end of an era | 

Legacy of World Cup in Qatar casts a long shadow over football

Lionel Messi of Argentina receives the World Cup from Gianni Infantino and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Photo by Dan Mullan / Getty© Getty Images

Miguel DelaneyUK Independent

The first thing you notice is the brilliance of the gold. It’s simply impossible to take your eyes off it. There was Lionel Messi walking through the mixed zone with the World Cup itself, the very trophy confirming that he is a world champion and the greatest in history.

Shortly before that, Hassan Al Thawadi – the grandly titled secretary general at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – had been in the exact same spot, proclaiming this as the greatest World Cup in history, only his words as confirmation.

Gianni Infantino had already said the same, happily moving on from Russia 2018, which had also been described as the best ever. Political realities have changed perceptions since then. Political realities should influence perceptions of Qatar. This points to one of the many conflicts of this World Cup, that those contrasting scenes underneath Lusail Stadium encapsulate, and really set the legacy of Qatar 2022.

It is obvious to anyone watching that the football went to emotional heights rarely seen even in a competition as historic as this. You only have to remember how immersed you were in so many matches, from Cameroon-Serbia (3-3) to Morocco’s run and Argentina v Netherlands, right up to the final itself. That will be the memory of the football – the constant drama, from start to finish, arguably more than any World Cup.

It was enthralling. It was also entirely independent of the hosts. What Qatar was like as the stage was irrelevant to what the football was like as sport. It is ludicrous, and a last attempt at political appropriation, to try to claim that had anything to do with the hosts. The football happened in that way because of multiple factors related to the evolution of the game.

These states and autocracies have for so long wanted to use it. It’s also why it is impossible to separate the two here. It is usually at this point, after all, that the legacy of a competition would be split into what it means for the football and what it represents as an event.

That can’t be done here. The two are intimately intertwined, right down to how politicised many events directly related to the football were – from the OneLove armband being threatened with sporting sanctions to the support for Morocco from the Muslim world and even Messi wearing a bisht given to him by the emir.

This era only opens, however, because another closes. The Qatar World Cup has weighed over, framed and conditioned football for 12 years and now it’s over, the sport is left to reshape itself anew amid all manner of ructions significantly influenced by this tournament. We are currently in one of the most volatile periods in football history, with many anticipating some kind of reset.

Multiple sources describe a coming “war” between FIFA and UEFA. Qatar, meanwhile, has considerable influence over the European club game, through Paris Saint-Germain and Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s leadership of the European Club Association.

​That puts them at the forefront of one of the sport’s two driving forces right now, which is American capitalist return on investment on one side, and Gulf blockade political ambition on the other. This World Cup may well have set the path to Saudi Arabia 2030.

It made the symbolism and political meaning of a PSG player like Messi winning the trophy all the more potent. The Argentinian’s legacy is of course what this World Cup will be remembered for above anything else. It is an immortal storyline that ensured all the investment paid off for Qatar.

It also fosters this sense of an era closing. The Messi-Ronaldo era is over, one potentially having left elite football in ignominy, the other having claimed the greatest victory of all.

This World Cup did remind us how core values of spirit and clever management can make a difference against the greatest ideas and greatest players, none showcasing that more than the eventual winners.

Argentina are far from one of the best teams to have won the World Cup. They did have the best player but it shouldn’t be overlooked that this win wasn’t possible with superior squads, in 2006 and 2014. It wasn’t all down to him but it was all built up to him.

Messi won a decisive victory over his electric clubmate Kylian Mbappe, but it feels we’re already in the latter’s era anyway. He didn’t win a second World Cup by the age of 23 but he did score eight goals to beat Messi to the golden boot. He’s only getting going – and may well be moving, given there is a feeling the player believes he has fulfilled his time at PSG by staying there for this World Cup in Qatar.

Then take the controversy that kicked off the World Cup, over the sale of alcohol in stadiums. It was another lie. You could of course buy alcohol in stadiums – provided you paid enough to be in the VIP or VVIP areas. Ethical considerations didn’t seem to go as far as denying the highest bidders. This is also true of the entire state.

There was then the argument that the lack of alcohol made the World Cup safer. Alcohol was actually plentiful. It’s easy to get in Qatar. You just don’t see it because the numerous bars are hidden away from the public, in hotel basements or on rooftops. It is far from only Westerners or expats who drink there.

What actually made the World Cup ‘safe’, of course, is that Qatar is a police state. It’s not so safe if you’re a political dissident or – as in the case of England fan Anthony Johnson, who was stripped naked by security staff – if you try to enter a stadium with rainbow colours.

It has long been noted how the Palestinian flag has rightfully been allowed at this World Cup but the rainbow flags were not, indicating that any argument about keeping politics out runs so hollow.

You only have to look at the experiences of many LGBTQ+ people in Qatar, too. That’s not “safe”. That’s just a security state. Then there’s Infantino’s boast that one of its great successes was “bringing people together”. It’s a pity that spirit of inclusiveness didn’t extend to members of the LGBTQ+ community or the migrant workers.

The ubiquitous presence of the latter, essential to making everything run but ungratefully overlooked, made Qatar feel like what the deep south must have been like in slavery.

It remains shocking that a World Cup was held on this system in 2022, and that people’s desperation can be exploited in this way.

All human-rights groups are similarly describing this World Cup as a lost opportunity for reform. That is its most lamentable legacy. All this for what?

The benefit of the setting doesn’t justify the many negatives of the hosts, though. The football world shouldn’t be so blithe about autocratic rulers.

​You only have to look at the reaction to reservations about the emir placing a bisht around Messi at the trophy lift, ensuring his personal touch was central to one of the most photographed moments in history.

Anyone questioning an autocratic ruler’s motivations here was labelled a “racist” or “orientalist”, showing how successful one of Qatar’s public relations strategies has been.

Political momentum is already building to bring the 2030 World Cup to Saudi Arabia. Qatar had a lot of success in that sense. It wasn’t just a football competition. It was a geopolitical summit, with so many high-level meetings. Its international image has been undeniably improved. The importance of the state has been enhanced.

It is of course the greatest success for Messi. He has enjoyed the ultimate victory, in a manner that the brutal reality of sport often precludes.

It’s a beautiful story, perhaps football’s best. It’s just now been used in the most cynical way. It’s hard to see that when you’re focused on that image, the gold.

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