Tuesday, 20 December 2022 03:26

[OPINION] FIFA World Cup 2022: A Review - Reuben Abati

The 2022 World Cup is over and what a World Cup that was- 29 days: November 20 – December 18 of pure passion, nail-biting, knife-edge matches, records made, myths broken, pure, contagious, joy in a tournament that has been truly adjudged as one of the greatest ever of its kind, since the World Cup began in July 1930.  No one gave the government and the people of Qatar a chance: there were issues about human rights, the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers, the non-consumption of alcohol, and Qatar’s insistence on the inviolability of its cultural and conservative values. Many questioned why the tournament was awarded to Qatar in the first place and predicted it would turn out to be the dullest World Cup in history. 

 

The objections were probably 12 years late. Over a period of 12 years, the government of Qatar engaged over 26, 000 workers to build seven new stadiums, 100 hotels, apartments, villas, estates and tents.  The host country also built a completely new metro rail system and major highways to facilitate transportation within the 54 km radius within which all the 8 stadiums used for the tournament are located.  A fleet of 4,000 buses were made available, with about 49, 000 security personnel, both public and private, on duty to provide security. It was the first time the World Cup would be hosted in the Middle East and by an Arab nation which does not even have a record of any outstanding performance in football as firmly indicated eventually by the fact that Qatar turned out to be the first host country, granted automatic qualification in line with FIFA traditions, that would lose all its matches in the group stage.  

 

But in the end the country put up a spectacular performance, it invested a total of about $220 billion – clearly the most expensive World Cup ever held. Attendance was over 3. 4 million, 64 matches, played by 32 teams, scoring 172 goals – the highest in the history of the tournament.  Thus, Qatar defied all the odds to stage a World Cup that would be remembered for long as a great achievement for both Qatar and the entire Arab world. It is not for nothing that Qatar is now making a bid to host the 2036 Olympics Games. It can do so having shown its capability to host the entire world and do so successfully. The big point is not about the money spent, but leadership, focus, vision, the fact that rules work when enforced, and those are precisely the key points those seeking lessons from Qatar and the World Cup should consider. The people and government of Qatar deserve a standing ovation. 

 

 

This was also Africa’s best outing at the World Cup with the Atlas Lions of Morocco achieving the feat of a fourth place, losing to Croatia, 2 - 1 in a third place play off, after losing to France in the semi-finals.  In a tournament in which the Three Lions of England were tamed by arch-rivals France, in the quarter-finals, the Atlas Lions of Morocco kept roaring beyond the semi-finals.  They may have lost to Croatia, but they did Africa proud and sent a strong message to the world about the growing maturity of football in the continent. The world will remember that Morocco did not concede goals, except an own goal during the group stage, until the semi-finals against France. Morocco in the course of the tournament proved to be a giant slayer beating Spain to reach the quarterfinals. The celebration of this feat was so loud that when Moroccan women trooped to the streets in Ceuta, Spain to celebrate, Spanish policemen turned on them with truncheons. Morocco had in fact defeated Belgium and Portugal too. The Moroccan wins generated violent attacks in Europe (Antwerp, Brussels, Rotterdam, Amsterdam) and the Hague) and also in Israel. When Morocco made it to the semi-finals against France, the referee was so obviously unfriendly. 

 

 

The Royal Moroccan Football Federation had to petition FIFA over the performance of referee Cesar Ramos. But it no longer matters, Morocco has made history that is good for it and also for African football. Senegal’s national team, the Lions of Teranga, may have lost in the group of 16 knock-out stage to the Three Lions of England, 3-0, but they didn’t do badly either. Even without Sadio Mane, the Senegalese talisman, the world witnessed at closer range the creativity of Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, Ismaila Sarr who gave a good account of themselves.  Tunisia may not have gone beyond the group stage, but the team pulled off one of the greatest shocks in the tournament beating defending champion, and eventual runner-up, France, 1- 0.  Cameroon and Ghana, the two other African representatives did not make it beyond the group stage too. But overall, the world will not forget Africa’s performance at the World Cup 2022. It was a pity that Nigeria was not there. However, African football associations as Sunday Oliseh, a member of the FIFA Technical Crew has pointed out, need to develop the local leagues at home, and that is a message that Nigeria needs to note carefully. 

 

 

Once upon a time in this country, the local Nigerian league produced stars. Sunday Oliseh, himself is homemade: from Saint Finbarr’s, Akoka, he played in the Principal’s Cup and was a star in the Nigerian League, as player with Julius Berger before he went abroad and subsequently became a legend. The Nigerian Football Federation has failed to build on past glories. The Nigerian League is in shambles. Many Nigerians would rather watch European football. Many do not even know that once upon a time in this country, Nigerians were excited watching clubs like Stationery Stores. BCC Lions of Gboko, IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, ACB Lagos, Mighty Jets of Jos, Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri, Abiola Babes, Leventis United, Concord FC, Bendel Insurance, Enugu Rangers, Sharks of Port Harcourt and others. Football in Nigeria is in a state of “arrested development” for the want of a better phrase. This year, we were left with no option but to console ourselves with the role of spectators and commentators. Our only bright moment perhaps was the appearance of Davido on the closing day, singing “Hayya Hayya” (Better Together) alongside Trinidad Cardona, and Qatari singer, Aisha. Davido made us proud, reiterating the importance of the creative arts as veritable tools of diplomacy, branding and international relations and the limitless value of individual talent.  Morocco did not just make history, it has now been chosen as the host of the Club World Cup in February 2023, a tournament it had the honour of hosting previously in 2013 and 2014. No one should be surprised if some day in the future, Morocco is chosen to host the FIFA World Cup.

 

Watching the 2022 World Cup, it is difficult even after the teams have all departed, to forget some of the historic moments: Saudi Arabia defeated the eventual winner - Argentina, 2-1, Tunisia handed France a 2-1 defeat, and as if these were not enough, Japan walloped a presumably formidable German side, 2 -1.  Japan also beat Spain, 2 – 1, South Korea humiliated Portugal, 2-1. Canada scored its first, historic World Cup goal against Croatia, but despite losing and crashing our early, that was more than exciting for the Canadians. This was one World Cup where every team was determined to stand out and refused to be taken for granted. There was no fear in the eyes of the co-called underdogs who fought valiantly. The World Cup is about glory and the thrill, although some people have observed that money is also a factor. But that cannot possibly be the main motivation for the great individual and team performance that we saw on display. What we know however is that for just qualifying at all, each team got 1.2 million pounds, teams that got to the group stage - £7.5m, Round of 16 - £11m, Quarter-finals - £14m, Fourth place - £21m, Third place - £23m, Runners-up - £25m, Winners - £35m, not to forget the fact that the players were entitled to 30% share of the prize fund. FIFA itself made 7.5 billion, more than the originally anticipated profit. But what we saw on display was patriotism, self-belief, confidence, human capacity, and the determination tot excel. 

 

The tournament was so electrifying, even the fans switched camps and supported the teams that they found impressive. There were sad moments though. Three journalists died: Grant Wahl, American Sports journalist, Al Kass TV photo-journalist, Khalid al-Misslam, and Roger Pearce, ITV Sports technical director. A 62-year-old supporter of Wales, Kevin Davies; a security guard at the Lusail Stadium, John Njau Kibue from Kenya, and Alex, a Filipino working at the training resort used by the Saudi Arabian team, also died. May their souls rest in peace. The bigger story is that even before the tournament began, a total number of migrant workers over the 12-year cycle between 2,000 to 6, 500 died, including suicides. This was one World Cup haunted by “ghosts” and there have been talks about corruption as far away as Europe and sheer criminality with regard to the management of the tournament. Will anyone be held liable at all, now that the game has been won and lost and everyone else has moved on? Will anyone ever admit the other truths about deaths and cover-ups at Qatar 2022? FIFA fined Croatia and Serbia for inter-ethnic incidents at the World Cup. But the same FIFA could not touch the United States which altered the Iranian flag. Also, the family of a Qatari Whistleblower, Abdullah Ibhais who raised concerns about the mistreatment of migrant workers has accused FIFA of “callous indifference” and for ignoring his case. Ibhais was detained, accused of fraud, tortured and thrown into solitary confinement in prison. Ibhais was a member of the Supreme Committee of the Qatar World Cup team. FIFA has been silent. 

 

The role of referees was also a major issue in this year’s World Cup. Morocco complained about the referee in the France vs Morocco semi-finals. Lionel Messi and Emi Martinez were openly furious with referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz in the Argentina vs Netherlands quarter-finals. The Spanish referee dished out an incredible 18 yellow cards and one red! Lahoz was sent packing by FIFA. Argentine referees - Fernando Rappallini and Facundo Tello were also accused of conflict of interest. The female referees seemed to have fared better. Stephanie Frappart became the first female referee to officiate a match at the men’s World Cup when she took charge of the Group F match between Germany and Costa Rica. Out of a total of 36 referees selected for the World Cup, six were women, Stephanie Frappart (France), Karen Diaz Medina (Mexico), Neuza Back (Brazil), Salima Mukasanga (Rwanda), Kathryn Nesbitt (America) and Yoshimi Yamashita (Japan), paving the way for a whole generation of female referees, with their professional outing at the World Cup. FIFA referee Chairman, the legendary Pierluigi Collina had the honour of overseeing the referees, but certainly there would be need for a further look at the refereeing process and the deployment of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). 

 

This year’s World Cup was a sort of ending for some of the stars: Cristiano Ronaldo whose team, Portugal simply failed to shine, losing to Morocco and South Korea, even if they managed to beat Switzerland 6-1. Ronaldo himself was treated shabbily by his own coach -Fernando Santos who has now been sacked by the Portuguese Football Federation (PTF). It was Ronaldo’s last World Cup as he now retires, from international football.  Other players who may not participate in the 2026 World Cup include Lionel Messi (Argentina), Neymar (Brazil), Karim Benzema (France), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Gareth Bale (Wales) Luka Modric (Croatia) and Thiago Silva (Brazil). Out of this list, the marvellous Messi of Argentina stands out for ending his international career with glory, applause and distinction having led Argentina to its Third World Cup trophy in Doha, Oatar.

 

Football has produced many great players: Pele, Diego Maradona, but the World Cup 2022 is the moment of Messi. He played in his fifth World Cup, surpassing the four of Diego Maradona and Mascherano. He also scored in every game in which he appeared in Qatar, scoring seven goals, with two assists. He has also made a record 26 appearance in World Cup matches.   More importantly, he won the Golden Ball Award and finally achieved his dream of lifting the World Cup trophy – the Holy Grail.  The Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad, gave him a black, golden tunic, the Beshth, a gesture of honour and high appreciation. The last time Argentina won the World Cup was 36 years ago. This was sweet victory for Argentina and Latin America and glory for Lionel Messi who is now effectively, at just 35, in the pantheon of legends.  What a career! What a man, in whom fortune and destiny are both so well mixed. In that final match between Argentina and France, the tension was so high, the sequence was so hard, anyone could have had a heart attack depending on their health. But in the end, Argentina won. Emi Martinez saved two of the spot kicks by France. Argentina won after the regulation time and extra time and the penalties. That was a special moment not just in football, but life itself. 

 

The agony of losers could be seen on the face of the French team. If France had won, it would have repeated the feat of Italy which won the World Cup back-to-back in 1934 and 1938, and Germany in 1958 and 1962, but this did not happen. Nonetheless, Les Bleus were not disgraced. They fought until the end. And those two goals within 95 seconds by Kylian Mbappe which cancelled out the initial two-goal lead by Argentina would forever be etched in people’s memory. The game was so intense, football began to look like magic. Those who talk about exits and Messi/Argentina’s glory must also remember how this particular World Cup signposts promise and hope: Kylian Mbappe, who turns 24 today, and winner of the Golden Boot Trophy with eight goals is a symbol of that hope and future.     

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