Whoever would have thought that Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup would be the worst moment in football history? Well, not the very worst. People have died after all, but such incidents tend to have been the result of accident or oversight.
This, on the other hand, was a moment of pure malignance a decade or more in the making. It had taken deliberate, dedicated planning to turn something so beautiful so ugly. It was so close to the impossible ending almost everybody had wished for.
The great man was two short steps away from the trophy when the Emir of Qatar produced his final flourish, extracting – seemingly from nowhere – an Arabic gown called a bisht, compelling Messi to make a moment that should have been all about Messi to instead be all about him.
Before Sunday’s extraordinary final, it had been speculated whether this curious World Cup, in a tiny country at an unlikely time of year, would in future years leap out from the roll of honour. Whether anything would look unusual about it. The Emir certainly made sure of that.
It hardly needs to be stated that it is not the role of the host nation to impose itself upon its champions. What happened on the pitch at the Lusail Stadium has never happened before and may never happen again.
But it would also be wrong to say that the Emir stole for himself a precious moment that should have belonged to Messi and to Argentina. Because Messi, if we’re honest, was more than in on it himself.
Had England or Germany or the Netherlands or Morocco been victorious on Sunday evening, would the black and gold garment ever have appeared? One suspects the Emir would not have risked it.
It is hard to imagine the pressure placed on a football player, when the eyes of the world are upon them, in their moment of greatest triumph, and the local king pulls something like this out of the woodwork. But it also cannot be ignored that among the swirl of contradictory thoughts in Messi’s head will certainly have been the knowledge that the man expecting him to sully the greatest moment of his life also indirectly pays his wages.
And he had backup plans, too. The favourites before the tournament began were Brazil, whose captain, Neymar is also indirectly paid by Qatar, via Paris Saint Germain. Mbappe has signed a 630 million euro deal with them, and while it wouldn’t have been his hands on the trophy, France has most certainly done more than any other to assist Qatar’s malign ascent to the very top table of global sporting blazerati. (It is absolutely no surprise that Hugo Lloris made clear he would not be joining the captains of England, Germany, the Netherlands and others in their plans to wear an anti-homophobia armband.)
Emmanuel Macron roamed the pitch afterwards, doing his level best to secure his own million dollar photograph, placing hands upon Mbappe and Deschamps – who wore the looks of men who were politely desperate for him to go away. But for the actions of his predecessor but one, Nicolas Sarkozy, in smoothing the way for Qatar to buy Paris Saint Germain, and later a large number of French fighter jets, Macron would almost certainly have been trying to pick up his fallen soldiers on a field in Sydney instead.
But at least, at the moment the bisht went on, football showed itself to be fully naked. The whole self revealed. The reality made clear. The deal done long, long ago. It was the moment in which its ugly transformation revealed itself to be complete.
For Messi himself, he will consider that the moment belongs to the people of Argentina. That the pictures that count are the ones that have already gone extremely viral, of utter bedlam erupting all the way along the Avenida Cinco de Mayo that runs right through the middle of Buenos Aires.
He is merely the greatest player of the greatest game. It is not his fault that it is a game that has changed so utterly in the years in which he has been playing it. He has not changed. It is not his fault that nation states want to buy and sell him for their own nefarious ends, to use him as a propaganda tool.
A peg, quite literally, on which to hang themselves. It is not his fault that there is a race to stuff his pockets with petrodollars (and it’s not his fault either that FC Barcelona may yet prove to have destroyed itself in trying and ultimately failing to keep them away, but that is another story).
And there is also precious little that can be done. Gianni Infantino, football’s apparent saviour at one point, looked on beaming with delight at this horrific little vignette. He was meant to have saved Fifa from Blatter. He is a thousand times more craven and more repulsive than that man ever was. Its impossible to know what thoughts whir inside his little cannonball head. Its hard to believe he can actually be as absurd as he acts.
One has to hope that at least inside his head, at some point, some doubts have been expressed about, say, accepting a medal of friendship from Vladimir Putin. They have certainly not been expressed anywhere else. His speech at the start of the tournament, will be remembered as among the worst ever given by any vaguely significant global person.
(His current predicament, he even admitted to himself, is how to preserve the spirit of the World Cup – namely the four team groups with two eliminations, now that he has expanded it to 48 teams for entirely commercial reasons. He knows the square peg cannot go in the round hole, and he knows that it’s entirely his fault, too.)
There is no meaningful appetite for change, in any quarter. The players, the coaches, the federations, none have the stomach for a proper fight with Fifa. They will only realise what is being taken from them, either with their acquiescence or otherwise, when it is too late. And the moment football’s emperor willingly wore his new clothes was the moment at which it was abundantly clear to see that it is already too late.
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