Qatar Gets the World Cup Final It Paid For

On Thursday afternoon, I spoke to Asma, a young Qatari soccer fan who has been radicalized by the World Cup. Asma, who is in her mid-twenties, normally follows European club soccer, in the form of watching Real Madrid on TV. (Asma is a pseudonym.) The first soccer match she ever went to in person was the World Cup’s opening game, last month, a dispiriting defeat for the hosts. After that, Asma watched most of the tournament’s group stage from her home in Doha. When we first spoke, a couple of weeks ago, she was having trouble leaving the house because of all the games she wanted to catch. But, after witnessing some big upsets—Saudi Arabia’s early win over Argentina, Germany’s shock exit—Asma wondered what the ongoing World Cup experience was like in real life. “I was, like, ‘Maybe I should go to the matches. I should be there,’ ” she told me.

Tickets for the World Cup are hard to come by in Doha, but not so hard. Asma got her parents involved. She hit up her friends. She dabbled in the black market. She has been to eleven matches so far. When I talked with Asma this week, she had been to both semifinals, which kicked off at 10 P.M. local time, on successive nights. She sat way up in the rafters at Lusail Stadium to watch Argentina’s impressive 3–0 dismantling of Croatia. The next evening, she drove a half hour north of Doha, into the desert, to Al Bayt Stadium, for France’s tense, absorbing 2–0 victory over Morocco.

Like many other Qataris, Asma was backing Morocco, whose run to the semifinal was simultaneously the best-ever showing of an African team at the World Cup and a vehicle for pan-Arab pride—a strong theme of the tournament. Asma had good seats at Al Bayt (behind the French goal in the second half, when the Atlas Lions threatened to score an equalizer), and she was swept up in the non-stop Moroccan whistling and chanting. “Even, like, in the last three minutes, they did not stop cheering for Morocco,” Asma said. “There were some tears, but everyone was so proud. They were still shouting ‘Viva Maghreb’ outside of the stadium when the match was over, which I thought was very beautiful.” She didn’t get home until 2:40 A.M.

Mixing with thousands of soccer fans isn’t exactly routine behavior in Qatari society, particularly for young women. But the fun of being in partisan crowds has proved addictive. “I just don’t want to miss a match if I have the chance,” Asma said. She liked to get to games early, to take photographs, yell encouragement, and have short, knockabout conversations that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. “Because why would I interact with random strangers in Doha?” Asma said. “It barely ever happens.” The World Cup, for a few weeks, has turned ordinary Qatari social customs upside down. “Now it’s just, like, Why aren’t we speaking? Let’s talk if we are walking in the same direction,” Asma said. “Let’s just talk. And then, if you see someone wearing a team jersey, you’re, like, ‘Vamos!’ Or ‘Viva Maghreb!’ . . . If you see someone walking past you and you don’t speak, it’s weird. Everything flipped.”

As an approachable Qatari woman, Asma has found herself fielding questions about her country from curious foreign fans. She said, “I think everyone that comes to any Arab country has this question in the back of their minds: How does it work?” At one match, a Brazilian visitor asked her if it was normal for Qatari men to have four wives. (In 2015, around eight per cent of Qatari marriages were polygamous.) “I’m happy to answer them,” Asma said. “It is what it is. My grandfather had more than one wife.” Like Asma, her friends were hunting for tickets. If they couldn’t get to a game, they headed to an outdoor screen or a restaurant, choosing the company of strangers over the familiarity of watching at home. “I did not think Qataris were that much fun,” Asma said. “Honestly, I didn’t think we were. I don’t think we thought we were.” I asked Asma what it was going to be like after the World Cup ended. “What am I going to do? It’s going to be so sad,” she said. “There’s a running joke that we’re all going to be very depressed and the state has to pay for therapy for every single citizen.”

It has been an excellent World Cup. There have been surprises: Morocco’s adventure, Japan’s swagger through the group stage, Croatia’s steely progress, which knocked out Brazil. (Outside the Arab teams, Asma had placed all her hopes on Brazil. When the Seleção lost on penalties last Friday evening, she took to her bed.) There have been non-surprises: Cristiano Ronaldo becoming the first player to score at five World Cups, then claiming a goal that he did not score, then falling out with his coach. There have been a hundred and sixty-three goals—eight short of the record, achieved in France, in 1998, and in Brazil, in 2014—with two games still to go.

My favorite goal was probably Richarlison’s overhead goal for Brazil against Serbia, for its three vivid touches of the ball: Rodrygo’s impudent, outside-of-the-boot cross; Richarlison’s first dab, to set himself; and then the third, balletic sweep into the net. The joy of tidying up. But there was also a strange beauty to Vincent Aboubakar’s vertical scoop over the head of Vanja Milinković-Savić, Serbia’s goalkeeper, during its riotous draw with Cameroon, while Luis Chávez’s free kick for Mexico against Saudi Arabia was like the arc of the moral universe—very long indeed. In among the goals, there were some fascinating, deeply watchable contests. The quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina was a gigantic, three-course meal of a match, bursting with goals, bad tempers, and an ingenious, hundred-and-first-minute Dutch equalizer, scored straight from a practice routine. (The match took place a couple of hours after Brazil’s defeat. Asma, who was in her room, stricken, glanced at the final minutes on her phone. When the second Dutch goal went in, she ran down the hall and woke up her mother.)

Qatar now has the final that it craved. If you spend more than two hundred billion dollars staging a World Cup, Argentina versus France in front of eighty-eight thousand fans feels like what you were paying for. Two storied teams, blessed with two leading lights: Lionel Messi, the Argentinean captain and maestro, and Kylian Mbappé, the explosive young French forward. Messi and Mbappé are the World Cup’s top scorers, with five goals each. They are also already on the Qatari payroll. In their day jobs, they are the stars of Paris Saint-Germain, France’s most successful soccer team and an asset of Qatar Sports Investments.

Messi, in particular, has been playing on the red carpet this tournament. At times, it feels like nobody wants to stop him from lifting the trophy on Sunday. Other times, it looks like he is ready to grab it himself. After Argentina scraped home against the Netherlands, he delayed a TV interview to fix a manic stare at Wout Weghorst, the scorer of the two Dutch goals, and growl, “¿Qué miras, bobo?” (“What are you looking at, fool?”) (The Spanish version is more wounding, somehow.) In the semifinal, Messi’s run to set up Argentina’s third goal against Croatia was a twisting, syncopated dance of dozens of instinctive, unthought steps. He didn’t look up. He just swerved, in all directions of the compass, executing the pure, childlike art of having a soccer ball and not wanting to give it to anybody else, until his fellow-forward, Julián Álvarez, showed up and Messi slid him the ball so he could stick it in the net.

Mbappé is nearly twelve years—three World Cups—younger than Messi. He operates in shorter, equally intricate bursts, as if he had acquired a set of cheat codes to the left-hand corner of the penalty box. Toward the end of Wednesday’s semifinal, Morocco was the likelier team to score, until Mbappé got into his favorite wriggle zone, on the edge of the penalty area, and quick-stepped his way through a crowd of defenders. His shot spun off into the path of Randal Kolo Muani, a French substitute, who scored the game’s decisive goal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *