“ONEand the winner is … Qatar!” It all began with these words, read out in a tone of choked glee by Sepp Blatter on stage at Fifa House. Twelve years at Qatar 2022 have now ended with the same sentence hanging in the air.
Project Hard Football Power is complete. And it really couldn’t have gone better, a micromanaged power play, from the pharaonic nation-building project, to the painted backdrops, to the regional visibility that helped see Qatar through the blockade years, to the chance of death parading Lionel Messi around the winners’ enclosure as a glorious Guy Fawkes doll. The winner is … Qatar!
There were layers to that moment of ignition back in December 2012. Blatter’s strange tone spoke to the fact that he also knew, reading out his own redundancy memo, that Qatar’s victory indicated that he, Blatter, had lost control of the show. Blatter stood there stiff as a board and nudged Jérôme Valcke, who looked like 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 unknown Gianni Infantino would rise. And that stage of the cycle is now complete. The most expensive, carbon-heavy, blood-stained, corruption-shadowed event in global sporting history is a wrap. But what does that mean? And what next?
Qatar 2022 also signaled the end of a couple of other things. Firstly, the end of the pretense, and there was always a claim, that there is some kind of innocence surrounding the Fifa World Cup; that this is something 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 hear this a lot too. In reality, Qatar has simply reinforced what was already there, presenting us with football’s standard corruption and hypocrisy devoid of art and shiningly unapologetic.
Qatar did not invent this world, did not invent migrant workers, did not invent global capitalism. It is simply the most eager of late adopters, selling brutal carbon-fed hyper-capitalism back to the world in its final form, like the Beatles bringing 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 the end of the age of the modern individualist, a lineage that runs from Ronaldinho to Messi. Football is more compressed, more system-driven, more controlled than ever. It seems the highest stage will never again see a baggy, strolling 35-year-old magician. Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, good night ladies, sweet ladies, good night.
And for now, as the downturn begins to bite, there are probably three things worth saying about Qatar 2022. First, the football was excellent. The action on the pitch was brilliant, packed with drama and topped off with the biggest World Cup final ever.
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 $220 billion to borrow its light. That’s why Fifa will rake in $7 billion in revenue from the show. This thing is preternaturally resilient, no matter how hard we try to bend it out of shape.
There has been a lot of talk about the breadth and scope of this World Cup, the idea of new powers, a new world order. It’s a good propaganda line for the organizers and host broadcasters. In reality, eight of the last 16, five of the last eight, two of the last four were European nations. We got Morocco and the excitement 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, set in place with a Moroccan sense of togetherness that seemed to offer a model of how to live these multiple identities. This story is more nuanced, more interesting than simple parping regionalism.
Otherwise, the entertainment was derived from dramatic endings and excitement in the game as much as high quality. Take away Messi and there were no truly exceptional teams outside of France and Argentina. England, Croatia and Morocco were the second ranked here. This is quite 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 ditching Ronaldo and playing a 21-year-old who scored a hat-trick, one of the great leaders of all time. Croatia was a fascinating 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 have mortally wounded the whole idea of international football given the background of this thing.
Otherwise, Messi wrote the history 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 most unusual unicorn, the kind of unicorn even other unicorns look at and say, ‘That unicorn, he’s a little special.’
Often the word “player” can feel like a ridiculous anachronism. Play is fun, joy, free stuff. Modern football, meanwhile, is a suffocating matrix, all constriction and physicality. Somehow, Messi, the greatest soccer player of all time, is also a player.
At the same time, his professional existence is still lived out as a tool of despotic regimes, tied around the commoditized global game. Messi is the face of Qatar’s World Cup propaganda. Messi is Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador. It is almost an act of unintended rebellion to be all these things and to perform as he does, the rebellious heart of Argentine football expressed not through any conscious act of will, not through guns and police and drugs, but through a way of playing, the whisper of a free spirit.
Apart from all this, we still have the death case. Not to mention suffering, corruption and grotesque monarchical vanity. So many things at this World Cup have seemed to scream terror, from the open mouths to the gleaming stadium roofs, to the terrifying cartoon avatars of the BeIn Sports graphics, to the mind-numbing universal speaker system.
The scene was haunted by ghosts. The People’s World Cup was also the World Cup of the dead. We can argue about the final tally, which is also part of the horror, the lack of care, death as a part of life, in the words of the dear old Supreme Committee. But this has been football as an accessory to the upper class world, football as a VVIP product.
There are other costs. An otherworldly cold settled over the Lusail Iconic Stadium an hour before kick-off in the World Cup final. Rain? Guilt? No, this was air conditioning on a giant scale, the brainchild of Qatar’s famous “Dr Cool”, whose indirect carbon footprint must be one of the most terrifyingly huge on earth. Hopefully Dr Cool also recycles and cycles. But we all pay for this in the end.
Otherwise, this was also a world championship of illusion and fakery, football in the age of populism and post-truth. Concerns about a lack of care on the part of the hosts have been routinely dismissed with helpful dead-end moral relativism; even described, absurdly, as racism (reality: few things are as racist as a structurally racist state that carelessly harms migrant workers).
Fifa introduced the idea of ”unnatural lost time” at this World Cup, and Qatar 2022 has often felt that way, from the elaborate fake-out of Stadium 974, which masqueraded as an ecological triumph, to the strange dance of the conscience-washing armbands, presumably long ago burned on the Al-Wakrah docks like the 1970 team’s van full of corned beef; to the malleable quality of Infantino who believes in resuming European oppression from 3,000 years ago but insists he cannot be held responsible for what happened at Fifa five years before he became president. Feeling dizzy yet?
And this is the last thing worth saying about Qatar 2022, which is ultimately just a mirror to the world. Qatar is not an outlier. Qatar is the way the world works, presented to you with brutal, unapologetic clarity. Other nations may have checks and balances, unions, democracy, free speech, ways to curb the brutality of rule by an upper class. Doha may also have deliberately neglected its duty of care towards migrant workers, explicitly targeting nations most affected by climate change to build its World Cup, because desperate people are cheap people. This does not have to happen.
But ultimately the real question about migrant workers is why are migrant workers so poor that they are willing to do this and who benefits from that world? Qatar 2022 may be a blood-stained thing, but it is also a light and a lens, a crib on how the world works. Not to mention the superheated carbon center. Qatar is the source of power. Qatar is the winner: this was not an aberration but a prophecy.
A final note on what may happen next, beyond the USA, Mexico and Canada in 2026 and our newly opened book on the morality of WC 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 the malevolent architects of his own downfall.
There is real enmity here. Platini is now also free of criminal charges. Infantino, newly elected, cozying up to world leaders, looking bulletproof. But if anyone knows something about the things no one knows about, it might be Platini, who doesn’t seem to be done yet.