“Wwe are convinced of the power of our game.” A short sentence by Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, from his closing press conference during the winter World Cup. Compared to his inaugural address some four weeks earlier, a wild-eyed address that went viral in a way unusual for sports administrators, it appears harmless enough. But the more you stare at the words, the more revealing the sentence becomes.
The power of football has been a contentious issue during Qatar 2022. What the world’s most popular spectator sport symbolizes, what it can achieve and what it can cover up has been the subject of intense debate. Tomorrow, the tournament reaches its climax with a blue-chip final between France and Argentina. As the world tunes in, perhaps it is time to draw conclusions about the effects of such power.
The first conclusion is that soccer had enough to persuade a tiny, exceedingly rich Gulf state to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars. The estimated cost to Qatar of hosting the World Cup is $220 billion, a price that has transformed the country. It has built seven stadiums, a metro network, even a new city in the creepy, ersatz shape of Lusail, the venue for the final. Everything Qatar wanted to show the world, either to those who visited the tournament or – more importantly – to the billions watching on TV, has been brand new.
The cost of building this new Qatar cannot be quantified solely in terms of money. In the years, months, weeks and days leading up to the World Cup, attention was consistently drawn to a hidden cost: the death, injury and exploitation of thousands of migrant workers lured to the Gulf.
Awareness was also raised about the absence of rights given to LGBTQ+ people in the country, although less attention was paid to its oppressive laws on women.
Another conclusion about the power of football would be that it created space for journalists and NGOs to highlight issues that might otherwise have been out of sight.
Ultimately, such focus began to fade once the World Cup finally started. For Fifa, it was time. Before the tournament, Infantino told countries looking for guarantees of a human rights legacy to “let football take the stage”. On the eve of the opening match, and after declaring that he felt Qatari, gay and a migrant worker in the same breath, he launched into the indefinite future the question of football’s responsibility for suffering caused by the World Cup.
There would, Infantino said, be a “manpower hub” established in Doha at some point. But there would be no center for migrant workers who want to protect their rights, and no financial compensation for those who had experienced loss. Instead, a legacy fund will be directed towards educating children around the world. Meanwhile, and never publicly, a number of European sites were asked to stop wearing wristbands showing solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in the region.
Never mind human rights, here came football, and it came in unprecedented form. Never before had a World Cup been played in such a compressed geographical area; the distance between the northernmost stadium at Al Bayt and the southernmost, Al Janoub, was around 40 miles. Never before had four matches been played in a single day of a World Cup, when they were through the group stage. For those in Qatar, as well as those watching at home, it was possible to enjoy football – especially when most matches were far from sold out.
After a typically lackluster performance from the hosts on the opening night, where Qatar lost 2-0 to Ecuador in front of an ambivalent crowd at Al Bayt, the tournament caught fire in quick succession. On day two, England scored six against Iran, putting a smile back on the faces of players – notably Bukayo Saka – last seen devastated after last year’s European Championship final. Day three brought the first shock – Saudi Arabia came from a goal behind to beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina. An epochal moment for football in the Gulf, it was marked by bizarre symbols: the emir of Qatar drapes the flag of his country’s bitter rival around his shoulders; Saudi fans marching through the streets of Doha like European ultras; Messi’s face in every commercial break in Qatari strengthening Saudi as a tourist destination.
More strange and many more riots were to follow. Japan beat first Germany and then Spain by summoning short, irresistible bursts of frenetic play that overwhelmed their opponents. Brazil’s Richarlison scored a scissor kick against Serbia that signaled to the world jogo bonito was back, while France’s Kylian Mbappé claimed the title of “world’s best player” with a series of devastating finishes. Australia knocked out Denmark with clever counterattacks, South Korea did the same to Uruguay with a perfect late burst against Portugal and suddenly, for the first time, a representative from every continent had reached the knockout stages. The United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Senegal and Morocco joined the usual phalanx of European and South American teams.
When the knockout stages began, something like normal service resumed. Many of the upstarts were taken care of and some in dramatic fashion, including Korea’s 4-1 humiliation of Brazil and Senegal’s comprehensive 3-0 loss to England. But Morocco stayed, going past Spain on penalties in the last 16, then beating Portugal to become the first African team to reach a semi-final – a feat that slightly tilted the football world on its axis.
Relatively few fans traveled to this World Cup and official crowd statistics felt inflated or unreliable, itself a common sensation. But it was indisputable that Morocco, along with Argentina and Saudi Arabia, was among the countries that had traveled in decent numbers. The presence of armies of supporters in red and green and lion gear lit up Doha and helped give the World Cup a distinct character that all the branding, light shows and hype men in Qatar could not muster.
On the pitch, Morocco were stern, unyielding and lifted by moments of magic from Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou. Off the field, they were humble and determined, respected opponents but not afraid to embrace the joy of success or, in the case of striker Sofiane Boufal, dance with her mother on the sidelines. Whether representing Africa, the Arab world or power in the diaspora, the Atlas Lions and their fans told a story that was recognizable around the world.
In the end, Morocco were done for by France, who even when they took out an impressive England in the quarter-finals, seemed to play only when they had to (but knew exactly when that would be). At the other end of the draw, Argentina had recovered from their opening setback to grow stronger throughout, and Messi rolled back the years as they did so. His dominant performance in the semi-final against Croatia, and in particular his tormenting of star defender Joško Gvardiol, meant that comparisons with national icon Diego Maradona no longer felt inappropriate. Finally, the star of an individualistic age looked set to deliver for his country, only for the final hurdle to be Mbappé, another superstar whose reputation is built on bursts of solo brilliance.
The final should be a fitting end to a tournament that has showcased international football at its best. Just by skimming through the highlights, the problems of this World Cup – and there were several, from actions against protesting Iranian fans to an effective banning of the rainbow flag – fade into the background.
It is this power that Infantino says he is “convinced” of. The joy of the game, he claims, is a panacea for ills that afflict society, or at least a screen to block them out. “I think the fans who come to the stadium and the billions of fans who watch on TV … they want to spend 90 minutes without having to think about anything else, forget their problems and enjoy football,” he said on Friday.
Infantino has tested the effectiveness of this power in Qatar and plans to use it to expand Fifa’s influence. The men’s World Cup is due to expand to 48 nations in four years, and Fifa has plans for a 32-team men’s club World Cup from 2025. All this expansion has to be made possible by money, and bringing the World Cup to the Gulf has generated $7.5 billion of it. Infantino could get more from the Saudis, who want to host the tournament in 2030, or perhaps go back on earlier plans to welcome China into the fold of the soccer family.
Despite his convictions, but maybe Infantino is wrong. Perhaps football’s power is not like the opium of the masses, but like something that shines beyond the machinery of power. Perhaps the past month has reminded us once again that what matters about the beautiful game, what draws so many to it, is the joy that comes from play and collective effort.
Something that is still available to everyone.