It takes only a few minutes to spot the first Lionel Messi shirt after stepping out of Msheireb metro station. Keep going towards Souq Waqif and, although the streets of downtown Doha are not playing host to a typical football atmosphere, images of the little Argentinian genius are hard to miss. There are countless Messi T-shirts hanging from the stalls in the market, there is even a painting of him in the front window of the Souq Waqif Art Center, and judging by the mood among the tourists mooching around the city most people will be backing Argentina when they meet France in the World Cup final on Sunday night.
As one stallholder puts it as he sells another Argentina scarf, nobody is particularly interested in his France merchandise. Even the four Brazil fans taking a stroll on a hot Friday morning are wearing curly blue and white wigs. It is a baffling sight, but there is an explanation. Yes, it was annoying that Brazil blew their quarter-final against Croatia. And, yes, Brazilians do hate Argentina. But apparently it’s a bit like hating your family: you love them really and would prefer to see them happy.
And so it begins to feel like destiny; as if nothing can stop Messi from following in the footsteps of Argentina’s other footballing legend, Diego Maradona, and winning the World Cup for the first time. The mood is peaceful. There is no obvious animosity, although a family of four from Kenya reckon it’s too quiet. They have tickets for the final, regularly attend World Cups and remember a livelier atmosphere in Russia four years ago. By now, though, the stage is set. Most people are wearing Argentina shirts. Most people want to see Messi, the greatest player ever, cement his legacy by finding a way past France and leading his country to their third world title.
This is surely his last chance. Messi, 35, is on a mission. He may be slowing down but his mind is as sharp as ever and he was in inspired form when Argentina beat Croatia on Tuesday. Few would welcome France, defending champions and supreme pragmatists, spoiling the party.
But then, out of nowhere, the noise picks up. A man decked out in France colours has appeared in an alleyway full of traders selling Argentina garb, one “Free Palestine” T-shirt and, optimistically, a few Qatar kits. A handful of people spot him and strike up a chant: “Mbappé! Mbappé! Mbappé!”
Ah yes, him. Kylian Mbappé: the freakish French phenomenon who can hit speeds of 37km/h. He is the most thrilling striker in the world, has scored five goals in six games in Qatar and destroyed Argentina in the last 16 four years ago. Can he be stopped? If not, then France, who have broken England’s hearts and ended Morocco’s dream run, are going to hold on to their trophy and Mbappé is going to be the owner of two World Cup winners’ medals at the tender age of 23.
It is a reminder that this is the host country’s triumph. Messi and Mbappé are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatar Sports Investments. Nothing could be better for the host country than an Argentina v France final. Other, perhaps, than Messi’s and Mbappé’s club-mate Neymar, the Brazil forward, playing a half each for both teams.
This is Qatar’s crowning glory. What seemed absurd when this tiny but impossibly rich country won hosting rights in 2010 has come to pass. There have been allegations of corruption around the bid over the past 12 years – all fiercely denied by Qatar. The Lusail Stadium, a luxurious setting for the final, is a glitzy place, but it cannot be forgotten how we got here. The exact number of migrant workers who have died as a result of negligence on projects since 2010 remains unknown.
Human rights groups have continued to criticise Qatar. Women face discrimination in law and practice, according to Amnesty International, and the LGBTQ+ community faces persecution. Fifa, meanwhile, began the tournament by stopping captains from seven European countries from wearing the anti-discrimination “OneLove” rainbow armband. There was anger at first; it faded when the football got going, though.
The show goes on. Sunday is Qatar National Day. It will be a day of celebrations, of Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, beaming proudly from his seat in the VVIP area at the Lusail. It will be Messi v Mbappé, proof in Infantino’s mind that this truly has been the best World Cup ever, and the world will be watching as Qatar celebrates its moment of pride.