World Cup·Analysis

Ruthlessness of World Cup reveals itself as teams, and their fans, recede

A World Cup is always an exercise in attrition, a venture in beautiful decay. But Qatar's $200-billion US investment in impermanence has felt especially unnerving, with its daily reminders that no one and nothing is built to last.

Japan, South Korea latest to bid farewell to Qatar

Brazil players hold a banner showing support for Brazil great Pelé after their victory over South Korea on Monday. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

The men's World Cup is a strange celebration of soccer in some ways, because it doesn't feel like it's building to a crescendo. It feels like everything is falling away.

In six hours on Monday, an entire continent was wiped off the World Cup map. The Asian Football Confederation lost its two remaining hopefuls, when Japan fell in an agonizing shootout to Croatia, and South Korea were crushed by an unstoppable-seeming Brazil, 4-1. The end of that game felt less like a departure than an eviction.

All four entries from CONCACAF, North America's confederation, had already been eliminated. The Confederation of African Football has one representative left, Morocco, facing Spain on Tuesday, the last day of the Round of 16. Otherwise, it's a tournament of Europeans and South Americans anymore.

That's not unusual. A World Cup is always an exercise in attrition, a venture in beautiful decay, and there are rarely surprise teams at its end. But Qatar's $200-billion US investment in impermanence has felt especially unnerving, with its daily reminders that no one and nothing is built to last.

First came word that Brazilian great Pelé was in grave condition, although his prognosis is not as dire as feared. Then one of his longest-standing records — he had been the most prolific World Cup goal-scorer under 24 for six decades — fell Sunday, when French star Kylian Mbappé scored twice against Poland.

France's Kylian Mbappé scored twice against Poland on Sunday to break Pelé's record for goals scored by a player 24 or under. (Elsa/Getty Images)

2 weeks of relentless action

Brazil's ruthless win was even the last dance for Stadium 974, made from shipping containers and due to be disassembled and recycled almost immediately. In shockingly short order, a new 44,000-seat stadium that hosted seven World Cup games will no longer exist. 

It felt livelier in Doha in November, before the dismantling had begun. The World Cup is never bigger than it is at its beginning, and here in compact Qatar, the group stage was more overstuffed than usual. There were four games each day, unfolding no more than an hour from each other, for nearly two weeks. It was relentless.

Soon there will be the first of two eerie off-days before the quarter-finals begin. Come Friday, there will be eight games left in total, including the third-place game. What happened in about 36 hours will now take more than a week. Life here will feel almost leisurely.

Along with the pace, the crush has also started to ease. After the group stage, 16 countries exited, and so did most of their supporters. Some of them were big travelers. Losing the Germans changed the landscape. The Iranians, Saudis, and Mexicans also left voids.

The Americans had been another presence, and after the Dutch knocked them out, it was easier to find seats in the city's few bars. If the Brazilians or Argentines get dispatched, then Doha might feel like a ghost town.

People are missed when they go. A World Cup is a little like a particularly extravagant summer camp (or, in this weird edition, a winter one). Strangers form new friendships that seem deeply meaningful; old friendships intensify beyond reason.

South Korea's Heechan Hwang shows his despair after his team's loss to Brazil. (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Sad to see them go

A friend of mine left today. He was here to cover the Canadian team, and now they are gone, so he is on his way home too. After a farewell lunch at the Souq Waqif, less bustling than it was only a few days ago, he went to the airport to take his flight, and I went to watch the South Koreans receive their notice.

They scored their goal late, for pride's sake, and their dancing, drumming supporters didn't stop cheering until the end of the match, when their heroes applauded them in return.

It was sad to see them all go.

Years ago, I had been lamenting to a different friend that somewhere wasn't the place it once was. He said something wise back. He said that everyone who goes to Paris today wishes they'd seen Paris in the '90s; in the '90s they wished they had been there in the '60s; in the '60s they wished they had been there in the '20s.

"You just have to be happy with the Paris beneath your feet," my friend said.

In the Doha beneath our feet, there is still so much fun to come. The quarter-finals are shaping up to be incredible. Lionel Messi will play at least one more game. Cristiano Ronaldo, Richarlison, Pedri, Luka Modric, and Mbappé will, too. Gareth Southgate will do something controversial, and Louis van Gaal will say something extremely dry.

But it took four years for the world to come together, and now it's all going by so fast. Already more people have left than are still here. It won't be the same without them.

It never has been, and it never is.

Look for new episodes of Soccer North each Friday during the World Cup on CBC and the CBC Sports YouTube channel


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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