DOHA – Even before an epic final won by Lionel Messi and Argentina, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was calling it “the best World Cup ever” in Qatar.
There was clear self-interest to declare the success of a tournament that was politically fraught for most of the 12 years since the wealthy emirate was picked as host by a previous FIFA leadership broadly tainted by corruption allegations.
FIFA’s fundamental role is to oversee global soccer’s rules and make sure World Cups happen on schedule: Goal achieved, billions of dollars duly earned.
As ever with arguably world sport’s most colorful governing body, there was much else going on.
ON THE FIELD
When the games begin focus shifts to the field, and FIFA got that early on day three when Messi and Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia 2-1 in an upset for the ages.
One day later, Germany lost to Japan and then Brazil delighted the world in its first game against Serbia. Morocco picked up the baton and was the first African or Arab nation to still be playing on the last weekend of a World Cup.
Games were consistently compelling if not the best quality. These were not vintage Spain or Netherlands teams, and not even Brazil by the time of its quarterfinals exit.
The drama rose with simultaneous group-stage games that carried Japan, South Korea and Croatia to the round of 16 and sent Germany and Belgium home.
All continents got teams into the knockout rounds, letting Infantino repeat his claim of soccer “becoming truly global for the first time.”
When the final was a true classic on Sunday, Argentina winning on penalties after a 3-3 draw, it left everyone except France feeling like they won.
It was a most political World Cup. Before a game was played there was scrutiny of Qatar for its human rights record, employment practices and a years-long boycott by neighboring states in which FIFA pushed for the Gulf region to share the tournament.
In the final weeks of preparation, Qatar pushed back more confidently against its critics – a process FIFA joined after teams and media arrived on site.
Infantino’s infamous “I feel gay, I feel a migrant worker” speech on Nov. 19 hit many of the host nation’s talking points that alleged western hypocrisy and racism.
FIFA gave assurances in private — to European teams about captains wearing anti-discrimination armbands; to fans about wearing rainbow symbols; to World Cup sponsor AB InBev about selling Budweiser beer with alcohol at stadiums – that started to collapse. Bonds of trust were severely strained.
Pre-tournament talk of being open to supporting a compensation fund and better resources for migrant workers in Qatar was mostly shut down.
Qatar’s World Cup was a state-run project and it seemed clear who was in charge.
When European women lawmakers came to games wearing the “One Love” armband, Middle East officials started sporting a Palestinian armband.
When an Italian field invader displayed European activist messages, days later a Tunisian man did the same with a Palestinian flag.
During the tournament, basic operational detail was hard to get and most requests were ignored. Routine briefings and news conferences at past World Cups, including Russia in 2018, did not happen.
A guiding principle seemed to be “never complain, never explain” for World Cup organizers.
The FIFA president is traditionally jeered at World Cup finals. It happened again on Sunday when Infantino was introduced for the trophy presentations.
Infantino also was booed when the TV broadcast showed him sitting in VVIP seats during the England-Wales game. Both countries had armband and rainbow issues with FIFA, while British media extensively covered migrant labor issues.
Though Argentina and Morocco fans traveled in big numbers, fewer than expected Europeans came to Qatar. The pre-tournament target was 1.2 million international visitors but the official total was less than 800,000 entering the final week.
Yet, when thousands of Morocco fans tried to arrive for an unexpected semifinal against France last Wednesday, several flights into Doha were canceled to limit numbers.
High-priced accommodation like tents and cabins also seemed to put off visiting fans.
Empty seats at kickoff for most games would steadily fill by halftime. There was evidence and anecdotes of residents in Qatar being taken to games and offered free tickets, and the host nation’s loudest cheer squad was fans brought from Lebanon and Syria.
When tournament attendance topped 3.4 million, it was unclear and went unanswered if the total included all the volunteers, catering and security staff who clocked in to work in stadiums.
This was a clear win for FIFA, despite a likely breach of contract issue to resolve with AB InBev.
FIFA reported higher than expected revenue of $7.5 billion for the four-year commercial cycle tied to Qatar’s World Cup.
The World Cup was a tougher sell in the past decade when new sponsors came only from Russia and Qatar — two often problematic host nations — and China while prosecutors in the United States, Switzerland and France ran corruption investigations targeting soccer officials.
A late run of sponsor signings for this World Cup included tourism in Saudi Arabia and Las Vegas, plus companies in the online gambling, cryptocurrency and blockchain sectors.
Most deals now expire and FIFA plans to cash in from staging a bigger 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, by offering sponsors huge local markets and more games being played mostly in high-yield NFL stadiums.
Infantino said on Friday that FIFA’s four-year forecast is for $11 billion through 2026. All 211 member federations will be getting millions more dollars from Zurich.
FIFA leaders could stay in opulent Qatari hotels that opened just in time for the World Cup.
One base was the waterside Fairmont Hotel, nearly 40 stories high and shaped like a curved sword. It offered 18-karat gold tiles in the shower of some suites and a 56-meter (185-foot) high chandelier in the lobby.
Coupled with an unprecedented level of security at a World Cup, it added to the feel of FIFA isolating in an ivory tower.
While France’s President Emmanuel Macron went for a brief walkabout at the main market in Doha, Infantino almost never met ordinary fans.
One regular Infantino companion was a celebrity chef famed for painting gold leaf on steaks that costs hundreds of dollars at his restaurants.
The chef, known as Salt Bae, also seemed to breach World Cup protocol by holding the gold trophy when joining the Argentina players on the field on Sunday for post-game celebrations.
For veteran FIFA watchers, it was an apt final symbol for the World Cup in Qatar.