Despite the best efforts of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) — an organization rotten from head to toe with corruption, crooks and cronies — to exploit the game for all its worth and more, this tournament delivered where it mattered most: on the field. While the quality can no longer compare to the level displayed by a handful of cash-fattened European Champions League clubs, the excitement and drama provided by the last round of group games and the knockout phase (especially from the quarterfinals onward) was enough to have fans and the narrative-driven media almost forgetting the huge humanitarian problems of Qatar 2022. Every individual who watched Sunday's final will have been enthralled by a game they will never forget.
Other positives were that the team lifting the trophy thoroughly deserved it, and that Lionel Messi made a convincing case for being the greatest player of all time. Diego Maradona was 25 when he lead Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, and Pelé was 29 when he won his third with Brazil in 1970. That Messi dominated so many matches at the age of 35, in an era where fast, fit and technically supreme players dominate the top of the game, is testimony to his celestial gifts, his fantastical feet, and his apparently effortless vision, goals and distribution. There is no longer a 'but he never won the biggest title of all ...' after his name. He not only won it, he was the principal factor why.
France deserve the highest praise for coming to the World Cup without several key players, and participating in three of the most open and exciting games — the quarterfinal against England, the semifinal against magnificent Morocco, and of course the 3-3 showpiece against the Argentines. The explosive Kylian Mbappé not only fired in the second World Cup final hat trick in history, he doubtless earned the admiration of millions not just for his imaginative, dynamic play, but for coolly ignoring the persistent attempts of French President Emanuel Macron to plant himself in to the center of his country's young sporting talents. It was like watching an obnoxious, pushy and entitled older suitor being spurned by a glacial super-model.
There have been numerous commentaries claiming that the tournament was a success for Qatar. If you think throwing $200 billion down a black hole just because you can afford it, and to try and make yourself popular and accepted within the world at large, then I suppose you could call it a triumph. You could also argue that hosting only served to highlight the problems of putting yourself in the spotlight when you're a demagogic state that suppresses protest, dissent, workers' rights, women's rights and homosexuality.
That's before we even discuss the embarrassment of the Qatari national team, which looked like an English fifth division outfit right from the very first kick, and exited the tournament with a single goal and not a single point. Many Qatari fans (apart from the ones hired en masse from Lebanon to wear the same T-shirts and sing from the same song sheet) reportedly left the opening game against Ecuador at halftime in order to beat the traffic. It's also possible they left because they were thinking, "We suck. I can't stand another 45 minutes of this garbage." We've all done it.
Also nowhere close to being up to scratch for a World Cup finals were Wales, Denmark and Costa Rica, all of whom signposted the further diminished quality we can expect when the 2026 tournament is watered down to 48 teams. If FIFA was a body with any common sense and a conviction about the value of its biggest asset, then it would reverse this decision. That will not happen, because FIFA and its President are not in the business of admitting when they've erred. Although at least they are considering a rejection of the 16 groups of three format next time around.
Until the flawless performance of Poland's Szymon Marciniak in Sunday's final, the standard of refereeing was also poor overall, especially the inconsistent and at times perplexing interventions (or not) of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). An early flood of yellow cards for foul play was not followed through on, and although the hefty stoppage time adds were a worthy attempt to curb time-wasting and gamesmanship, there are better ways already enshrined in the "Laws of the Game" to take care of that problem. FIFA and its paralytic sub-body IFAB need to completely review the rules and decide which ones we need to implement, and which ones we can discard. How many dozens of foul throws did we see let go, for example? How often was "dissent by word or action" actually punished with a caution?
The Very Ugly
The reaction of some teams to defeat continues to be treated almost as though it's an accepted element of soccer. Uruguay's unconscionable harassment of the excellent German referee Daniel Siebert should see them banned from international soccer for at least five years, but that would involve decisive leadership and consequential sanctions, something FIFA only bothers with when it's purging its own ethics committee. Morocco's post-game histrionics after losing out on the wooden/bronze spoon to Croatia also blighted what had been a groundbreaking tournament for an African side.
Argentina's quarterfinal with the Netherlands was hardly a beacon of world class sportsmanship either. While Dutch super-sub Wout Weghorst was a reflection of both the beauty and the beast in a single body, both sets of players resorted to the kind of petty and puerile conduct that young fans will ape on soccer fields around the world, under the impression that it's all part of the game. It was shamefully compelling to watch, but that doesn't mean it should go unpunished.
Ugliest of all, though, was FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Qatari monarch and self-proclaimed head of state, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, clawing on to Leo Messi after they had presented him with the World Cup trophy. If Macron was the rejected suitor, Infantino and Al Thani were the desperate fan-boys trying to edge their way into the biggest picture of all. As Messi walked away with the Cup, they followed in his wake, grinning like power-drunk buffoons, the unelected bit-part walk-ons with a craven, embarrassing lust for grabbing the attention on a stage where they had no place at all.
It perfectly summed up Qatar 2022, though: mediocre, morally worthless autocrats riding on the coat-tails of pure genius.
Ten best games:
10. Portugal 6 Switzerland 1
9. Cameroon 3 Serbia 3
8. Japan 2 Spain 1
7. Croatia 1 Brazil 1
6. South Korea 2 Portugal 1
5. Serbia 2 Switzerland 3
4. France 2 Morocco 0
3. Argentina 2 Netherlands 2
2. France 2 England 1
1. Argentina 3 France 3
Top five goals:
5. Jordan Henderson, England vs. Senegal
4. Nahuel Molina, Argentina vs. Netherlands
3. Kylian Mbappé, France vs. Argentina
2. Julian Alvarez, Argentina vs. Croatia
1. Neymar, Brazil vs. Croatia
My tournament XI: Dominik Livakovic (Croatia), Theo Hernandez (France), Josko Gvardiol (Croatia), Romain Saiss (Morocco), Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Antoine Griezmann (France), Luka Modric (Croatia), Alexis Mac Allister (Argentina), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal), Kylian Mbappé (France), Lionel Messi (Argentina).
Legacy Quote, Qatar 2022:
“I like soccer, I’m a big Lionel Messi fan, but this World Cup hasn’t touched my heart because thousands of workers like me in Qatar were not treated well. We workers have shed blood, sweat and tears to make the World Cup happen, but we weren’t paid properly for it.” Thagendra Adhikari, a Nepalese worker who paid an agent almost $900 for a construction job on World Cup infrastructure. He was promised a monthly wage of $328, but received only $206 per month.
All proceeds from this column will be donated to Human Rights Watch (HRW). You can read the latest HRW reports on Qatar HERE.