MYJOYONLINE.COM: For all the work Qatar had invested over the years into upgrading its national team to a standard capable of rubbing shoulders with the best of the world, few were under no illusion that the thumb-sized Gulf state’s participation at the 2022 Fifa World Cup, even as hosts, was going to yield any mind-blowing results.
In that sense, at least, The Maroon didn’t disappoint in suffering the most chastening campaign of any hosts in the World Cup’s 92-year history, after losing all three games and finishing bottom of Group A.
With the exception of those elements of the Western media that sought to make a big deal of it (for reasons best-known to them), few would have found Qatar’s gross underperformance — unprecedented though it was — an unexpected turn of events.
In any case, Qatari officials had their eyes fixed on a very different prize, one that felt far more attainable, and which remained within reach long after Felix Sanchez’s team had been bundled out.
The first major move made by Qatar in an attempt to gain visibility and credibility in the football space after defying all odds to secure the 2022 World Cup hosting rights was the acquisition of a controlling stake in — followed by a the full takeover of — Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the French club that, until then, had only been a modest success story in just over 40 years of existence.
In the decade or so since, PSG has been transformed into a mega-club, one accustomed to sweeping clean the plate of French domestic silverware and has found itself within touching distance of European football’s grandest prize, the Uefa Champions League trophy.
It has achieved all that by, primarily, drafting some of the game’s finest players, a trio of whom — Neymar Jr, Kylian Mbappe, and Lionel Messi — are the club’s current leading lights, assembled at some expense.
A record transfer fee — that wouldn’t be overtaken anytime soon — was set in prising Neymar, a ready-made superstar, away from Barcelona in 2017. That same summer, the Parisians went big again, reaching a deal to reel in Kylian Mbappe, the next big thing, from Ligue 1 rivals AS Monaco.
It took a lot of scheming to get those two, but PSG — armed with cash, lots of it — executed both transfers excellently. The deal for Messi was quite different though also requiring a substantial financial outlay; more straightforward, but one anyone hardly saw coming.
The instant news broke that Barcelona, the club Messi had played for all his adult life, weren’t going to be able to hold on to him anymore, PSG showed up at the door as the only club with the ability and room needed to furnish the Argentine with a new home.
With the World Cup coming up, PSG, led by Qatari bigwig Nasser Al-Khelaifi, made sure they had the names of all three firmly plastered on the roster.
Qatar 2022 found PSG’s star forwards at various stages of their international careers.
Neymar, 30, could still be around by the time the World Cup hits the shores of North America in 2026, while the younger Mbappe — with previous experience of winning this thing, triumphing last time out with France — has at least three more World Cups in him, going by Messi’s standards.
Ah, yes, Messi… he who, of the three, needed the title on offer in Qatar the most. He’d already returned empty-handed from four editions of the World Cup and, by his own admission, a sixth appearance at the showpiece would be a bridge too far.
His fifth, at the ripe age of 35, had to be his most rewarding — and Messi had no shortage of well-wishers.
“Seeing Messi lift the World Cup in what could be his last World Cup would be something special for us as organisers,” Hassan Al-Thawadi, chief of the event’s organising committee, said even before the tournament kicked off.
That isn’t to say Qatar was putting all its eggs in one basket.
In spite of Messi’s charm and the aura of destiny that also enveloped Neymar-led Brazil, it is Mbappe who represents the future (while remaining very much a part of the present). Put it this way: Mbappe, if PSG were the Louvre, is the Mona Lisa, the piece that claims pride of place and is deemed worthy of protection at all costs.
And that’s just what PSG did when Real Madrid, that grand, gleaming destination for the game’s brightest and best, went from fluttering eyelashes at Mbappe to trying — for a fee, initially, then on a free — to snatch him in the build-up to the World Cup.
PSG pulled out all the stops, rebuffing Florentino Perez’s attempts at pulling off football’s greatest heist since PSG themselves dared to smash the window of the other Spanish giant, Barcelona, and grabbed Neymar for their mantlepiece.
Having completed ‘Operation Keep Mbappe’, PSG had a fair guarantee that, considering who the leading favourites for the World Cup title were, the star of the winning team would come from their stables: Neymar, for world No.1 Brazil; Messi, for an Argentine team coming in with a 36-game unbeaten run; and Mbappe, for holders France.
Qatar, it could well be said, had the World Cup all but locked in.
And so it proved.
Neymar and Brazil crashed out on penalties to Croatia in the quarter-finals, dumped again by European opposition — their kryptonite at the World Cup since they became the first to collect five stars. The feeling, one suspects, is that Al-Khelaifi and his bosses weren’t too bothered to see Neymar’s back.
Messi and Mbappe, though, ploughed on, all the way to the final in Lusail, where they lit up the final held — not by accident — on Qatar’s National Day.
By the end of regulation time, both Messi and Mbappe had scored penalties, the latter also firing in a volley while the former had a hand in his team’s second goal. In extra-time of this rather remarkable game — a classic, indeed, in every sense of the word — both netted again for good measure.
In the ensuing shootout, it was Messi who had the last laugh, leading Argentina to a first world title in 36 years and walking away with the Golden Ball. Mbappe, left heartbroken after what would nevertheless be remembered as an epic performance, beat Messi by one strike to the Golden Boot.
The scenes back in Buenos Aires were wild, rivalled only by the joy in the hearts of Doha’s powerbrokers who pulled the strings to make this spectacular World Cup possible and also ensure the country got to feast on a sizable slice of the victors’ glory.
Messi is set to be [further] rewarded with a contract extension, while Mbappe is already tied down for a good while (despite recent noises); Neymar, not that it matters, is deemed the most dispensable of the three and might not be around much longer.
It would be a stretch to say this outcome — long after their own team had been trampled — is what Qatar’s investment in football had always been building up to.
But even if this isn’t quite the endgame it feels like, it is certainly a major milestone in the country’s quest to achieve its ultimate goal as a sporting force… whatever that goal is.