The Qatar World Cup Is History

The tournament lent itself to moments of drama that also fit into broader historical narratives.

Teams and match officials line up prior to the December 18, 2022 World Cup final between Argentina and France.
Teams and match officials line up prior to the December 18 final between Argentina and France. (Richard Heathcote / Getty)

Picture scenes of a battle or from a play; a massive religious ritual; a game of chess. The penalty kick that decided the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinal game was all of these things.

Overhead footage showed the Argentine goalie Emiliano Martínez at far left; seated alone on the turf, he looked as if he was surrounded by a sea of grass. By blocking two earlier penalty kicks from the Dutch team, Martínez orchestrated this opportunity. If his team’s ball went into the opponent’s net, Argentina would win.

It did. The kick was perfect; the ball was untouchable, streaking into its target.

The Dutch players collapsed in shock and sorrow while the Argentines ran past and jeered at them, arms raised, shouting. The star Argentine forward Lionel Messi, however, looked downward as he cheered, almost pensive. As his teammates rushed toward the goal scorer to celebrate, Messi arced in the opposite direction, streaking across the field to join Martínez—the goalie who made the moment possible, now collapsed forward onto the pitch with arms outstretched, his face in the turf. Messi arrived and gathered him up in his arms.

Later, we learned that something else was happening in Lusail stadium at the same time: Grant Wahl, the beloved and brilliant American soccer journalist, had collapsed during extended time and was being treated by medics before being taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening. The outpouring of grief around his loss made clear how precious he was as a voice about and for soccer, as someone who had pushed political boundaries in his coverage and always generously supported others. Looking back, it is now impossible to watch those moving scenes—so full of joy for the Argentines and their supporters, and of pain for the Dutch team and its fans—without also mourning a great loss.

As the World Cup comes to a close, the speed and intensity of what we have just collectively experienced is bewildering. And although these experiences have been shared, they have also been fragmented into millions of feelings and interpretations on a global scale.

A few weeks ago, as the event began, the conversation that surrounded it was dominated by political and ethical questions. Whether the intense controversies over Qatar being awarded the tournament in the first place, the well-documented abuses of laborers who built the most expensive sporting infrastructure in the tournament’s history, or the obsessive suppression of pro-LGBTQ rainbow imagery in any form by stadium security, there was much to be concerned and outraged about. Teams and players debated how to respond to FIFA’s unprecedented threat to sanction any player who wore a rainbow armband on the pitch to protest Qatar’s criminalization of same-sex relationships. Even a Belgian team jersey with the seemingly innocuous word love embroidered on the neck was deemed politically controversial by the sport’s governing body.

Several teams brought their own political subplots. Leading up to the tournament was Brazil’s election season, during which the support of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro by Neymar and other top Brazilian players became a flashpoint for the team’s politically divided country. When Richarlison, known for his progressive politics, scored the team’s crucial goal against Serbia, he also helped many Brazilian soccer fans reconcile their support.

The Iranian team took a stand over the current mass protests in the country by refusing to sing its national anthem before its first game but then, facing political pressure from its government, sang half-heartedly before going on to a last-minute victory over Wales.

Although politics was everywhere in this World Cup, political clarity was not. Was it right to project political responsibility onto players? Did knowledge of the mistreatment and deaths of migrant laborers who had built the World Cup infrastructure mean that we should boycott the tournament? Or did its value as a moment that could bring together and delight fans—notably through the unexpected run of the Moroccan team—somehow counterbalance this exploitation? Would the key immigrant players on European teams propel their nations toward a more open and diverse society, or were their successes just a cynical exploitation of migration patterns that resulted from colonialism?

This has been a tournament of contradictions from the start, placing players and fans in front of a set of mutating moral quandaries. It has been fascinating to watch the multiplicity of responses to these quandaries, the ways that different people and groups have navigated them.

This tournament has also emphasized that virtually nothing can stop the drama from unfolding, nor prevent the world from looking on. In a funny, self-knowing article titled “How I Failed at My Boycott,” the French journalist Richard Coudrais effectively captures this realization, outlining his original plan to completely avoid the tournament, the near impossibility of doing so, and how he ultimately gave in just in time to enjoy and celebrate France’s victory over England in the streets of Paris.

There is no end to the political and moral debates that soccer produces, but soccer can’t resolve any of them. And that may be for the best; the resolutions soccer offers will always be incomplete. There are simply too many interwoven stories produced by a tournament like the World Cup—of players and teams, communities and nations—and countless ways to interpret them.

Ultimately, the political aspects of the World Cup reflect the tournament’s knack for staging history-making moments that can immediately be absorbed into broader historical narratives. It is an accelerated, hyperreal version of history itself, of the structures that produce politics and its possibilities. The symbols, stances, and stories mutate before our eyes, meaning many things at once—meaning nothing, and then meaning everything.