Business as usual or a month to treasure? Games have been played and goals have been scored, amounting up to 64 and 172 in numbers, the latter a new high in World Cup history.
Qatar 2022 was one of highs and lows, excitement and controversy. In the end, Argentina was crowned champions for the third time, with 36 years having passed since Diego Maradona last took the trophy to the streets of Buenos Aires. This time, of course, it was Lionel Messi, the heir apparent to Maradona’s throne and quite possibly the best player to ever grace football pitches.
But it takes two to tango. The final was a fantastic spectacle, one that will go down in history as maybe the best game of football ever played. On the biggest of stages, two heavyweights clashed heads, with defending champion France the opponent to Messi’s Argentina. Although for the first 79 minutes it was a rather dull affair with France being suffocated and head coach Didier Deschamps scrambling for a response.
With the Argentines 2:0 up and seemingly cruising, it took just 97 seconds for Kylian Mbappe to score twice and revive France; before penalties, there was another goal from Messi, and then another from Mbappe, before a string of great saves and decisive misses that could have changed history. At times, both teams had the opponent on the ropes.
Maybe they should have just continued playing until it was settled? Much like the Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate has been going back and forth for over 15 years, with the two legends reaching Qatar aged 35 and 37 respectively. Surely, this was their last chance at World Cup glory? In the end, it wasn’t just the fact that one won and the other did not. It was the way it all played out.
Ronaldo occupied the headlines pre-tournament, controversially burning bridges with Manchester United in his interview with Piers Morgan and becoming a free agent. A successful World Cup would have been the perfect counter-strike, a reminder that he is still the alpha male, but instead, he lost the trust of head coach Fernando Santos and was demoted to the bench. When then called upon, he didn’t deliver.
Messi also had a rough start but was at his inspiring and sublime best when it mattered. It wasn’t just the final – when it got tough in the quarter-final, he demonstrated vocal leadership qualities that haven’t always been there. That Argentina vs Netherlands battle royal was an instant classic, featuring a last-gasp free-kick routine by the Netherlands to force extra time and of course, the 18 yellow cards dished out by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz.
If Messi and Mbappe were the faces of Qatar 2022, it’s still a team game and both had surprising side-kicks. In Argentina’s first group game, Papu Gomez, Lautaro Martinez, and Angel Di Maria lined up in attack; Gomez played just once more, Lautaro was forced to a bit-part role and even the usually trustworthy Di Maria was frozen in the play-offs until getting a surprise nod for the final.
Instead, it was Alexis Mac Allister from Brighton and Benfica Lisbon talent Enzo Fernandez who ran the midfield, with 22-year-old Julian Alvarez shining up front next to Messi. The Manchester City striker came into the tournament with just 12 games and 3 goals for the national team but left with 19/7. Everything in Manchester revolves around Erling Braut Haaland these days, but Alvarez is more than capable of stepping up.
The story was similar, but also different for France. Midfield hardmen N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba were ruled out before the tournament while the reigning world’s best player Karim Benzema got injured in training. First-choice left-back Lucas Hernandez made it but lasted just 12 minutes until a serious knee injury finished his season.
Some stepped up, some had a new role to play. Head coach Deschamps reinvented Antoine Griezmann, handing him the keys in midfield, and once again summoned Olivier Giroud. The 36-year-old big man was an efficient team player four years ago, winning the World Cup without a single shot on target. This time, he scored four times on his way to becoming France’s all-time top scorer ahead of Thierry Henry.
Of those who did not win, Croatia was fantastic yet again with Luka Modric still leading the way, while Morocco surprised pretty much everyone with their sturdy displays and made African football history. It was a World Cup to remember for Japan too, who beat both Germany and Spain, but somehow lost to a meagre Costa Rica before going out against penalty kings Croatia.
One team, however, stands out more than the others. It was the first World Cup outing for Canada since 1986 and few knew what to expect in a tricky group (looking back, probably the group of death) with Belgium, Croatia, and Morocco, but they played bold, adventurous football that should be cherished in a world where results more often than not mean everything.
Despite returning home without a point to show for it, this young team will only get better. In just three and a half years, it will be their turn to host the showpiece event, and there’s no question whether they deserve to be there.
But oh, there were some notable disappointments as well. Belgium had an event to forget, never really convincing despite collecting four points, while Denmark barely ever showed up after their strong performances at Euro 2020 and WC qualifying. Wales too was lacklustre, seemingly not enjoying the game of football at all. And for the first time in history, the hosts lost all three group games – a confirmation that you can buy a World Cup, but not success.
Qatar 2022 really was a World Cup like no other before. Of many firsts, like the timing, but also many lasts – next time, there will be 48 teams present, some familiar faces but also some you may not have even heard of. Until then!