A World Cup works always and everywhere. There is nothing like it – and it is a diverse event. Eleven men or women are actively involved on both sides, even up to 17 due to the new rule with substitutions. All continents take part and Sunday’s finalists Argentina lost in Qatar to a country from Asia – Saudi Arabia – and almost had to go into extra time against Australia. Thanks to Morocco, Africa – alternatively Arabia – made it to the semi-finals for the first time.
At a tournament, the world negotiates how it wants to live together. The game provides material for discussions in all directions. Was the ball out before Japan’s winning goal against Spain? Can offside be measured digitally, as technology optimists believe? Is the Palestine flag political and what does it say? Was the OneLove armband necessary? What signal does it send when Muslim athletes dance with and kiss their mothers in front of the world after victories?
A World Cup writes stories above all on the pitch. The most dramatic match was the replay of the 1978 final between Argentina and the Netherlands. Lionel Messi was sneaking around until the genius initiated the lead with a pass.
Argentina dominated from then, but when the Netherlands dropped the Ajax school for a good 20 minutes and unleashed the crowbar, things took an unexpected turn. Argentina were now feeling the downside of their passionate and nationally proud style: fearing the concession of a 2-0 lead, they lost control and risked sending-offs. Had they not recovered their poise in extra time, they would have been eliminated. In the end, they won on penalties.
Qatar has witnessed the resurgence of France’s Antoine Griezmann. He won the World Cup in 2018, after which his club career floundered. In the meantime, he is once again directing his side’s attacking play with strategic passes and the most precise crosses. He enjoys the respect of his teammates, whom he serves unpretentiously.
This is not least thanks to the best footballer among the 32 coaches. Didier Deschamps would be the first coach to defend his World Cup title. Great nations should be led by great footballers – or mature personalities. Orchestrating such an accumulation of talent is a job for people such as Mário Zagallo or Franz Beckenbauer, who, like Deschamps, became world champions as players and coaches. To integrate a supernaturally gifted player such as Kylian Mbappé, you need their wisdom.
It’s the “we” that counts in this team sport. However, this does not preclude the “I” from expressing itself freely, in very different ways. Luka Modric is still, at the age of 37, the perfect midfielder because he keeps the balance of his team. Wout Weghorst almost turned the game against Argentina with his simple but effective style and then amazed the world with a free-kick trick.
The collective is not a dogma; football, rooted in Europe, is not totalitarian. The rules are the same for everyone, they regulate togetherness. Football is the most attractive game in the world.
There is nothing wrong with football itself. But the people who govern, manage and market it are squandering the unrestricted joy of it. They forget that they are merely service providers for a common good.
Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, is trusted with everything. Some fans are beginning to believe that technocrats in the VAR cellars are exerting a damaging influence when they decide on penalties or calculate in millimetres whether the ball was out. Obvious mistakes such as Frank Lampard’s goal that was not spotted against Germany in the 2010 World Cup last 16 should be corrected. But AI suggests an absolute justice that can never exist. And if there is a human behind the mistake, as with the 1966 Wembley goal, that is much more acceptable than if technology is wrong.
A World Cup would not be complete without surprise. Morocco let themselves be carried by their fans. You can hear in their voices why football is the people’s sport. And the team are the most disciplined in the tournament, managing their resources ideally. This must be based on good coaching. Walid Regragui has done an excellent job of adapting his team to the successful playing culture of the Europeans.
North African football contains the elements of Sacchi, Mourinho, Guardiola, 4-3-3, Premier League and rondo. This is also true of Tunisia, who beat France in the group stage.
The Arab region has its football culture, which could be reinforced with a World Cup. Morocco has applied to host five times. But Fifa passed them over and awarded the tournament to Qatar, where football is seen as a political instrument. Money rules the world. Those in charge of Fifa and Uefa have too often put individual gain above the common good.
Europe’s institutions must be defensible in these times. It is alleged that Qatar bribed high‑ranking MEPs to try to influence policy. However, self-interest is no longer the order of the day, but self-preservation and resilience.
The next big men’s football tournament, Euro 2024, will take place in a democracy, in Germany. There, what Europe is all about, namely freedom, diversity and equality before the law, must be defended. They are also the values of football.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries