“We are convinced of the power of our game.” A short phrase by Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, from his closing press conference at this winter’s World Cup. Compared with his opening speech some four weeks previously, a wild-eyed address that went viral in a manner 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 matter of contention for the duration of Qatar 2022. What the world’s most popular spectator sport symbolises, what it can achieve, and what it can cover up have 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 now is the time to draw conclusions as to the effect of such power.
The first conclusion is that football had enough to persuade a tiny, inordinately wealthy Gulf state to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars. The estimated cost to Qatar of staging the World Cup is $220bn, a price that has transformed the country. It has built seven stadiums, a metro network, even a new city in the eerie, ersatz shape of Lusail, the location for the final. Everything that Qatar wanted to show to the world, either to those who visited for the tournament or – more importantly – the billions watching on television, has been brand new.
The cost of building this new Qatar cannot be quantified purely by money. In the years, months, weeks and days leading up to the World Cup, consistent attention was drawn to a hidden price: the death, injury and exploitation of thousands of migrant workers lured to the Gulf.
Awareness was also raised as to the absence of rights afforded LGBTQ+ people in the country, although less attention was paid to its oppressive laws on women.
A second conclusion about the power of football would be that it created the space for journalists and NGOs to highlight issues that might otherwise have remained out of sight.
Ultimately, any such focus began to dissipate when the World Cup finally started. For Fifa, it was about time. Before the tournament Infantino told countries looking for guarantees on a human rights legacy to “let football take the stage”. On the eve of the opening match, and after declaring he felt Qatari, gay and a migrant worker in the same breath, he booted the question of football’s responsibility for suffering caused by the World Cup into the indeterminate future.
There would, Infantino said, be a “labour excellence hub” established in Doha at some point. But there would be no centre for migrant workers looking to protect their rights and no financial remedy for those who had experienced loss. Instead a legacy fund would be directed at educating children across the world. Meanwhile, and never publicly, a number of European sides were told to stop wearing armbands that showed solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in the region.
Never mind the human rights, here came the football, and it arrived 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 some 40 miles. Never before had four games been played in a single day of a World Cup, as they were through the group stage. For those in Qatar, as well as those viewing at home, it was possible to gorge on football – especially when most fixtures were far from sold out.
After a typically limp performance from the hosts on opening night, Qatar losing 2-0 to Ecuador in front of an ambivalent crowd at Al Bayt, the tournament caught fire in quick order. On day two, England scored six against Iran, putting a smile back on the face of players – especially Bukayo Saka – last seen broken after the final of last year’s European Championship. Day three brought the first shock – Saudi Arabia coming 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 draping the flag of his country’s fierce rival around his shoulders; Saudi fans marching through the streets of Doha like European ultras; Messi’s face in every Qatari ad break boosting Saudi as a tourist destination.
More weirdness and many more upsets were to follow. Japan beat first Germany then Spain by summoning brief, irresistible bursts of frenzied play which overran their opponents. Brazil’s Richarlison scored a scissor kick against Serbia that signalled to the world jogo bonito was back, while Kylian Mbappé of France laid claim to the title of “best player in the world” with a streak of devastating finishing. Australia knocked out Denmark with canny counterattacking, South Korea did the same to Uruguay with a perfect late breakaway against Portugal, and suddenly, for the first time, a representative of every continent had reached the knockout stages. Joining the usual phalanx of European and South American teams were the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Senegal and Morocco.
As the knockout stages began, something like regular service was resumed. Many of the upstarts were taken care of and some in dramatic fashion, including Korea’s 4-1 humbling by Brazil and Senegal’s comprehensive 3-0 defeat by England. But Morocco stayed in, edging past Spain on penalties in the last 16, then beating Portugal to become the first African side to reach a semi-final – an achievement that tilted the world of football very slightly on its axis.
Relatively few fans travelled to this World Cup and official crowd statistics felt inflated or unreliable, itself a common sensation. But it was inarguable that Morocco, alongside Argentina and Saudi Arabia, were among the countries who had travelled in decent numbers. The presence of armies of supporters in red and green and lion outfits illuminated Doha and helped to give the World Cup a distinct character that all the branding, light shows and hype men of Qatar couldn’t muster.
On the pitch, Morocco were rigorous, unrelenting and lifted by moments of magic from Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and the goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou. Off the pitch they were humble and determined, respectful to opponents but not afraid to embrace the joy of their success or, in the case of the forward Sofiane Boufal, dance with their mother on the touchline. Whether they represented Africa, the Arab world or the power of diaspora, the Atlas Lions and their fans told a story that was relatable the entire world over.
Ultimately, Morocco were done for by France, who, even in taking out an impressive England in the quarter-finals, seemed to play only when they had to (but knew precisely when that ought to be). On the other side of the draw, Argentina had recovered from their opening setback to grow stronger throughout, with Messi rolling back the years as they did so. His dominant performance in the semi-final against Croatia, and especially his tormenting of the star defender Joško Gvardiol, made comparisons to the national icon Diego Maradona no longer feel inappropriate. At last, the star of an individualistic age looked set to deliver for his country, only for the final obstacle to be Mbappé, another superstar whose reputation has been built on bursts of solo brilliance.
The final should be a fitting end to a tournament that has displayed international football at its best. Just by reeling through the highlights, the problems of this World Cup – and there were more, from actions taken against protesting Iranian fans to an effective ban on the rainbow flag – fade into the background.
It is this power which Infantino says he is “convinced” of. The joy of the game, he argues, is a panacea for the ills that afflict society or, at least, a screen to block them out. “I believe those fans who come to the stadium and the billions of fans watching 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 extend the influence of Fifa. The men’s World Cup is to expand to 48 nations in four years’ time, and Fifa has plans for a 32-team men’s Club World Cup from 2025. All this expansion must be enabled by money, and bringing the World Cup to the Gulf has generated $7.5bn of it. Infantino can get more from the Saudis, who want to host the tournament in 2030, or perhaps return to previous plans to welcome China into the bosom of the football family.
Despite his conviction, however, perhaps Infantino is wrong. Maybe the power of football is not as the opium of the masses, but as something that glimmers beyond the machinations of power. Maybe this past month has reminded us once more that what matters about the beautiful game, what draws so many towards it, is the joy that comes from play and collective endeavour.
Something which, still, remains accessible to all.