The Last World Cup

After Qatar, soccer may never be the same again.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

In the end, it was impossible to resist. The deaths of thousands of migrant workers, the censoring of LGBTQ-friendly messages, the last-minute ban on alcohol sales in the stadiums, the stench of corruption hanging over the proceedings — all consigned to distant memory as the soccer took center stage at the World Cup in Qatar. Every so often, we have been reminded of the Qatari monarchy’s brutality, such as when Nasser Al Khater, the tournament’s chief executive, dismissed reports of a Filipino migrant worker’s death during the group stages by saying, “Death is a natural part of life.” He added, in what could stand as the unspoken sentiments of many of the fans, “We’re in the middle of a World Cup, and we have a successful World Cup. And this is something that you want to talk about right now?”

This is by no means an attempt to guilt anyone for enjoying the World Cup, which has been stupendous so far. I have watched it in bed at five in the morning, bathed in the vampiric glow of a laptop; furtively on my phone at my desk in the office; openly on my phone while walking my daughter to school; and at very early happy hours, surrounded by friends and strangers, in some of Brooklyn’s finest watering holes. There have been triumphs and upsets, good guys and villains, moments of euphoric transcendence and so many tears. I have even found myself admiring the gleaming new stadiums those poor laborers built, these golden barges and radiant disks and fiber-optic spaceships that light up the desert night, seduced by their opulence, their parabolic lines, their fields of green velvet — these architectural expressions, as The Guardian’s Barney Ronay has written, of “Pharaonic-scale vanity.”

The World Cup, in other words, has a way of being itself despite appalling outward circumstances that might mitigate its pleasures. A child watching the tournament for the first time this year will enjoy an experience not all that different from my own first World Cup way back in 1990, perpetuating the myth of the greatest sporting contest on earth, a myth so entrenched that, even in this era in which European club soccer is paramount, the biggest stars humble themselves before it. There have been many examples: Neymar’s devastation after Brazil’s shock quarterfinals exit, Son Heung-min’s wracking sobs after he lifted South Korea to the round of 16 with a brilliant through-the-legs assist, England’s Harry Kane’s skying a do-or-die penalty against France and seeing the first line of his obituary flash before his eyes. But the most revealing may have been 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski collapsing into a heaving mess after he scored his first World Cup goal for Poland in the group stage. Here was a person who had notched roughly a bajillion goals over his storied career, who had played for the best clubs and had won nearly every honor that it is possible to win, made as vulnerable as a little boy by a single goal, a boy’s dream finally fulfilled.

It may seem crass to boil down these dynamics — the collapse of past and present, the merging of the heroic and the human — to mere entertainment, but there is no doubt that this is how FIFA, the sport’s corrupt, unaccountable governing body, views the event. Led by Gianni Infantino, a bald bureaucrat in dark suits who can be seen glowering in the VIP seats like global soccer’s very own Lex Luthor, FIFA correctly bet that the tournament’s entertainment value would ultimately outshine its more distasteful elements. FIFA is sitting on something priceless, a gift that will seemingly keep giving forever, no matter how hard it tries to soil it in the pursuit of profit. Those who don’t follow soccer can’t quite understand the appeal, in the same way that a novice to opera hears only noises, but what they are each offering is the same: emotion at its most naked, drama so acute it verges on melodrama, a concentrated dose of life’s rich pageant. As long as the literally billions of people who watch this sport continue to invest it with so much meaning, then FIFA’s greed cannot dull its luster.

This is surely Infantino’s takeaway: that he can get away with almost anything. The World Cup is well on its way to surviving a host country that likely bribed its way into contention, as well as the breaking of an important precedent in moving the tournament to the winter months. But other changes threaten to diminish its value in the eyes of fans and players. Infantino’s desire to hold the event every two years would deprive the World Cup of its most precious quality: its rarity. Expanding the number of teams from 32 to 48, the format for the next World Cup in North America in 2026, will create a sprawling colossus that will likewise cheapen the experience. (Infantino is relentlessly expansionary and deaf to complaints, announcing on Friday a 32-team “Club World Cup” that would take place in 2025.) There is no popular demand for these changes; it’s all about the tournament’s lucrative broadcasting rights and the banal power struggles behind them: Infantino secured his position as FIFA’s president by promising more countries entry into the tournament.

It would be a shame if this tournament were to be the last of its kind before FIFA well and truly ruins it. But in truth, this World Cup, though it may have hit the same on an emotional level, has already been quite different from its predecessors. The influence of money, which has transformed the game at the club level, was felt everywhere here as well. The idea that the game is innocent, that once the referee’s whistle blows it can be walled off from avarice and machination, is a fantasy. More than that, we have to come to terms with the fact that the pleasure and the corruption are now indissoluble, helixed together in the sport’s genetic code.

The obvious but oddly overlooked theme of this World Cup is that the caliber of play has been extraordinary. Never in the history of the game has the technique been so fine, the athleticism so superhuman, the quality so evenly spread. Take Japan, the team I support every World Cup though it has brought me nothing but heartache and embarrassment. Despite not making it out of the round of 16, this was Japan’s best tournament ever, thanks to two historic victories over powerhouses Germany and Spain. These were not flukes. Nor was Japan led by the sort of talismanic figure (like Cameroon’s Roger Milla, or Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Japan’s own Hidetoshi Nakata) who can power otherwise average teams through international tournaments. Japan was, quite simply, good. Not better than Germany or Spain, exactly, but good.

When Takuma Asano scored the game-winning goal against Germany, I lifted my arms and turned my face to the heavens like Tim Robbins after he escapes from prison in The Shawshank Redemption. Sweet release! Release from so many years of mortifying mediocrity! It was only later, after I had replayed his goal more than a dozen times, that I appreciated how remarkable it was: It starts with a long ball coming over his shoulder with the velocity of a small meteor, which he then cradles to the ground before slamming it into the roof of the net on the near side, all while holding off a giant German defender. A Japanese player just could not have done that ten years ago, let alone in the pressure cooker of a World Cup match. It is the type of goal that would have been associated with a Dutch master like Dennis Bergkamp, not a Japanese journeyman.

The point is that everyone can do it now. Refined technique — the term of art for the instruments of control and precision — is no longer the secretive preserve of the Dutch academy and the Italian training ground. It is now expected that a player be able to bring a hurtling orb to a complete standstill — to kill it dead — and rifle it to all four corners of the field with laserlike accuracy. The gap between the iconic teams and the middling powers has never been narrower, which is why the group stage of this World Cup was so thrillingly unpredictable and why two of the four semifinalists, Croatia and crowd favorite Morocco, came from outside the traditional elite. This was the globalization of the game at work, greased by enormous pools of cash. It was evident in everything from the quality of the players, each of whom represents an investment in cutting-edge training and nutritional technology, to the ubiquitous haircut of the tournament: high and very tight on the sides, as if every player were a Navy Seal, an assassin.

The players may be less distinctive than they used to be, more like interchangeable parts of the streamlined soccer machine, but they are certainly stronger, faster, better. The teams, too, are less idiosyncratic, less animated by any sense of national style or identity. The greatest tactical advances of the 21st century have come out of Spain (possession play, i.e., “tiki taka,” personified by former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) and Germany (the intense press and counter-press, what the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp calls “heavy metal football”), and every team now deploys some combination of these philosophies. Japan’s first goal against Spain came from a very high press, which ironically enough was designed originally to break tiki taka’s stranglehold on the game. Brazil had the best squad of the tournament, maybe one of the best ever, but essentially played European-style soccer with its Europe-based players. The team added a touch of Brazilian flair, just as Serbia has its grit and Germany its die Mannschaft ethos and the U.S. its chip on the shoulder, but this is all seasoning. It should be noted that nearly half of Japan’s squad plies their trade in Germany.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the last World Cup for Lionel Messi, 35, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, the two best players of the past 15 years. It is the end of an era, for sure. Yet they are also emblematic of the changes that have taken over the sport and will outlast them. Ronaldo’s sheer endurance — this year he became the first player to ever score in five World Cups — is a testament to the advances made in athletic science at the level of the body. He still looks like something that could stand on a plinth in the Greek and Roman wing of the Met, a sculpturally perfect specimen of the human form, even if his inner gyroscope seems to have gone awry with age, causing him to miss open headers and mistime his kicks. (Not all veterans are so lucky: His Portuguese teammate Pepe, at a ripe old 39, looks practically mummified, the decrepit picture to Ronaldo’s ageless Dorian Gray.) Despite the fact that he is built like a Greek god, despite the fact that he has lifted countless trophies, Ronaldo is in the midst of a raging midlife crisis over the fact that his playing days really are coming to an end, lashing out at managers who bench him and running to Piers Morgan to complain. He is under the impression — and these days who’s to say he’s wrong? — that he can play forever.

Ronaldo’s true legacy, though, is also bound up with his body, which when he first made his debut in the English Premier League in 2003 was notable for its size. Ronaldo was a harbinger of the future: soccer players who were much brawnier but just as quick as their pint-size counterparts, just as nimble despite having a higher center of gravity, the (relative) clumsiness of their longer limbs smoothed over by the finest technique and training that money could buy. My favorite moment of this World Cup was Holland’s last-minute equalizer against Argentina to send their quarterfinal match to extra time, coming off a trick free kick that gave the striker Wout Weghorst an easy shot on goal from a few yards out. It was clever, it was sneaky, and it was very Dutch, a kind of throwback to the ingenuity of Johan Cruyff. The difference was that Weghorst is six-foot-six and 200 pounds — a soccer-playing Michael Jordan, basically — dimensions that were unheard of not so long ago.

Messi has too many legacies to list here, including translating the aesthete’s dream of tiki taka into reality, into a soccer that was as effective as it was poetic. He no longer attacks his opponents with the same relish as in his youth, when those powerful legs seemed to move in a circular blur like the old cartoon the Road Runner, though vintage Messi did blaze to life in an inspired moment in the semifinal against Croatia, when he absolutely cooked 20-year-old Joško Gvardiol, the tournament’s best defender, on the wing before setting up Julian Alvarez for the game’s third goal. He mostly walks about now, jogging here and there, waiting for the right moment to dart inside, angle a pass that magically opens up the field, or take a shot that, somehow, finds its way in. There is a heaviness, too, in his demeanor, the customary joy of his goal celebrations giving way to teary exchanges with his supporters and hard stares into the middle distance. If he leads Argentina to victory against France on Sunday, he will secure his claim to being the greatest of all time, if he hasn’t already.

But in the political economy of the sport, he is best known for commanding such a large salary that it nearly bankrupted Barcelona, where he had played his entire professional life. One of the few clubs that could afford him was Paris Saint-Germain, which happens to be owned by the Qatari regime. There is now so much money in soccer that the mere plutocrats of old are struggling to compete with the limitless wealth of the Middle Eastern petro-states. Their clout was evident in the off-stage whisperings in Qatar: reports that Ronaldo had been offered 200 million euros a year to join the Saudi Pro League; reports that Saudi and Qatari investors were weighing a bid to buy Liverpool, whose American owners announced their intention to sell earlier this year; and speculation that the Glazer family, also Americans, would sell the grandest club of them all, Manchester United, to a Gulf nation. The idea is that with that sort of financial backing, United and Liverpool can compete with Guardiola’s City, which has used Emirati funds to come close to building that most tantalizing of chimeras: a perfect soccer team.

The World Cup has made clear the uncomfortable truth that money has made the sport much better. It’s also made clear that a growing chunk of that money comes from bad places that do bad things. Almost everything a fan could love about a soccer performance these days — the athleticism, the explosive power, the grace on the ball — has a cost, both monetary and human. De facto slave labor may not play a role in the next World Cup, held in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, but that doesn’t mean it will lie beyond the shadow of despots.

The best part of Messi’s narrative arc this World Cup is that he has dropped his carefully cultivated image as a happy soccer savant. Early in his career, he was somewhat estranged from the Argentine faithful for being too aloof, too fancy, too Barcelona for a country whose players take pride in their hardscrabble origins and are expected to be equal parts steel and silk. As his legacy increasingly hinges on the country of his birth, Messi has embraced its bare-knuckle soccer culture, epitomized by a pitiless photo of the Argentine players jeering at the crestfallen Dutch after their penalty shootout. Messi for his part was caught on camera feuding with the Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, talking shit to Weghorst, and generally being a hater to everyone not in an Argentina jersey. But at least his hate is pure, and here perhaps is a consolation: that the players, no matter how sharply honed and finely tuned, are still people.

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The Last World Cup