FLOW Qatar Spotlight | Irony, brilliance, drama, and the changing of the guard
Defensive lessons, goalscoring brilliance, the perfect balance
The 2022 FIFA World Cup is at the closing stages and what an extraordinary tournament is has been so far. Beaten finalists in 2018, Croatia, made a wonder run, but stumbled at the semi-final stage this time around, and will be playing Morocco in the third place playoff, while Argentina and France will lock horns in the final come Sunday.
Interestingly enough, the 2018 FIFA World Cup so far has served up 163 goals with two matches remaining. The most goals ever scored during a tournament, would have been the France version in 1998 and the Brazil-hosted tournament of 2014, which served up a total of 171 goals.
2022 has come close, despite the myriad of strong defensive units like Croatia and Morocco. There was much excitement even in the five goalless affairs we had in the first round.
So, with two games left in Qatar, the 2022 FIFA World Cup has produced the third most goals ever seen on a World Cup stage closing in on 100 years.
The cosmopolitan new guard
This World Cup has, even with all the allegations of human rights violations, the politics of Qatar with its anti-gay laws, and allegedly poor workers’ conditions during its build-up, been brilliant.
Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, this World Cup has lived up to billing because of the quality of football on display.
It began with a stuttering Argentina, and will end, one way or another with the Albiceleste and its mercurial magician Lionel Messi.
From that opening whistle, we were in for a ride, and while I focused on the pitch and who was doing what right, I also took a moment to take a look at the coaches at this World Cup.
It was heartening to see Africa turning inwards, looking to its own to help them break the glass ceiling, firmly put in place by the continents of Europe and South America.
That one of those African teams will play a part in this World Cup until its very final day is also something that gives me pride.
The World Cup being every four years does a lot for anticipation, but it also is a marvellous yardstick for the changing of eras. This time around we got to see the last of the generational talent from a number of countries. We will miss, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Louis Suarez for the irreverence they showed to the boundaries of possibility. But we also welcome the rising stars, the changing of the guard, which has been more obvious this time around. Kylian Mbappé, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Julián Álvarez, Vinícius Júnior, Gabriel Martinelli are certainly the new guard. But there are others, from places outside of the ‘big’ countries, that remind us football is the world’s foremost global sport. Names like Achraf Hakimi, Azzedine Ounahi, Sofyan Amrabat, are strange to call out for English speakers, but that’s a good thing.
Best tournament ever, maybe?
The 2022 World Cup is being hailed by some as the best tournament ever. And the stage is now set for a mouth-watering grand finale between Lionel Messi's Argentina and Kylian Mbappé's France.
Those who argue that this is the best ever tournament, certainly have a good case. It has been intriguing from day one when Saudi Arabia upset Argentina.
Such was the tournament, one of upsets and close battles and great individual performances.
Messi, who came into his fifth tournament under immense pressure, has certainly silenced his critics, however, his main rival over the last decade, Cristiano Ronaldo, had a far less impressive display in what is expected to be their last World Cup.
France ace Mbappé has certainly enhanced his reputation, while opinions are still divided on Neymar.
Apart from Portugal's Gonçalo Ramos, who netted a round-of-16 hat-trick, the only one of the tournament, no new stars really ermerged as has happened in previous editions.
Some impressive coaches were also on show though, like Japan's Hajimi Moriyasu and Morocco's Walid Regragui.
However, many coaches like Spain's Luis Enrique and Germany's Hansi Flick, were disappointments.
Didier Deschamps of France and Lionel Scaloni of Argentina have also been impressive in the way they have manoeuvred their teams through the rounds. Let's hope Sunday's final will be a fitting conclusion to what has been an exciting spectacle so far.
The irony of it all
It is ironic that the most controversial World Cup would be a contender for one of the best ever, on the field at least.
The way that the bid was won and the many problems surrounding Qatar as a host nation will leave a sour note that probably will remain long after the champions are crowned on Sunday.
That and the fact that on the field, Qatar were abysmal, becoming the first host national to lose all three games and score only one goal. All that time to prepare and plan for this, on the back of winning the 2019 Asian Cup, to fall so flat was embarrassing.
This is also the final 32-team World Cup, with 2026 seeing an increase to 48.
And we could not have asked for a better group stage which showed that gaps in certain places are closing. Saudi Arabia's shocking 2-1 win over Argentina certainly set the tone for a World Cup that included shock after shock. Add Japan stunning Germany and Spain to win their group. For seven minutes I was in a reality where Spain and Germany could have gone home at the group stage. Then there was South Korea leaving it late to shock Portugal, send Uruguay home and themselves into the knockout stages. It has been a real treat and here's to hoping that whatever format is used in 2026, they will leave the final round of group games as we know it.
This World Cup has seen a changing of the guard for players and for ideals. Germany crashing out of the group stage twice in a row will need a change from the federation down, Belgium's golden generation wasted, the last ride for Cristiano Rolando, Luka Modric and others. It has also seen the success of Asia and Africa, with Asia having three teams in the round of 16 for the first time and Morocco carrying the flag for Africa as its first semi-final representative.
And with more spots from the continent expected in 2026, the seeds could be planted for similar runs.
I get the reason for the tournament's expansion, but 32 seemed like the ideal number for me. Maybe because it is all I have ever known.
I watched my first tournament in 1998. While expanding to 48 offers more chances for other countries to get to the dance, I hope it doesn’t dilute the tournament, given the views about international football now.
But the tournament could not have asked for a better final in Argentina versus France to bring the curtain down on the first Middle Eastern World Cup.
Still, no more winter World Cups please?