The 22nd World Cup, the first played in an Arab country, comes to a close on Sunday evening in a box-office final between holders France and Argentina, top football forces, both vying for a third title. The final will be a battle of the number tens, between the greatest player the world has ever seen, Lionel Messi, and football’s new superstar Kylian Mbappe. The former, at 35, is in the twilight of his career, making his last appearance in a world cup, while the latter is 12 years younger, a super talent still to reach his peak.
Both are employees of the Qatari state which own Paris Saint Germain, making the final another triumph for the hosts who have spent billions to stage the tournament in what many be described as a wide scale sport-washing exercise. The awarding of the tournament to the tiny Gulf state by football’s world governing body Fifa was mired in allegations of corruption and subsequent reports suggested that 6,500 migrant workers from poor countries had died in World Cup development projects. The sport-washing has not gone entirely to plan.
Qatar has strongly denied these reports, but while the tournament was in progress, it was at the centre of bribery allegations, unrelated to football, at the European Parliament. It was another blow to its efforts to raise its profile via football, which had been going well. The world cup was well-organised, there was no controversy, fans were well-behaved and appeared to enjoy themselves and the matches were both engrossing and entertaining. Qatar also had the added bonus of Morocco advancing to the semi-finals, the first country from the Arab world to go so far in a World Cup, defeating top football nations, Spain and Portugal along the way.
That the competition had to be held in November and December, finishing one week before Christmas Day, and interrupting all the European leagues was unacceptable. The date change had been imposed subsequently by Qatar, which argued temperatures in June and July – the period during which the world cup is traditionally held – were too high for sport. Of course, the experts of Fifa mentioned this in their reports on the different bids, but the executive council still backed Qatar. Qatar’s success has led Saudi Arabia to set its sights on the 2030 world cup, not a prospect football fans relish.
For now, we have an intriguing final to look forward to and we suspect most followers of the beautiful game would like to see Messi lift the World Cup trophy on Sunday evening. It would be a perfect ending to the career of the most gifted footballer fans have had the good fortune to see, a man whose otherworldly talent has brought joy to hundreds of millions of all over the world.