WHEN the sun came out in Doha on Monday, shining with all its might amid the breeze that’s been announcing the onset of winter, the cityscape had changed dramatically in a matter of a few hours. It was now all peace and calm, the resumption of life after an event that had changed the face of Qatar for the entire world. The world had changed for Lionel Messi in an enthralling climax to the World Cup, the first-ever in the Arab world, the night before. This morning, he would wake up as world champion; a title that’s eluded him so many times in the past but became his destiny here in the desert.
“So many times I dreamt of it, I wanted it so much, I can’t believe it,” Messi posted on Instagram with a picture of himself holding the World Cup trophy. It was a trophy that seemed to be slipping away so many times in a final for the ages on Sunday evening. When Kylian Mbappe, Messi’s Paris St Germain’s team-mate, turned it on belatedly, Argentina saw a 2-0 lead, given by Messi and Angel di Maria, vanish in a matter of a minute. Messi then hauled Argentina in front in extra time only for Mbappe to restore parity and send the game to a shootout. It was there that Mbappe could only helplessly look on as his team-mates fluffed their opportunities to leave Messi in a trance of celebration.
A brief interlude saw Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani take center-stage with Messi, draping him in the ‘bisht’, a traditional cloak Arab men wear at ceremonies, before the Argentina great lifted the trophy. That bit of interference drew criticism but there was more to come. In the meantime, Messi had no problem — after all his paymasters at PSG are the Qatari rulers — and he hoisted the trophy to loud cheers from his team-mates as well as the Argentinean fans who had attended the game in hope of seeing his moment of salvation at the Lusail Stadium.
And as the French players receded into the tunnel, the Argentinian players recreated the enduring image of the last time they tasted World Cup glory in 1986: Diego Maradona on the shoulders of a large crowd, holding the World Cup trophy at the Estadio Azteca. Here in Lusail, the city for the future, and extension of Doha, it was Messi — the man finally fulfilling the promise of emulating Maradona — at the top. Messi, who’d previously stated that the final was going to be his last World Cup game, told Argentine broadcaster TyC Sports in a pitch-side interview that he was going to play a few more games as a champion.
Amid all that, Mbappe, dejected and despondent, walked past scores of reporters with Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot in tow, out of the mixed zone and into the team bus, ready to leave Qatar and head back to Paris where he will be rejoined by Messi at least till the end of this season. Four years ago in Russia, Mbappe had made this final walk dancing through the mixed zone. Mbappe turns 24 on Tuesday. He still has a long way to go.
But the end of the World Cup in Qatar meant the organisers, who have had to endure 12 years of questions and criticism as well as global scrutiny since they won the right to host world football’s showpiece tournament, wanted their moment in the spotlight too. As so, perhaps for the first time, a member of the World Cup’s Local Organising Committee arrived in a mixed zone after the final. Here was Hassan Al Thawadi, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery, saying he could feel his vocal cords going but yet speaking.
‘CELEBRATIONS INSIDE AND OUTSIDE’
In an interview with Sky News before the final, Al Thawadi had spoken that as many as 414 workers had died building the infrastructure that had helped Qatar host the most compact World Cup ever; in a country built around one city. “Every host nation always builds on the past so it is always considered the best in history up until this moment in time,” he told reporters. “We hosted a unique World Cup, a distinctive tournament that won’t be comparable to any. And what a beautiful final we saw. There have been celebrations inside, celebrations outside.”
Al Thawadi had barely left the mixed zone when the celebrations began. Argentinian players, led by Messi — clutching onto the World Cup, stormed it. It was a celebration inside a place where usually no photos or videos are allowed. No one cared, though. This was a moment in history. The Argentineans sang at the top of their voices and even took a jibe at the journalists from their country who didn’t believe they would win the World Cup.
“Support the national team, support them to the death because I love Argentina, because it’s an emotion I carry in my heart,” they sang. “And I don’t care what those [expletive] journalists say!”
They’d been successful in deflecting questions from journalists here. Now it was time for the celebrations outside.
The final had been staged on Qatar’s National Day and the celebration of the hosts’ national pride coincided with those of Argentina’s. On an open-top bus, the Argentines celebrated at the Lusail boulevard as thousands of fans gathered; many of them from South Asia where the Albiceleste are wildly popular. And then, it was dawn.
Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2022