Qatar Won

For its hosts, this World Cup has already delivered on its PR potential.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino talks with Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani during a match.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino talks with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani during the Brazil-Switzerland match. (Fabrice Coffrini / Getty)

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“The thing with the royal family is that for most of the time, it’s just a slightly tawdry soap opera,” a friend of mine reflected when we met up in the days after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth earlier this year. “But then, occasionally, it rises to become pure opera.” The extraordinary spectacle of the old sovereign being laid to rest, all drums and costumes, was one of those moments of high art, the perfectly choreographed finale to a 70-year drama. I now think something similar is true of soccer and, in particular, the World Cup, which draws to a close this weekend.

The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world, the last act in a four-year drama building to its conclusion. There is nothing like it. Not even the Olympics comes close. And, I’m sorry to say, neither does the Super Bowl or the World Series. The World Cup is an event that fuels such passion that kings join crowds in the streets in celebration of a national victory, riots erupt across Europe, and entire nations are brought to a standstill. It is an event that produces moments of the purest unscripted joy, desperation, human folly, and individual brilliance. In 1990, the Italians even had the genius to set the whole production to music, and not just any old music, but, fittingly, opera. No one from my generation—outside the U.S., at least—is able to hear “Nessun Dorma” without seeing the image of Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci turning in wild-eyed exultation after seeing the ball he struck hit the back of the net, the apparent embodiment of his entire nation at a single moment of release.

This particular World Cup has been packed with many such moments of operatic tension, tragedy, joy, and relief. It has seen the mighty Germany crashing out in the group stages, brought low despite displays of bravado; the first African nation to reach the semifinals, uniting the Arab world in support of Morocco; the hegemonic Brazil and its talismanic star, Neymar, falling short, forever destined to be the nearly man of his country. It has seen Saudi Arabia defeat Argentina, Japan beat Spain, and England fail once more—only this time, somehow, with a sense of redemptive freedom from the purgatory of fear and expectation in which the national team has been trapped for so long. All great theater.

But as we reach the climax of the competition, the main story line now reveals itself in all its dramatic clarity. On Sunday, the greatest player of his generation, Lionel Messi, will line up in his last game at a World Cup, 90 minutes away from soccer immortality. Should he win, his status in both Argentina and the rest of the world would grow into something approaching that of a sporting demigod, his final labor complete. At home, he would finally be able to sit alongside the great Diego Maradona as an equal. In the rest of the world (other than Naples, home of Maradona’s long-time club team), it would all but end the debate: Messi, the greatest of all time. All the World Cup heartache leading up to this moment of glory would form part of his own epic.

Lose, however, and his life story changes. No longer will he be the victorious hero, the Argentine Hercules, but a tragic-romantic figure, destined to be denied at the last: Napoleon trapped on St. Helena always dreaming of what might have been.

In Messi’s way lies the might of France, the reigning world champions who are—plot twist—led by his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, the dashing Dauphin of world soccer, Kylian Mbappé. Should France win, it would become, indisputably, the greatest national team of the modern era. In fact, it would become the first nation to win the World Cup back to back since Brazil did so in 1962. Mbappé would have won two World Cups by the age of 23: the new Pelé for the new Brazil. Perhaps, one day, he could even eclipse Messi. A new story would begin.

One of these narratives will reach its culmination in Doha, Qatar, this weekend. We will see tears and tension, human weakness and inspiration. In Argentina, we will witness a nation brought to a point of almost religious fervor, its attention gripped by the TV, while a small corner of the Gulf turns into a neighborhood of Buenos Aires. In France, we will see a country brought together in support of its boys from the banlieues, the children of immigrants claimed as the embodiment of the republican ideal, the French dream conquering all once again.

The problem is that, unlike my friend’s royal-family observation, all the high drama of the World Cup covers not only an underlying soap-opera tawdriness, but something more sinister. These story lines are not merely the ones much of the world wanted, but also very much the story lines Qatar had hoped for. The final is being played out between the two superstars of world football who ply their trade at the club Qatar itself owns: Paris Saint-Germain. The final, in fact, feels like the perfect finale for everything Qatar has been building toward over the past decade. It bought a football club to promote the image of Qatar and steadily acquired the best players on the planet, before hosting the World Cup itself.

Despite all the backlash over Qatar’s human-rights record at the beginning of the tournament, the conclusion is hard to avoid that, actually, everything has worked out rather well for the ruling House of Thani. As the tournament has gone on, the protests about LGBTQ rights and the bad press about labor conditions seem to have dissipated as the other, soccer-centered narratives took hold: Saudi Arabia’s remarkable victory over Messi’s Argentina, Morocco’s astonishing triumph over its European neighbors, the peaceful coexistence of fans from all over the world happy to be in Qatar.

Suddenly, the cry has gone up for more tournaments to be held outside the usual Western countries of Europe and the Americas. Perhaps Morocco itself should finally be given the right to host. Or Egypt. Or Saudi Arabia. “Imagine the atmosphere,” one commentator said, as he noted the scale of fan support Morocco had managed to send to Qatar to support its team. And he’s not wrong.

Across the news channels, there have been snippets of conversations with expats who live in Qatar, full of praise for the country, and visitors delighted with the experience. Little by little, the soft power of hosting a World Cup, of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to host a sporting event in the desert, started to make sense.

The story on Sunday will be whether Messi or Mbappé triumphs. The drama of the contest will burn into our memories, another chapter (perhaps the final chapter) in the legends of these modern heroes. For Qatar, though, who wins hardly matters: Both superstars represent Qatar.

The subliminal conclusion has crept up on me that the emirs of Qatar have subtly shifted global perceptions of their country and of the wider Arab world. All the corruption and migrant labor necessary to host the event, all the Western criticism that came with being awarded the tournament, might actually have been worth it. All the world’s a stage. But with this World Cup, it does not feel as though we are actors, but mere spectators, while the directors are in the wings, happy with their production.