“And the winner is … Qatar!” It all began with those words, read out in a tone of strangled gaiety by Sepp Blatter on stage at Fifa house. Twelve years on Qatar 2022 has now concluded with the same phrase hanging in the air.
Project Hard Football Power is complete. And it really could not have gone any better, a micromanaged power play, from the pharaonic-scale nation-building project, to the painted backdrop sets, to the regional visibility that helped see Qatar through the blockade years, to the chance at the death to parade Lionel Messi around the winners’ enclosure like a beaming Guy Fawkes dummy. The winner is ... Qatar!
There were layers to that moment of ignition back in December 2010. Blatter’s strange tone spoke to the fact that he also knew he was reading out his own redundancy note, that Qatar’s victory indicated he, Blatter, had lost control of the show. Standing there stiff as a board, Blatter nudged Jérôme Valcke, who looked as if he was about to cry, and ordered him to smile.
On the back of that moment the house of Blatter would fall, the regime of the more opaque and unknowable Gianni Infantino would rise. And that stage of the cycle is now done. The most costly, carbon-heavy, bloodstained, corruption-shadowed event in the history of global sport is a wrap. But what does it mean? And what next?
Qatar 2022 also signalled the end of a few other things. For starters, the end of the pretence, and it was always a pretence, that there is any kind of innocence about Fifa’s World Cup; that this is anything other than a marauding city state, out there circling the globe looking for the next compliant and complicit host to share in its gluttony.
Qatar has transformed football: you also hear this a lot. In reality Qatar has simply supercharged what was already there, presented us with football’s standard corruption and hypocrisy stripped of artifice and gleamingly unapologetic.
Qatar didn’t invent this world, didn’t invent migrant labour, didn’t invent global capitalism. It is simply the most zealous of late adopters, selling brutal carbon-fed hyper-capitalism back to the world in its final form, like the Beatles taking rock and roll to America.
On a more micro level the end of this World Cup is also the end of a generation of great players, perhaps even an end to the age of the modern-day individualist, a lineage that runs though Ronaldinho to Messi. Football is more compressed, more systems-led, more controlled than ever. It seems possible the highest stage may never again see a baggy, strolling 35-year-old conjurer of patterns. Similarly Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, goodnight ladies, sweet ladies, good night.
And for now, as the comedown starts to bite, there are probably three things worth saying about Qatar 2022. First, the football was excellent. The action on the pitch was luminous, packed with drama and topped with the greatest World Cup final ever staged.
There is no meaning to this, no moral to be drawn. The World Cup was good because football is good. This is why Qatar paid $220bn to borrow its light. It is why Fifa will rake in $7bn revenue from the show. This thing is supernaturally resilient, no matter how hard we may try to bend it out of shape.
There has been a lot of talk about the breadth and reach of this World Cup, the idea of new powers, a new world order. It is a good propaganda line for the organisers and host broadcasters. In reality eight of the last 16, five of the last eight, two of the final four were European nations. We did get Morocco and the thrill of a first African semi-finalist but even this is more complex. This was also a diaspora triumph, a triumph of expert management and fine domestic facilities, combined with multiculturalism.
Seven starting players were products of European club academies and European childhoods, gelled into place with a Moroccan sense of togetherness that seemed to offer a model of how to live these many identities. This story is more nuanced, more interesting than simple parping regionalism.
Otherwise the entertainment was derived from dramatic finishes and in-game tension as much as high quality. Take away Messi and there were no really exceptional teams outside France and Argentina. England, Croatia and Morocco were the second rank here. This is some pretty functional football. But they produced great games, plenty of goals, good refereeing and a welcome absence of red cards.
Fernando Santos single-handedly saved football by dropping Ronaldo and playing a 21-year-old who scored a hat-trick, one of the great managerial flexes of all time. Croatia were a captivating bunch of super-smart dinosaurs. Brazil did Brazil.
And it was all a good job too because a bad World Cup on the pitch might just have fatally wounded the whole idea of international football given the backdrop to this thing.
Otherwise Messi wrote the story of Qatar 2022 and did so while manifesting the key paradox of Big Football. Here is a player whose talent expresses freedom, beauty, love, imagination, uplifting human qualities. Messi is basically a sporting unicorn – and a highly unusual unicorn, the kind of unicorn even other unicorns look at and say: ‘That unicorn, he’s a bit special.’
Often the word “player” can feel like a ludicrous anachronism. Play is fun, joy, gratuitous things. Modern football, meanwhile, is a suffocating matrix, all constriction and physicality. Somehow Messi, the greatest footballer of the age, is also a player.
At the same time his professional existence is still lived out as a tool of despotic regimes, pegged out around the commoditised global game. Messi is the face of Qatar’s propaganda World Cup. Messi is Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador. It is almost an act of unintended rebellion to be all these things and to perform the way he does, the rebel heart to Argentinian football expressed not through any conscious act of will, not through guns and cops and drugs, but through a way of playing, the whisper of a free spirit.
Aside from all this, we still have the death. Not to mention suffering, corruption and grotesque monarchical vanity. So many things at this World Cup have seemed to be screaming in horror, from the open mouths of the gleaming stadium roofs, to the frightening cartoon avatars of the Bein Sports graphics, to the mind-numbing universal public address system.
The stage was haunted by ghosts. The People’s World Cup was also the dead people’s World Cup. We can argue over the final tally, which is also part of the horror, the lack of care, death as part of life, in the words of the dear old Supreme Delivery Committee. But this has been football as an accessory of the overclass world, football as VVIP product.
There are other costs. An otherworldly chill settled over Lusail Iconic Stadium an hour before kick-off in the World Cup final. Rain? Guilt? No, this was the giant-scale air-conditioning, brainchild of Qatar’s famous “Dr Cool”, whose indirect carbon footprint must be one of the most terrifyingly vast on earth. Hopefully Dr Cool also recycles and rides a bike. But we all pay for this in the end.
Otherwise this was also a World Cup of illusion and fakery, football in the age of populism and post-truth. Concerns about a lack of care by the hosts have been routinely dismissed with useful, dead-end moral relativism; even described, absurdly, as racism (reality: few things are as racist as a structurally racist state carelessly harming migrant workers).
Fifa introduced the idea of “unnatural lost time” at this World Cup and Qatar 2022 has often felt like this, from the artful fakery of Stadium 974, which pretended to be an ecological triumph, to the strange dance of the conscience-laundering armbands, presumably long since burnt on the Al-Wakrah docks like the 1970 squad’s van full of corned beef; to the malleable quality of Infantino who believes in revisiting European oppression from 3,000 years ago, but maintains he can’t be held responsible for what happened at Fifa five years before he became president. Feeling dizzy yet?
And this is the final thing worth saying about Qatar 2022, which in the end is simply a mirror to the world. Qatar is not an aberration. Qatar is the way the world works, presented to you with brutal, unapologetic clarity. Other nations may have checks and balances, trades unions, democracy, free speech, ways of mitigating the brutality of rule by an overclass. Doha may also have wilfully neglected its duty of care to migrant workers, explicitly targeting nations suffering most from climate change to build its World Cup, because desperate people are cheap people. This does not have to happen.
But in the end the real question about migrant workers is why are migrant workers so poor they are willing to do this, and who benefits from that world? Qatar 2022 may be a bloodstained thing but it is also a light and a lens, a crib-sheet on how the world works. Not to mention its superheated carbon centre. Qatar is the power source. Qatar is the winner: this was not an aberration, but a prophecy.
A final note on what might happen next, beyond the US, Mexico and Canada in 2026 and our newly opened book on the morality of World Cup hosts. It was interesting that Michel Platini declined Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to attend the World Cup final. Platini is said to be unwilling to meet Infantino and his circle, whom he sees as malevolent architects of his own downfall.
There is genuine enmity here. Platini is also free now of criminal charges. Infantino, newly re-elected, cosying up to world leaders, looks bulletproof. But if anyone knows anything about the things no one knows about, it is perhaps Platini, who doesn’t seem to be done just yet.