How Qatar's World Cup is remembered will depend on where one chose to look

Sunday's World Cup final — Argentina versus France, Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé — could be the most watched soccer game in history, a fitting end to a tournament that has been defined, for good and ill, by its devotion to extremes.

Tournament has been both amazing and tragic

A man jumps to kick soccer ball.
Richarlison of Brazil leaps to score against in a group-stage game against Serbia. (Justin Setterfield)

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

We are about 48 hours from Sunday's climactic conclusion to the strangest, most controversial, most thrilling men's World Cup in modern memory. Sunday's final — Argentina versus France, Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé — could be the most watched soccer game in history, a fitting end to a tournament that has been defined, for good and ill, by its devotion to extremes.

Qatar has been an excellent, terrible, laudatory, regrettable host. What was true at the start of this tournament remains true at its finish: None of us should be here. Nor should a breath be uttered about our time in Qatar without our remembering the thousands of migrant workers who died building the stadiums and related infrastructure.

This World Cup shouldn't have happened.

It still happened, and 1.9 million soccer fans descended upon the made-for-TV city of Doha, a movie set masquerading as a metropolis. The skyline looks otherworldly. It's also a metaphor for so much about Qatar and its amusement park of a tournament: Many of its skyscrapers are empty, their shining exteriors hiding too many grim truths to count.

The $200 billion the Qataris spent in preparation — Russia in 2018 had been the previous biggest spender at about $11 billion — showed in other, more positive ways.

Aerial shot of soccer stadium at dusk.
Lusail Stadium, where Sunday's World Cup final will be played. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

The new public transit system is enviable. (A note for organizers of the 2026 edition, which will be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.: Whatever your plans for people moving, double them, and add a little more.) The stadiums are gorgeous. The armies of "volunteers" have been helpful and friendly. The streets are safe, even if it's best not to wonder too deeply why. 

The Arab world has also become more fully part of FIFA's orbit, and that's good. Saudi Arabia's opening upset against Argentina, Iran's anthem protest, Morocco's run to the semifinal — each was historic in its way.

Even the stadium beer ban that made global headlines has somehow worked out. Watching games without having to worry about mobs of drunken, brawling fans has been… really quite pleasant? A revelation.

And then there were the games themselves.

Soccer is operatic, a sport of moments. If you watched this tournament and now close your eyes, you'll flash through a collection of them, beautiful or crushing, depending on which side of them you were on.

You'll see Morocco's shootout victory over Spain. You'll see Harry Kane sky his penalty against France. You'll see Messi's assist against the Dutch, and you'll see his run against the Croatians. 

You'll see Cristiano Ronaldo's stubborn exit from the global stage. You'll see Uruguay's Luis Suarez helpless on the bench against vengeful Ghana, accompanied by South Korea's late winner over Portugal across town. You'll see Richarlison's second goal against Serbia. You'll see Japan's comeback win over Germany, and then you'll see its fans tidying up after.

A woman picks up trash in soccer stadium.
A Japanese fan clears rubbish from the stands after her country's game against Costa Rica. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

"We played 62 matches so far, without incidents, basically," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said at his closing address on Friday. (He did not say he felt gay this time.) "International atmosphere, joyful atmosphere, football uniting the world, people coming together and wanting to enjoy a little bit their time, maybe forgetting also some of their issues and having pleasure."

He wasn't wrong. Or at least he was half-right.

The Qatar World Cup didn't give everyone an escape from their sadness. For many, it was the source. There are thousands of widows in Nepal, in India, in Kenya, who will curse it for the rest of their lives.

We also lost a good human and friend when American soccer journalist Grant Wahl died suddenly, of an aortic aneurysm, in the media tribune at the quarter-final between Argentina and the Netherlands.

During every minute of soccer that's followed that horrific night, I haven't been able to stop thinking how much Grant would have loved to have seen what we've been seeing. He would be lit up like a Christmas tree today — he was already nearly as tall as one — knowing we'll soon watch Messi and Mbappé play a final that has all the makings of a classic.

Constructions workers on unfinished building.
Workers during construction of Al Bayt Stadium in 2017. (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

At the same time, I can't help imagining Grant laying out his black T-shirt with the rainbow-encircled soccer ball on its front, the same shirt that saw him detained by Qatari security forces before the USA's group-stage game against Wales. I would bet my house that he would have worn it to Lusail Stadium on Sunday.

Such was this tournament's maddening duality.

Was it amazing? Yes. Was it tragic? Yes. Like life itself, it wasn't any one thing. It was whatever you wanted it to be, depending on where you looked and what you saw, and who you chose to remember.

WATCH | John Herdman on lessons from Qatar:

John Herdman on Davies' role, lessons from Qatar 2022, & looking to 2026

9 months ago
Duration 14:53
Host Andi Petrillo is joined by Canadian men's national team head coach John Herdman as he looks back on Canada Soccer's performance in Qatar.


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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