The main event
If nothing else, you’d imagine idle curiosity will probably get the better of him, but even if it doesn’t he’ll find out soon enough. Whether he elects to go out walking the dog, sits at home watching the ITV4 Midsomer Murders double bill or is cloistered somewhere with his Liverpool teammates sitting with ear buds in and his back to the screen all the better to studiously ignore it, Virgil van Dijk will discover who has won the World Cup at around the same time as the rest of us who have followed it.
It was a visibly distraught Van Dijk who, upon being asked if he thought Argentina would win following their bad-tempered quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, tersely told a reporter: “I don’t care, I won’t watch any more.” Having just missed a penalty in the preceding shootout, he was understandably wounded and could be excused his dismissive reply. More than a week later there’s every chance Van Dijk still couldn’t care less how Sunday’s final goes or who wins it, but if that’s genuinely the case he will be surely be in a very small minority of football folk.
For more than 12 years and counting it has been impossible not to have a view on Qatar 2022, from the moment, to a mixture of cheers and widespread gasps of astonishment, Sepp Blatter pulled the card bearing the name of the Arabian peninsula country from that infamous envelope back in December 2010. A view on whether it should take place in Qatar, a view on whether it actually would take place in Qatar and then, in more recent years, a view on the incalculable and much-disputed human cost of it taking place in Qatar when it became apparent that Qatar is where it would definitely be held.
Blatter has since acknowledged what many of us already knew in saying that giving Qatar hosting rights was a “mistake” and a “bad choice”, even though his mea culpa centred on the size of the country rather than the human rights abuses perpetrated within its borders. It was indeed “a mistake” and a “bad choice” even if Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s similarly self-serving successor as Fifa president, broke a near-month-long undignified silence to hail this indelible stain on world sporting history as “an incredible success on all fronts”.
For all Infantino’s nonsense talk, despite the unspeakable grimness surrounding this often tawdry but carefully buffed Fifa spectacle, Qatar 2022 has been an incredible success on one front, insofar as much of the football played has been undeniably sublime. Later on Sunday, the 64th and final match of a soap opera long in the making will be played, the winners crowned and the trophy hoisted triumphantly towards the sky. With so many contrasting narrative arcs and prospective plot-twists it promises to be the hugely compelling sporting spectacle its organisers hoped it would be, even if, like Van Dijk, we might all have good reasons to avoid tuning in. BG
Croatia sign off in style
Mislav Orsic’s wonderful goal would have been worthy of winning the World Cup. It was certainly worthy of winning third place for Croatia. The winger’s perfectly flighted curler from an angle, lifted up and over the towering frame of Yassine Bounou, aka Bono, was one of the goals of the tournament. It was the kind of effort you are unlikely to see in a final when the pressure is so much greater, the stakes so much higher. In that sense it was a good advert for the idea of a third-place playoff, and the football was attractive throughout. Morocco may not have got the result they wanted but the match was a chance for their excellent fans to celebrate, and pay tribute to the players for making them proud with their run to the semi-finals. The team’s treatment of the referee was the one sour note, but that aside it was a roaring success. LMc
End of one era for La Liga
The retirement of Sergio Busquets from international football marked the last of Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning squad to take their leave. With Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo almost certainly signing off from their last World Cups, Qatar has seen the end of that era when Barcelona and Real Madrid dominated the global scene, from the late noughties onwards. Madrid may be the Champions League holders but Modric, even if his plan is to play on until 2024, is among the last of the old guard. At Barcelona, a club fallen from grace through financial mismanagement, Busquets and Jordi Alba, a survivor from Spain’s Euro 2012 winners, are the last men standing. La Liga’s giants have not been so dominant as in previous tournaments. Argentina have used no players from either club, though Barcelona supplied Jules Koundé and Ousmane Dembélé for France, who also have Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga from Madrid. JB
David Beckham has made his first public statement on his controversial involvement with the World Cup host nation, telling a US newspaper through a spokesperson that he “has always believed that sport has the power to be a force for good in the world”. “We understand that there are different and strongly held views about engagement in the Middle East but see it as positive that debate about the key issues has been stimulated directly by the first World Cup being held in the region,” the statement continued. It added: “We hope that these conversations will lead to greater understanding and empathy toward all people and that progress will be achieved.”
The statement, made to the New York Times, came in response to intense criticism that Beckham, 47, had accepted millions of pounds from Qatar to serve as an ambassador for the games in spite of the country’s repressive stance on LGBTQ+ rights, its human rights record and allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers.
Argentina v France (Final, 3pm GMT, BBC One and ITV1) Some suggest France have been lucky at this tournament, but the champions’ progress to a second consecutive final has rien to do with good fortune. It is overwhelmingly down to talent, nous, teamwork – and a liberal helping of hard graft. Whether France successfully blunt Messi’s threat, or Argentina find a formula to negate Kylian Mbappé and co, the team that lift the trophy will have earned it. Perhaps Messi and Mbappé will prosper against defences that have looked vulnerable at times, and we will witness a high-scoring classic? Perhaps a member of the supporting cast, such as Julián Álvarez or Olivier Giroud, will seize the moment. Messi’s ultimate dream is tantalisingly close, and many neutrals want to see him achieve it. Formidable France, and their fiercely driven coach Didier Deschamps, stand in his way. LMc
Man in the middle
Poland will supply the final’s referee in Szymon Marciniak, a 41-year-old from Plock, with his compatriots Pawel Sokolnicki and Tomasz Listkiewicz as his assistants, and Tomasz Kwiatkowski leading the VAR effort. Ismail Elfath, an American, will be fourth official. Marciniak officiated two games four years ago during the group stage in Russia but missed Euro 2020 due to tachycardia. “Now, life gives back to me and I cannot even stop smiling because it’s a great feeling,” said Marciniak, who sports the same World Cup final ref hairstyle as predecessors Pierluigi Collina (2002) and Howard Webb (2010) … and Gianni Infantino himself. JB
In France, on the eve of the final, L’Équipe drew an appropriate comparison between the great Brazilian Pelé and the young megastar Mbappé. The newspaper’s front page placed an image of Pelé celebrating at the 1970 World Cup, side by side with a similar shot of Mbappé celebrating with teammate Giroud. “Their story” was the headline. “With victory tomorrow, Mbappé’s France would join Brazil, the last country to win two consecutive World Cups,” read the sub-heading. “Mbappé would be the first player since Pelé to be doubly crowned.” Meanwhile, here’s Sunday’s front page.
The internet reacts
Who says romance is dead? A pair of Morocco fans turned up for the playoff as boyfriend and girlfriend … but left with a wedding to plan for.
And finally …
That concludes the Qatar 2022 briefing, but a joy of this World Cup’s timing means it’s just three and a half years until the next men’s finals. The United States, Mexico and Canada will be the trio of hosts for a vast, sprawling 48-team tournament for which the format has yet to be determined. Something almost certain is that Gianni Infantino, whose Fifa presidential reign will extend to a third term as he was an unopposed candidate, will declare the North American World Cup as the “best ever”. He said that for Russia 2018 and it’s been his mantra for the buildup and throughout this tournament. Making $7.5bn of revenue, $1bn more than projected, accounts for some of that high praise. The next four years will see Fifa expected to take in $10bn of revenue from 2026 sponsors, TV rights and tickets.
Of course, before all that, there’s the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand starting in July, another winter tournament. There, hopefully the actual football will do more of the talking. JB