I hate that Fifa and Qatar exploited Lionel Messi’s genius. But I’ll cherish the football | Mihir Bose

The cloaking of Argentina’s hero in a bisht was a public rebuke to critics. But we’ll forget that, and celebrate the amazing World Cup games

The World Cup has left us with two images of Lionel Messi. One is of him in his Argentinian team shirt, holding up the trophy. The other is of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, putting the traditional Arab men’s cloak, the black bisht, round Messi, just before he receives the trophy. The second image showed the rich state, which had bought the World Cup, rubbing in the world’s noses in it. It should always be an indelible reminder us of what happens when sports organisations give in to the power of money.

But the other image tells a story we can all associate with. In a final that ranks as the greatest ever, the greatest player finally wins the one trophy missing from his collection and joins the pantheon of the game’s legends, Pelé and Maradona. The climaxing of the competition reminded us that football can still produce magic, mystery and enthralling drama, and provide the most unexpected twists and turns that uplift us, and, for a few brief hours, make us connect us with strangers.

I first realised this in an east London pub, on the first Saturday of the tournament. Until then the World Cup had been overshadowed by the not unexpected, but nevertheless sad realisation that the sceptics were right. Far from Qatar being magically transformed into a place where migrant labourers suddenly started getting justice and LGBT rights were respected, we had to accept Qatar’s ways. Harry Kane was prevented from wearing a “One Love” armband, having been threatened with bookings that would have jeopardised their involvement in the tournament and the fortunes of their teams.

It was against this background that I had gone to the pub to celebrate my niece’s birthday, only to find that all the television screens were showing Argentina playing Mexico. Surprisingly Argentina had been beaten by Saudi Arabia in their opening game. Another defeat would have meant almost certain elimination, ending all hopes of Messi fulfilling his great dream.

Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina’s win with the World Cup trophy.
Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina’s win with the World Cup trophy. Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock

For an hour, as Mexico dominated, it seemed that was just what might have happened. Then Messi, receiving a pass from just outside the box, directed a shot with such precision and delicacy that he seemed to be caressing the ball past the diving goalkeeper. I had seen him do it often but nevertheless it evoked wonder.

In the pub I was suddenly part of a community, all of whom had one shared objective – for Messi to succeed. Most of us had never met, and will probably never meet again. In the weeks that followed, Messi would do this often as he showcased his bewitching skills, sometimes suggesting he had extrasensory perception. And, on Sunday night, as he lifted the trophy, a wave of happiness for him and his country swept over me. This is despite Argentina being a country I hardly know. I have always been in love with the football of their greatest rival, Brazil, and have savoured Argentinian defeats.

Perhaps the World Cup was never going to change Qatar. But then there are signs that we may look back and see it as the place where the World Cup started to change into becoming a truly global event. In the near century of this competition, Europe and South America, where so many people are of European descent, have been the only two continents to win the trophy. The rest of the world was invited but never had a chance to sit at the top table.

Then Morocco emerged. Its impact hit me one evening at Piccadilly Circus. Tourists admiring the Christmas lights and shoppers laden with their presents were suddenly surrounded by cars honking and streams of people draped in a flag I could not recognise. A friend who was passing by said, “It is the Spanish supporters celebrating winning.” In fact it was the Moroccan supporters, whose team had just beaten Spain, one of their old colonial masters. Morocco would fall to another former colonial master, France, but became the first team from Africa to reach the semi-final. This suggested that we may be seeing a quite profound change in international football.

Unlike in my youth, when they meant discovering players from different lands, today’s World Cups are essentially contests between players from European clubs who know each other well and often play for the same team. When Kane took his penalties for England against France, he faced Hugo Lloris, his captain at Tottenham. The final developed into a contest between Messi and Kylian Mbappé, teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. It can be a wonderful “play within a play”, but the thrill of exploring the unknown has gone. Morocco held out the hope that football’s outsiders may finally aspire to the top table.

But even as this new world finally emerges, the tragedy is that Fifa will not change. These self-appointed guardians of the game, who for decades have feasted on venality, continue to make promises they know they cannot fulfil, and instead use the wonders of Messi and others to validate themselves. The only consolation is that, for nearly four weeks, the world’s footballers produced moments we will savour long after the image of Messi wearing a bisht is consigned to history.

  • Mihir Bose is a writer and broadcaster whose latest book is Dreaming The Impossible: The Battle to Create a Non-Racial Sports World

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Mihir Bose

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