Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi

The Devil’s advocate: Qatar got the World Cup it wanted

The spectacular denouement — a dream final pitting Argentina against France; a first World Cup title for Messi, the world’s best player; a pulsating match settled after six goals and a penalty shootout — made sure of that.

TARIQ PANJA

In the end, Qatar got what it wanted. The tiny desert state, a thumb-shaped peninsula, craved nothing more than to be better known, to be a player on the world stage, when in 2009 it launched what seemed like an improbable bid to stage the men’s soccer World Cup, the most popular sporting event on earth.

Hosting the tournament has cost more than anyone could have imagined — in treasure, in time, in lives. But on Sunday night, as the fireworks filled the sky above Lusail, as the Argentina fans sang and their star, Lionel Messi, beamed while clasping a trophy he had waited a lifetime to touch, everyone knew Qatar.

The spectacular denouement — a dream final pitting Argentina against France; a first World Cup title for Messi, the world’s best player; a pulsating match settled after six goals and a penalty shootout — made sure of that.

And as if to make sure, to put the nation’s final imprint on the first World Cup in the Middle East, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, stopped a beaming Messi as he made his way to collect the biggest trophy in the sport and pulled him back. There was one more thing that needed to be done.

He pulled out a golden fringed bisht, the black cloak worn in the Gulf for special occasions, and wrapped it around Messi’s shoulders before handing over the 18-karat gold trophy.

The celebration ended a tumultuous decade for a tournament awarded in a bribery scandal; stained by claims of human rights abuses and the deaths and injuries suffered by the migrant workers hired to build Qatar’s $200 billion World Cup; and shadowed by controversial decisions on everything from alcohol to armbands.

Yet for one month Qatar has been the center of the world, pulling off a feat none of its neighbors in the Arab world had managed to achieve, one that at times had seemed unthinkable in the years since Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, made the stunning announcement inside a Zurich conference hall on Dec. 2, 2010, that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup.

It is improbable the sport will see such an unlikely host again soon. Qatar was perhaps among the most ill-suited hosts for a tournament of the scale of the World Cup, a country so lacking in stadiums and infrastructure and history that its bid was labelled “high risk” by FIFA’s own evaluators. But it took advantage of the one commodity it had in plentiful supply: money.

Backed by seemingly bottomless financial resources to fuel its ambitions, Qatar embarked on a project that required nothing less than the building, or rebuilding, of its entire country in service to a month-long soccer tournament. Those billions were spent within its borders — seven new stadiums were constructed and other major infrastructure projects were completed at enormous financial and human cost. But when that was not enough, it spent lavishly outside its boundaries, too, acquiring sports teams and sports rights worth billions of dollars, and hiring sports stars and celebrities to support its cause.

And all that was on display Sunday. By the time the final game was played in the $1 billion Lusail Stadium, Qatar could not lose. The game was being shown across the Middle East on beIN Sports, a sports broadcasting behemoth set up in the aftermath of Qatar’s winning the World Cup hosting rights. It also could lay claim to the two best players on the field, Argentina’s Messi and the French star Kylian Mbappe, both of whom are under contract to the Qatar-owned French club Paris St.-Germain.

Mbappe, who had scored the first hat trick in a final in over a half-century, finished the game sitting on the grass, consoled by President Emmanuel Macron of France, an invited guest of the emir, as Argentina’s players danced in celebration all around him.

The competition delivered compelling — and sometimes troubling — story lines from the outset, with the intensely political opening at Al Bayt Stadium, an enormous venue designed to look like a Bedouin tent. That night, Qatar’s emir had sat side by side with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, less than three years after the latter had led a punishing blockade of Qatar.

For a month, deals were discussed and alliances were made. Qatar’s team was not a factor in its World Cup debut; it lost all three of its games, exiting the competition with the worst performance of any host in the competition’s history.

There would also be other challenges, some of Qatar’s own making, like a sudden prohibition on the sale of alcohol within the stadium perimeters only two days before that first game — a last-minute decision that left Budweiser, a longtime sponsor of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to fume on the sideline. On the tournament’s second day, FIFA crushed a campaign by a group of European teams to wear an armband to promote inclusivity, part of efforts promised to campaign groups and critics in their home countries, and then Qatar quashed efforts by Iranian fans to highlight ongoing protests in their country.

But on the field, the competition delivered. There were great goals and great games, stunning upsets and an abundance of surprising score lines that created new heroes, most notably in the Arab world. First came Saudi Arabia, which can now lay claim to having beaten the World Cup champion in the group stage. Morocco, which had only once reached the knockout stage, became the first African team to advance to the semifinals, pulling off a succession of barely believable victories over European soccer heavyweights: Belgium, Spain and then Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Those results sparked celebration across the Arab world and in a handful of major European capitals, while also providing a platform for fans in Qatar to promote the Palestinian cause, the one intrusion of politics that Qatari officials did nothing to discourage.

By the end of the tournament, most of those fans had gone, leaving the Argentines — an estimated temporary population of 40,000 — to provide the sonic backdrop to the final game. Dressed in sky blue and white stripes, they converged on the Lusail Stadium, creating the type of authentic World Cup atmosphere — bouncing and singing throughout 120 minutes of play, and then long afterward — that no amount of Qatari wealth could buy. They had gotten exactly what they wanted from the World Cup. And so did Qatar.

Tariq Panja has reported on Qatar’s quest to host and stage the World Cup since the start of its bid for the tournament in 2009

The New York Times

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