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Don’t buy the hype.. Lionel Messi being draped in Arabian robe reminded us how flawed Qatar World Cup really was

WAS it the greatest World Cup final? Probably.

Was it the greatest World Cup final storyline? Definitely.

Messi was draped in a traditional Arabian bisht robe for the celebrations
Infantino held on to the trophy for as long as possible

But was Qatar 2022 the greatest World Cup of all time? Certainly not.

During the build-up to Sunday’s epic it felt cartoonish and celebrity-obsessed to bill a team game as ‘Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappe’.

But then, in a final seemingly scripted by Disney, it turned out that it really was Messi versus Mbappe, with the two Galacticos scoring five of the six goals.

Messi finally lifted the World Cup at 35, and had an influence on Argentina’s campaign as significant as that of the late Diego Maradona in 1986.

And Mbappe became only the second player in history to score a World Cup final hat-trick, nicked the Golden Boot from Messi, yet still ended up a loser.

The Frenchman, 24 today, ought to have been man of the match, because his ailing team, struggling with the effects of a virus, barely turned up for 80 minutes until his dramatic two-goal intervention forced extra-time.

There has been a concerted effort from Fifa’s clown overlord Gianni Infantino and Qatari stooges to paint this tournament as the best ever — and a great final played into their hands.

But just in case we were inclined to forget the corruption, human rights abuses and the sheer nonsense of holding a World Cup in a tiny nation with no footballing culture, a farcical trophy presentation reminded us that this last month had been deeply flawed.

In a final piece of ‘sportswashing’, Messi was draped in a traditional Arabian bisht robe, tarnishing images of the trophy lift, the crowning glory of a magnificent career.


But then Messi is paid by the Qataris, who own Paris Saint- Germain, and is also an ambassador for Saudi Arabia.

However beautiful a footballer he may be, and however romantic the story of his World Cup triumph had seemed, this fella is raking in tens of millions from some ruthless people.

And then there was Infantino, trying to hog the limelight and gatecrash Argentina’s celebrations.

The man is a prized twit, a deranged attention-seeker in hock to oppressive dictators, a glove puppet for Vladimir Putin, the Emir of Qatar and the Saudis, whom he would love to host the 2030 World Cup.

In purely footballing terms, this was one of the better World Cups.

But anybody who went to Qatar will tell you that the overall  tournament experience was a sham.

This became immediately apparent at the opening match when hapless Qatar — easily the worst host team in World Cup history — were well beaten by Ecuador in a largely silent stadium, which was half-empty soon after half-time as the locals gave up and went home.

Only the South American and north African nations brought  significant support and so the atmosphere at most matches was thoroughly weird — stadiums  dominated by neutral tourists and Mexican Waves and Icelandic  thunderclaps.

When Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped and Portugal hammered Switzerland 6-1, Ronaldo still received the night’s shrillest cheer when he arrived as a late sub — a far more rapturous ovation than that afforded to his replacement Goncalo Ramos, who scored a  brilliant hat-trick.

And some of the World Cup’s best bits are now under threat from Fifa. The expansion of the event to 48 teams, from 2026, will make it bloated and lop-sided.

Some of this tournament’s greatest drama arrived with the final group-stage matches, as two games ran concurrently and fortunes  fluctuated wildly.

Germany were eliminated by a controversial Japanese winner against Spain and Uruguay’s  villains were dumped out by South Korea’s injury-time clincher against Portugal.

Yet at the next World Cup, we face having  12 groups of four, which would allow some third-placed teams to progress, and not others, also affecting those group-stage climaxes.

England had a good tournament and many of us initially felt that, if Harry Kane had scored his second penalty, rather than ballooning it, Gareth Southgate’s men might have won the World Cup.

Yet while England possess some very good footballers, including some improving youngsters, they do not have a game-changing match-winner like Mbappe or Messi.

Mbappe would probably have  conjured a moment of brilliance to defeat England in extra-time. If not, Messi would probably have done so in the final.

And that is to ignore Morocco, the first African World Cup semi-finalists — a huge achievement from an obdurate team, fired by fanatical support.

There were shades of 1982 about Brazil, who provided outstanding individual brilliance.

Tottenham’s Richarlison was a star but his team ultimately under-achieved by losing a quarter-final shootout to  Croatia — and what a stunning feat for that small nation to finish second and third at  consecutive World Cups.

Argentina’s quarter-final victory over Holland was wild and wonderfully ill-tempered.

While most of us wanted to see Argentina prevail in the final, for Messi’s sake, let us not forget their antics as they taunted the fallen Dutch after their shootout win.

The refereeing was largely  excellent and unfussy in Qatar — final ref Szymon Marciniak in  particular — and VAR functioned unusually well.

But let’s not allow Infantino to bask in the glory of a great final and attempt to normalise winter World Cups in the Middle East.

Don’t let them tell you, either, that the absence of alcohol helped.

There hasn’t been significant crowd violence at a World Cup since 1998.

Infantino will be desperate to get the event to Saudi Arabia in 2030 — another disruptive mid-season  tournament in a dry country under a barbaric regime.

If it happens, with the Saudis as outright hosts or in a weird joint bid with Egypt and Greece, Messi will surely be in Riyadh as a handsomely paid patsy.

He is a wonderful footballer and on Sunday he illuminated a  wonderful football match.

But let’s not pretend Messi is a saint and let’s not pretend that Qatar 2022 was a proper World Cup at all, let alone the greatest one.

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