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Analysis: Six key takeaways from the World Cup in Qatar

A World Cup like no other concludes with a final like no other, a football story to go down in history and the first tournament in a region that is often only talked about negatively. What have we learned? What has FIFA learned? What has soccer learned? Here are my key takeaways from the past month:

Lionel Messi, the greatest

Or one of the big three, at least, along with his Argentine compatriot Diego Maradona and the Brazilian Pelé. A screenwriter could not have come up with a better story, or a better conclusion. The sporting problems that the Argentine genius had to overcome, the defeat in the 2014 World Cup final, the feeling that Argentina had never quite taken him as they had with Maradona.

Then redemption. Messi’s transformation into the leader of this team in recent years, the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Argentines from half the world to Doha, and the feeling of the inevitable as the tournament progressed. And yet, in those last minutes of regulation time on Sunday, Argentina collapsed. They seemed prepared to steal defeat from the jaws of victory, only to emerge victorious somehow. One of the best players in this sport fulfilled his destiny in the best World Cup final.

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Arabs can host a World Cup

Questions about whether Qatar had the football seriousness and tradition to host the World Cup are now well-trodden.

However, the message that the Qataris tried to convey from the beginning was that this would be a regional tournament and that it would represent the entire Arab world.

Regional differences, particularly the Qatari blockade, dampened that narrative initially. But the rapprochement between Qatar and its neighbors, as well as the fact that Doha is truly an international city, with people from all over the Arab world, Asia, Africa, and yes, Europe, calling it home, made fears over a lack of El Atmosphere was always over the top. There was never going to be any need for ‘fake fans’, despite attempts by some reputable media organizations to frame South Asian fans as such.

Other concerns, such as the lack of alcohol at games, also reflected a particular Western view of how football should be enjoyed, ignoring that for many people, including women and families, the lack of free beer made attendance at parties were much more pleasant and safe.

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So was the alarmism justified? And if it wasn’t, do the people and organizations that participated in it have questions to answer about their own reasons for framing it that way?

Qatar won the right to host the tournament, and the rest of the region embraced the event as their own. Why couldn’t the others accept that?

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This is the game of the world

Soccer is a global sport, but its culture has long been dominated by Europe and, to a lesser extent, South America.

Having the World Cup in the Middle East allowed people in the region to have a tournament that they could attend and not feel like outsiders. It allowed people who simply would not have been able to travel to the West for a World Cup (for financial, cultural or visa reasons) to witness the main event of the sport.

And they did. Moroccan and Saudi fans lit up this tournament in a way that simply could not have happened anywhere else. There were also significant contingents from Africa and Asia. When will we be able to see so many Indian fans at a World Cup again?

For a month, Doha became a meeting place for the world. The Japanese and the Saudis sat together in the food courts, and the Mexicans sang with Ghanaians and Americans. The Argentines arrived on what must have felt like a shared national adventure, to a faraway land, and they took it in stride.

European fans, of course, did not travel in their usual numbers. It’s a shame: His presence would have been the icing on the cake of what has been a great tournament.

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The experience at this World Cup was, I’m sure, different for different groups of fans. Some people will have preferred elements of this tournament to the previous ones. Others may have liked the earlier editions better. We are all different, with different opinions, different preferences, and different values.

There is no one size fits all. What is normal for some is abnormal for others. And that’s the point: a truly global game must embrace differences.

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Africa (and Asia) on the rise

Led by a charge from Africa and spirited performances by Asian and North American teams, soccer’s traditional elite has been challenged in recent years.

But this tournament really felt like a sign.

Morocco became the first African and Arab team to reach a World Cup semi-final, and they were, along with Messi, the history of the tournament. Being inside a stadium with their fans was the highlight of the tournament for many people. Their players shone, but they were not a team of plucky upstarts. This is a team that included Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou.

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Every African team won a match, including against Brazil, France and Belgium. Japan beat Germany and Spain. South Korea beat Portugal. Argentina had a winning streak dating back to 2019 broken by Saudi Arabia.

This is how it should be, and how it will inevitably remain. A true world game, where anyone can win.

The line between sport, politics and human rights

In the run-up to the World Cup, Qatar came under fire for its treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people. Discussion of these issues highlights the difficulties facing FIFA’s governing body if it wants to continue its policy of trying to globalize football.

Qatar has acknowledged the validity of some of the criticism, following reports of workers working on World Cup infrastructure being killed and mistreated. He says changes have been made and will continue to be made, particularly when it comes to security.

But many in Qatar, the broader region and beyond felt that the concerns raised in the West reeked of hypocrisy, orientalist stereotyping, or outright racism.

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No previous host has faced the scrutiny that Qatar has, including Russia, which was shelling Syria and invading Ukraine in the run-up to hosting the last World Cup.

But therein lies the problem of FIFA. Where is the limit of human rights? Who gets to determine it? And under what standards? ‘Universal’ human rights in the Western sense are often not accepted elsewhere. Does that automatically rule out most of the world hosting what is supposed to be a global game?

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What about the human rights of the Palestinians, whose flag was a prominent presence in Qatar in ways that might not have been possible at other tournaments?

As the main host of the upcoming World Cup, will the United States now face additional criticism of its domestic and foreign policies?

It would be great for FIFA if the World Cup could travel around the world every four years and, at the same time, take place in a magical, sanitized ‘FIFAland’, where none of these problems exist.

Unfortunately for them, the World Cup is taking place in the real world, and that means questions about how these global sporting events should handle politics aren’t going to go away.

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Changes in tradition

Among the secondary criticisms of this tournament were the changes it forced to the traditional soccer calendar and the logistical capacity of the host to carry out the biggest sporting spectacle.

Once it became clear that it would be too hot to host a sports tournament in the Gulf summer, the call was made to move it to winter, right in the middle of the European soccer calendar.

However, while this disrupted the club’s season, fears that this would damage the tournament never made sense: a mid-season World Cup would surely mean fitter players, and therefore better games.

Qatar is, in fact, the smallest country to have hosted the World Cup. But concerns that the country will not be able to host millions of additional guests at once have not materialized.

None of this means that a winter World Cup is necessarily better than a summer tournament.

But the dam has broken. It is now clear that breaking tradition does not necessarily break the sport or event, and it will be much easier for FIFA to make changes in the future.

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