You do not need to be a clairvoyant to know already who has won the World Cup final played between France and Argentina early this evening at an opulent, gilded graveyard for migrant workers called the Lusail Stadium. Here’s a clue: it isn’t France or Argentina.
The 2022 World Cup has been won by a nation whose fans walked out en masse at half-time of their first match, against Ecuador, when they were 2-0 down.
Even the fake supporters who had been flown in from Lebanon in order to give the appearance the hosts were passionate about football? Yes, most of them left, too.
Ex-FIFA President Sepp Blatter (R) with Qatar’s former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani
FIFA’s Gianni Infantino claimed that this year’s tournament has been ‘The Best World Cup Ever’
However, behind the glitz and glamour remains a much more serious note on the World Cup
The 2022 World Cup has been won by a nation whose team went out in the first round of the tournament without winning a game or earning a point.
It was won by a country whose Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy used the competition as a supremely effective exercise in nation-building, sports washing and the wielding of soft power to extend its influence in its region.
So forget France and Argentina; Qatar won this World Cup and it won it hands down. Qatar didn’t just win a tournament. It won football. And now it is drawing the dividends. It even got its dream final. Both Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi play for PSG, who are owned by Qatar. So as soon as both sides qualified for the final, Qatar knew they could not lose. They had all the bases covered. Their triumph was now complete.
No wonder FIFA president Gianni Infantino looked so happy when he appeared at his pre-final press conference in Doha on Friday. He did not say whether he felt gay or disabled, or like a migrant worker, or Qatari or African. Presumably, that’s a kind of lucky dip that he conducts with himself every morning before he puts on his suit and his smile. But he did seem to be feeling quite smug.
FIFA President Infantino has been heavily involved throughout the tournament this year
He called Qatar 2022 ‘The Best World Cup Ever’, prattling away like a five-year-old who has had too much sugar. He said it had made more money than ever before and that there had been better attendances than ever before. Given that reported crowd figures at matches were routinely higher than the capacity of the stadiums, that boast sounded both preposterous and more than a little like a line from The Death of Stalin.
It wasn’t the best World Cup ever. How could a World Cup that was built by modern-day slaves be the best ever? How could a World Cup staged in a country whose repressive laws made a whole swathe of fans scared to attend it be the best World Cup ever? Even on the pitch, it wasn’t the best World Cup ever. Not even close.
It had some compelling moments and uplifting narratives. Messi sustained it with the beauty of his play in the autumn of his magnificent career. Morocco’s journey to the semi-finals represented a significant step forward for the game. But this World Cup did not have the joy or the quality of Mexico 1970 or the drama and the brilliance of Spain 1982. The football was wonderful but it always is. That’s why states like Qatar want to possess football in the first place.
Lionel Messi has been a standout player and has helped entertain throughout the tournament
Winning the right to stage this World Cup 12 years ago was the biggest heist in sporting history. The decision, made by the honourable and upstanding members of FIFA’s executive committee, to award football’s biggest festival to a peninsula in the desert with little football tradition made the organisation a byword for venality and deceit. None of that stopped this being a highly successful tournament for the hosts.
If the Beijing Olympics of 2008 represented the start of the ‘Chinese Century’, the Qatar World Cup was the final confirmation that the fabulously rich, autocratic, repressive theocracies of the Gulf region now rule football. When the Emir of Qatar and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia watched that Qatar-Ecuador game together from the stands, it was seen as the sign of a new entente between their once estranged nations. It is they, more than FIFA, who are calling the shots now.
The game — and sport in general — is being sold off to them in plain sight. And the advances in influence they are securing now are just the start. Sentiment encourages us to dream that the 2030 World Cup will be staged in part in Uruguay to mark the centenary of the tournament. Money and the new realpolitik suggest, strongly, that it will happen in Saudi Arabia instead. FIFA dig hard cash, not tradition.
Control of PSG, Manchester City and Newcastle United, the development of LIV Golf, the proliferation in the region of Formula One races and the regular staging of the biggest heavyweight world title fights, can all be seen as scions of Qatar’s coup. Liverpool and Manchester United, the jewels in the crown of English football, may soon be part of the Gulf’s rapidly expanding sports portfolio, too.
The Emir of Qatar (L), Infantino (middle) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R)
The tournament that began here last month and concludes today was fuelled by Messi pursuing the one great prize that has eluded him, the prize whose absence from his portfolio has always counted against him in the debate about whether he is worthy of standing alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest players of all time.
And when Morocco became the first African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup, defeating former colonial powers such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal along the way, it lent this tournament a great symbolic importance, too. The competition, the first Arab World Cup, became, quite rightly, a beacon of Arab and Muslim pride. Morocco’s feats separated the tournament from the Eurocentricity that so many outside the West resent.
It was the least Eurocentric tournament of recent times. The tone of its atmosphere was set by the spine-tingling passion of fans from Argentina and Morocco and Saudi Arabia. European influence was limited. And when European teams tried to protest against the illiberality of Qatar’s laws, they were put firmly in their place. This was a tournament when the West was told its ideals were out of step.
Morocco’s run to the semi-finals was a sign that football is taking a step in the right direction
The tournament was expertly run by FIFA, as it always is. If you were a straight man, if you abided by all the rules, it was easy to enjoy the football. Because of the proximity of the stadiums, I will have attended 25 matches by Sunday evening, more than I’ve ever been to at a World Cup before. Watching that many matches was a joy. The experiment of holding the World Cup in one urban area has worked well.
There was no crowd trouble — not a single England fan was arrested — and the restricted availability of alcohol meant that the edge of aggression simply was not there. Many visitors seemed unduly impressed at how clean the metro system was and declared the moment they set foot in it that all the criticism of holding the tournament here had been misplaced.
If they were having a good time, if Messi was rolling back the years, if Cristiano Ronaldo was treating us to a one-man soap opera, if Jude Bellingham was advancing his cause as a superstar of the future, if the restaurants in West Bay were nice, if the stadiums looked spectacular, if the sun was shining, then why oh why did we ever, ever say the World Cup should not be held in Qatar?
Fans have been impressed with the general hygiene and facilities offered throughout Qatar
The answer to that remains the same. The reasons why Qatar should never have been awarded the World Cup have not changed. They have not changed just because Messi had us out of our seats with the beauty of his play in Argentina’s semi-final against Croatia or because the Doha metro runs on time.
Qatar remains a state which criminalises same-sex relationships. It remains a state where women are second-class citizens. It remains a state where freedom of expression is limited. It remains a state that oversaw the deaths of hundreds, probably thousands, of poorly paid, brutally treated migrant workers during the construction of the stadiums and infrastructure.
This is a World Cup that not only has blood on its hands but which effectively prevented a whole section of society from attending. The authorities said that gay men and women were welcome but it was obvious to anyone that that was not the case. Gay men and women were not welcome. At best, they were tolerated. We should not have to apologise for saying that is wrong.
A number of captains were banned from wearing OneLove armbands in the World Cup
Opportunities for interaction with ordinary Qataris were limited during the tournament. Qataris only make up 11 per cent — the wealthiest 11 per cent — of the population and the vast majority of the people I spoke to in Doha in the last month were from South Asia, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. The culture in Doha is as much their culture as it is Qatari culture.
But I did speak to a group of Qatari men on a metro train one night. We started to talk about the criticism of Qatar in the western media and they said they resented the portrait that had been painted of the country. They said they had no problem with gay men and women visiting for a couple of weeks.
They said that if their brother or sister said they were gay, he or she would be shunned and banished from their family for ever but that they were happy to accept gay visitors here for a limited time as long as did not display their affection for their partners. That didn’t feel like being welcomed to me.
Issues over migrant workers mistreatment have circulated prior and throughout the World Cup
Nor did it feel as if Qatar was being accepting to gay men and women when the American journalist Grant Wahl, an advocate for inclusion and diversity in the game and an opponent of the Qatar tournament, was detained by the authorities before the USA’s match with Wales for wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow emblem emblazoned on it.
Wahl, 48, collapsed and died at the Holland-Argentina quarter-final game later in the tournament and even though there was no substance to the conspiracy theories that followed, the treatment he received when he wore the rainbow emblem was seen as a warning about what would happen to gay fans thinking about coming to Qatar if they did not disguise who they were.
In fact, the bellicosity of the Qatari authorities towards anyone wearing rainbow symbols appears to have emboldened the bigots. Gay men and women reported a rise in homophobic abuse on social media. England, and other European nations, were told they could face severe sanctions if their captains wore a OneLove armband at matches at the start of the tournament.
Wahl was a former Sports Illustrated sportswriter who moved to the Substack online platform
The Germany players cupped their hands over their mouths before their group game against Japan to show they had been silenced and when they lost the game, many, including, sadly, Eden Hazard and Arsene Wenger, attempted absurdly to link their defeat with the gesture. This World Cup has put the cause of inclusion in football back a long way.
Everyone has their red lines and when it comes to which nations should stage the World Cup, that is mine. When football stops welcoming everybody, when it discriminates against people, when it shuts people out of an event like the World Cup, which is supposed to be the ultimate celebration of the sport, it stops being the game we love.
That, as much as Messi’s run to the final and Morocco’s dance with history, will be the legacy of Qatar 2022.