The 22nd iteration of the world’s biggest sporting event—the FIFA men’s World Cup—began in Qatar on Sunday. It is one of the most beloved sporting carnivals on the planet because of its reach, popularity, feel-good stories and, most importantly, the competition. The UEFA Champions League may have eclipsed the World Cup in terms of prestige, but the latter’s romance will remain intact. That romance, though, faces one of its biggest tests over the next month.
This World Cup has come to represent everything that’s wrong with the global sport right now. Nation-states using sport to launder their image is an allegation as old as time, and its handiwork can be found all over this event. You have the deaths of migrant workers while working on World Cup-related projects, allegations of corruption while bidding, and the country’s questionable rights for minorities homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. On Monday, they went a step further in preventing captains from coming out with something as non-controversial as ‘OneLove’ armbands, a gesture designed to stand with the LGBT+ community (wearing it means a straight yellow, among other sanctions). One can see why this may be one of the most controversial World Cups. To get the focus back on the tournament, football’s governing body FIFA, in a communiqué sent to all participating teams, asked everyone to stick to football.
Having said that, the Qatar World Cup is likely to be one of the most wide-open World Cups with no clear favourites. That’s because most of the big European teams are at the start of a new growth curve, while the two South American heavyweights come with a stacked team. Each of the Big Four, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo, is blessed with individual brilliance to shine in this World Cup. Crucially, their four teams have the necessary ensemble to lift the most hallowed trophies at the Lusail Stadium on December 18. For Messi, this could be when he holds the trophy that’s eluded his illustrious career. Maybe England can take it home after 56 years. Sports have that uncanny ability to unite, erase sour memories and act as a soothing balm to all that is ugly. Let’s sit back and enjoy the beauty of the sport for now.