Dial "M" for Magic
FIFA. The international governing body for association football (soccer). Its membership totaling 211 nations, its mission to grow the sport world-wide and be an advocate for accessibility, integrity, and fair play.
It also appoints hosts for major international tournaments, most notably World Cups held every four years, and which generate significant revenue. Qatar 2022 just the latest example.
Unfortunately, for decades FIFA is linked to serious corruption, bribery, and vote-rigging. A tangled web of scandals and sleaze, from 2010 onwards, forces spectators and supporters to temper their love for the sport with numerous political and economic controversies.
Indeed, obscene amounts of money, estimated at over $200 billion, produce in Qatar stunning stadiums, facilities, and accommodation. Yet, in the process, there is plenty of collateral damage. Misery in the form of modern slavery. Some 6500 migrant workers lose their lives due to hugely dangerous living and working conditions.
Add in Qatar’s brutal record on human rights, from female and LBGTQ oppression to out and out racism. The whole affair further reeks of “sport washing,” a term reflecting a desire to highlight a prestigious athletic competition to burnish an international reputation.
Alas, the primary obstacle to overhauling FIFA, and by extension a host country’s unsavoury ideologies, remains the World Cup’s unparalleled popularity.
Perhaps American author and investigative reporter Ken Bensinger sums it up best. He notes that “FIFA knows that no matter how badly it behaves and no matter how disgusted people are with the organization, every four years everyone forgets. It is like the Catholic church. You can do whatever you want all week as long as you go to confession on Sunday. The World Cup functions that way for FIFA.”
On cue and not surprisingly, the recently completed Qatar 2022 serves up a whole series of memorable matches and moments. It is mesmerizing stuff, with no shortage of significant upsets and thrilling comebacks. Not one of the thirty-two teams wins all three of its pool games. Additionally, for the first time ever at a World Cup, each of the six regional confederations gains representation in the knockout stages.
Saudi Arabia gets the ball rolling, surviving an early penalty goal and three other markers ruled out for offside, to stun prohibitive favourite Argentina 2-1.
Then comes never say die Japan, the tenacious and skilled Blue Samurai using the same format to recover from a half time deficit to slay traditional powerhouses Germany and Spain in Group E. Both by 2-1 scores.
Then it is Croatia’s turn. Another side that never knows when it is beaten, the 2018 finalists upend top seeded Brazil on penalties in a much-anticipated quarterfinal showdown. Somehow, the Croats survive waves of Brazilian pressure and shots, and while the legendary Neymar bamboozles the opposition defence to put his country up 1-0 in extra time, the victors scramble an equalizer in the 117th minute and then dominate the shootout.
Another riveting quarterfinal ends full of bitterness, fury and rancor, players cursing each other and the referee. Argentina, thanks to Lionel Messi’s skill and vision, leads 2-0 deep into the second half and appears well on its way to the final four. Yet, on the verge of defeat, the Netherlands make substitutions that radically alter the flow of the contest. Two late goals force yet another overtime, though the score remains tied 2-2 after the additional thirty minutes. Argentina, only just, then prevails 4-3 from the spot, with the occasion threatening to boil over as tempers fray.
The tournament final is full of drama, lauded by many pundits as simply the greatest match ever played. Argentina dominates a flu-ridden French squad to take a 2-0 half time lead. The score then remains the same until the 80th minute, when France talisman Kilian Mbappe first converts a penalty, then scores again on a blistering half volley.
As yet another breathtaking game moves to extra time, both sides create chances. Messi, from a rebound, puts Argentina back in the lead, until Mbappe completes a hat trick with a second penalty kick.
Then, it is Argentinian goalkeeper Emi Martinez who steals the show, making a spectacular close-range kick save in the dying seconds to keep the tensest of finals level at 3-3. He then again goes on to dominate another penalty shootout, even if his gamesmanship and posturing leave a sour taste for many.
Nonetheless, Argentina becomes world champion for a third time.
Still, for me personally, it is other moments that leave an indelible mark.
How about Morocco? The Atlas Lions become one of the stories of the tournament, advancing to the round of sixteen via group stage wins vs Canada and Belgium and a draw against Croatia. Then, though dominated in terms of possession, passes completed, shots and corner kicks, they refuse to concede a single goal vs both Spain and Portugal. In so doing, a resilient and opportunistic team becomes the first ever African and Arab nation to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Players such as Hakimi, Saiss, Bounou, Varane and others draw long overdue plaudits, while the electric atmosphere, complete with drums and whistles, in the stadiums makes it feel as if an entire continent is packed inside, witnessing history.
How about the fact that every major international sporting competition unearths a relative unknown? One who goes on to play a key role in a team’s success. In Qatar, he is Alexis MacAllister, a midfielder of Celtic descent, though born in Argentina. After bouncing around the junior ranks in Buenos Aires, he makes his national debut in 2019. However, saddled by injury he is then dropped from the squad before gaining a recall in January 2022.
In Qatar, following the Albiceleste’s fall to Saudi Arabia, he moves into the starting lineup. In the five games that follow, he not only scores his first international goal vs Poland but is solid and composed throughout. He then caps a wonderful tournament with an exquisitely weighted 25 meter, cross field pass that presents teammate Angel Maria an easy finish and a 2-0 first half lead vs France.
How about Mbappe? The French sniper bursts on to the international scene at the tender age of eighteen. In 2018, he joins an icon, the masterful Pele, as only the second teenager to score in a World Cup final. Accolades and awards pour in over the years, as, despite being heavily marked in every game, his exceptional speed, dribbling, and clinical finishing draw millions of admirers.
In the same vein, almost singlehandedly, he drags a struggling French team back into the fray in the Qatar final. Though his hat trick and a subsequent shootout penalty success prove not to be enough, he does secure the coveted Golden Boot, awarded to the World Cup’s top goal scorer. It further reflects his position as one of the top handful of players in the world.
How about some raw emotion? As the Argentina-Croatia semifinal reaches the 81st minute, an assistant referee punches in information on his substitution board.
It hurts to watch the scene unfold, as the big, bright numbers blink on. Red, #10, indicating the player set to leave the field. Green, #7, to be the replacement.
It is not supposed to end this way, I tell myself. Still, the scoreboard does not lie. Argentina, helped perhaps by a somewhat controversial first half penalty kick but eventually the better team on the day, leads 3-0. There will be no way back for gallant Croatia.
It is clearly an emotional moment for the Croatia #10. On the verge of tears. A thunderous, standing ovation washes over the field as Luka Modric exits.
37 years old, winner of five Champions League club titles with Real Madrid, the driver of an overachieving national team that falls at the final hurdle at the 2018 World Cup, he has nothing left to prove. Still, he battles on, a creative genius still hungry to deliver a title in Qatar.
To watch him operate is a joy. Quick, clever, angled passes, finding space where there is none, a nutmeg, then bursting past an unsuspecting defender. Haring back the length of the field to flick away a dangerous cross and so defuse an opposition counterattack. The team, in some ways from his initial international appearances in 2006 and certainly now at the end of his career, always playing to his rhythm and under his authority. No doubt again just falling short at a World Cup will sting, yet Croatia even reaching the final four will only enhance his magnificent legacy.
Those in attendance know it also. In a packed Lusail stadium, Croats, Argentinians, and neutrals rise as one to salute an all-time great.
Of course, then there is Messi. He arrives in Qatar under enormous pressure, a World Cup the only title or award missing from a glittering resume. 35 years old, over one thousand games into an amazing career, he initially needs to lift Argentinian spirits following a shock opening loss to Saudi Arabia.
This he duly accomplishes, finishing with seven goals en route to claiming the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
On the TV screen, I often watch only him, subjecting arguably the sport’s greatest ever performer to an iso-cam of sorts. What I see initially surprises, as Messi seems to spend a lot of time literally just walking. Yet, though barely in motion, one senses he is constantly examining, scanning, taking pictures in his mind, readying to explode into action. When these moments arrive, whether slaloming through and around opponents, delivering subtle passes, he toys with some of the greatest players on earth.
Against France, Messi scores a first half penalty, then starts a scintillating passing movement that sees Argentina lead 2-0. Then the script flips, as, from a position of total control, the Albiceleste suddenly fall apart, conceding twice in rapid succession. However, a steely Messi steadies the ship, claiming a go-ahead goal in extra time. While France again draws level, penalties follow and produce his deserved coronation.
So, there it is.
Screw shut eyes and plug ears if you must, for, without question, tough political, economic, ideological, human, and ecological issues remain for FIFA and Qatar to sort.
Still, if Qatar actually is the best "on field" World Cup ever, do voice thanks to the teams and players who made it so.
Replay the memorable matches and mesmerizing moments. Ponder the brilliance of Martinez. Of Morocco, MacAllister, Mbappe, Modric, and Messi.
Dial "M". For Magic.