This year’s World Cup has been simultaneously captivating and depressing. There’s been awe-inspiring play and some terrific story lines (Lionel Messi, Morocco), but the background unpleasantness of Qatar 2022 has hung in the air throughout. The human-rights abuses leading up to the tournament were impossible to ignore by everyone except Fox Sports. Qatar squashed even the most benign of political speech at every opportunity, and two reporters died on-site at the tournament — including my friend, the great Grant Wahl. Fans couldn’t even drink beer. With just two matches left in the tournament — Saturday’s third-place game between Croatia and Morocco, then Sunday’s marquee final between Argentina and France — we’re a few days away from finally turning the page on a World Cup that, as thrilling as it has often been, many will want to forget. Here are some takeaways from the tournament.
Underdogs are fun, but in the end, the juggernauts always win.
Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup (nine if you count West Germany separately). There’s usually a Cinderella story at the tournament, and this year’s was particularly good: Morocco became the first African team to ever make the semifinals, beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way and giving France a run for its money on Wednesday. But in the end, it’s the studs, and the superstars, who win the World Cup. Sunday’s final is a matchup between two-time champions and current top-four FIFA-ranked teams. This is hardly a bad thing: The match will feature two of the greatest players with France’s Kylian Mbappé, the brightest young star in the world, and Argentina’s Messi, the best player who ever lived trying to cap his glittering career with a first-ever World Cup win. (Perhaps just before he comes to the U.S.’s MLS?) The upsets were fun, but hey, let’s face it: This is even more fun.
Fox Sports still isn’t good at this.
Fox Sports surprised many in 2015, when it joined with Telemundo to pay more than $1 billion to swipe rights to the World Cup away from ESPN, ABC, and Univision, which had aired the event in North America since 1994. Many were concerned that the network, which didn’t have much history with soccer, wouldn’t be ready for the 2018 World Cup. The doubters were correct: Fox’s broadcast was plagued with technical issues and featured an almost totally American broadcast and studio crew for a tournament the country didn’t even qualify for. Somehow, it was even worse this year. There were more technical snafus, widespread frustration with the Fox Sports 4K feed, and a studio crew that often felt like an ongoing audition. (The network actually suffered quite a bit from not bringing back Wahl, who was the best part of its 2018 coverage.) But the most inexcusable aspect of Fox’s coverage was the way it approached the many problems with Qatar hosting — the corruption, cruelty, lack of free speech. It wasn’t just that Fox abdicated any journalistic responsibility. It’s that it actively carried water for the Qatari government. As the New York Times’ Kevin Draper pointed out, Fox’s “expert on Qatar” during its opening broadcast was a social-media influencer who runs the I Love Qatar website. Fox ran constant Exploring Qatar segments, produced by the Qatar Foundation, without even a nod to any of the context. The casual soccer fan might not have noticed all the holes in the coverage, but diehards certainly did. Fox Sports had four years to fix this, and it came up woefully short.
The U.S. team is actually pretty good.
Sure, the Round of 16 loss to the Netherlands was frustrating, and your grumbles about some of coach Gregg Berhalter’s decisions were probably correct. But it is undeniable that the USMNT caught the world’s attention at this World Cup. The team was much more cohesive and forward-thinking, less passive and counterattacking than usual — it looked like a group that, for once, belonged and appeared to know what it was doing. Even legendary Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, who has coached multiple World Cup teams as well as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United, said of the Americans, “What I see is a vision. What I see is a team that is keen to execute that vision, and that is of the utmost importance.” That might just be the nicest thing a top-tier coach has ever said about a USMNT’s squad. And hopefully, this is just the start. Remember, the U.S. team was the youngest of any of the 32 in the tournament, which means it should be in its absolute prime when the U.S., Mexico, and Canada host the 2026 tournament. It has only reached the quarterfinals twice in World Cup history. In 2026, that will be the expectation, and there’s every reason to believe that the team can make it happen. Get excited (for three and a half years from now).
The Women’s World Cup is very much primed to succeed.
If you’re sad about the end of this World Cup, worry not: You get another one next year. The Women’s World Cup kicks off in July 2023, hosted by Australia and New Zealand, and just about everything that went wrong with this tournament should go right with that one, beginning with a lack (mostly) of human-rights violations in the host country. The timing of that tournament, unlike the current one, is ideal for a big ratings and awareness boost in the U.S. It’s happening over the summer, like the World Cup is supposed to, and the USWNT will be playing all of its matches in prime time. And while reaching the quarterfinals may be the new expectation for the USMNT, that’s the worst-case scenario for the women’s team, which, despite some recent struggles, remains No. 1 in the world. Expect even more “most-watched-ever soccer game in American history” records next summer. Maybe Fox News will even root for the Americans this time.
The tournament will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be in November again.
There were a lot of disturbing things about awarding Qatar the World Cup, but this was the most disruptive. Qatar regularly reaches the 100-degree-Fahrenheit mark in June, and since the new stadiums built for the World Cup were unable to be as appropriately air-conditioned as Qatar had promised, the tournament had to be moved to winter. The change has been a monstrous headache for the entire soccer world. Club teams had to suspend their seasons midstream and hope their best players didn’t pull a hamstring right before they returned to make a run at a championship. That sudden shift led to some noticeably sloppy play at the beginning of the tournament, and the crowded sports calendar in November and December — especially in the U.S. — has made the tournament feel more niche than it does when it has the whole summer to itself. The World Cup is the very definition of a summer event, and it suffered, dramatically, from being out of season. They’ll hold this thing on the moon before they play it in the winter again.
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