, there were so many political overtones that this World Cup once and for all buried in Fantasy Island the notion that politics and sports should never mix. In Qatar, they met repeatedly, usually head-on. And they will collide in the future.

Captains of seven European nations had planned to wear multi-coloured One Love armbands to promote inclusion and diversity. But they ultimately backed down when FIFA threatened to issue yellow cards to the players involved, saying it was a contravention of its regulations.

Germany’s players covered their mouths before their World Cup opener against Japan "to convey the message that FIFA is silencing" teams.

Iran’s footballers did not sing their national anthem in their opener to protest the demonstrations back home.

In the middle stood Qatar. Under international scrutiny it enacted a raft of migrant reforms and adopted a minimum monthly wage of $275 a month, changes praised by the UN as well as rights groups.

It also established its own fund in 2018 to compensate workers who are injured on the job or who are not paid, doling out some $320 million this year alone. Just as important, it promised to maintain migrant rights long after the stadiums empty.

But it couldn’t do much about the issue of gays and alcohol, both forbidden in Islam. In truth, Qatar did have an alcohol policy but it was all over the place. In the World Cup alcohol was served in the VIP section at stadiums and in designated fan parks. For years, it has allowed alcohol in five-star hotel bars.

Nothing untoward was reported against same-sex couples or supporters in Qatar, but, like alcohol, the state’s position was wishy-washy. The rules did not apply to one and all over rainbow colours worn by fans. Some with the apparel entered the stadiums; security stopped others.

The armband ban for players was the idea of FIFA and perhaps Qatar. The gesture was an affront to the host country. It was also a clear breach of FIFA rules which prohibit teams from bringing their own armband designs to the World Cup and insist they must use equipment provided by the governing body.

As anybody will tell you, you give somebody an inch, they’ll take 10 miles. First it will be armbands which break the rules. Then it will be ripped shorts protesting rape. Soon, leopard-skin jerseys protesting the hunting of wildlife?

The sky’s the limit.

This could be the way all other future World Cups and Olympics will be affected. They are the two biggest sports platforms on earth, and have a world stage seen and heard by billions. Anybody with a megaphone or microphone who has a cause, a message, a gripe, can get immense exposure in these two sporting goliaths not enjoyed in any other world forum.  

It’s now onto the 2026 World Cup, the first to be staged by three countries - the US, Canada and Mexico - and the first to have a whopping 48 teams, though the number of groups and how many countries in each is still being debated by FIFA.

“The best World Cup ever?” How would Infantino know? Every one of the zillion times he was shown on TV at a game, he was looking down at his mobile phone.

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