the curtain falls on Project Hard Football Power

“And the winner is… Qatar!” It all started with those words, read with a tone of joy strangled by Sepp Blatter on stage at home Fifa. Twelve years after Qatar 2022 ended with the same sentence hanging in the air.

The Hard Football Power project is complete. And it really couldn’t have gone better, a micromanaged power play, from the pharaonic-scale nation-building project, to the painted backdrop sets, to the regional visibility that helped see Qatar through the years of blockade, to the possibility of death to parade Lionel Messi around the winners’ fence like a beaming Guy Fawkes mannequin. The winner is… Qatar!

There were layers to that power-up moment in December 2010. Blatter’s strange tone spoke of the fact that he also knew he was reading his dismissal note, that Qatar’s victory indicated that he, Blatter, had lost control of the show . Standing stiff as a board, Blatter nudged Jérôme Valcke, who looked like he was about to cry, and ordered him to smile.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years the Guardian has reported on Qatar 2022 issues, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to delve into issues beyond the pitch.

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In the wake of that moment, the house of Blatter would fall, the regime of the more opaque and unknowable Gianni Infantino would arise. And that phase of the cycle is now over. The most expensive, carbon-heavy, blood-stained, corruption-shadowed event in the history of global sport is a wrap. But what does it mean? And what will happen next?

Qatar 2022 marked the end of a few other things as well. For starters, the end of the fiction, and it has always been a fiction, that there is some kind of innocence about the Fifa World Cup; that this is something other than a city-state of marauders, out there cruising the globe looking for the next compliant, accomplice host to share its gluttony with.

This was a World Cup of illusions and falsehoods, football in the era of populism and post-truth

Qatar has transformed football: this is often heard too. In reality Qatar simply supercharged what was already there, presenting us with the standard corruption and hypocrisy of football stripped of artifice and brilliantly unapologetic.

Qatar didn’t invent this world, it didn’t invent migrant labour, it didn’t invent global capitalism. It is simply the most zealous of the late adopters, selling brutal carbon-fueled hyper-capitalism to the world in its final form, like the Beatles bringing rock and roll to America.

At a more micro level the end of this World Cup is also the end of a generation of great players, perhaps even the end of the era of the modern individualist, a lineage that stretches from Ronaldinho to Messi. Football is more compressed, more systems driven, more controlled than ever before. It seems possible that the highest stage will never again see a baggy, passenger 35-year-old model conjurer. Likewise Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, good night ladies, sweet ladies, good night.

Related: From Martínez to Mbappé: a team from the 2022 World Cup tournament

And for now, as the defeat begins to bite, there are probably three things worth saying about Qatar 2022. First, the football was excellent. The action on the pitch was bright, full of emotion and culminating in the biggest World Cup final ever staged.

There is no meaning to this, no morals to be drawn. The World Cup was beautiful because football is beautiful. This is why Qatar paid $220 billion to borrow its light. It is because of this that Fifa will collect $7 billion in revenue from the show. This thing is supernaturally strong no matter how hard we try to bend it out of shape.

There has been a lot of talk about the scale and scope of this World Cup, about the idea of ​​new powers, a new world order. It is a good propaganda line for organizers and host broadcasters. In reality eight of the last 16, five of the last eight, two of the last four were European nations. We had Morocco and the excitement of a first African semi-finalist, but even this is more complex. This was also a triumph of the diaspora, a triumph of expert management and excellent domestic structures, combined with multiculturalism.

Yassine Bono (left) and Achraf Hakimi celebrate their victory against Portugal. Morocco’s run was one of the great storylines of the World Cup, but it was also more complex than it first seemed. Photography: Ariel Schalit/AP

Seven starting players were the product of European club academies and European childhoods, coupled with a Moroccan sense of togetherness that seemed to offer a model of how to live these many identities. This story is more nuanced, more interesting than just parping regionalism.

Otherwise entertainment came from dramatic endings and gameplay tension as much as high quality. Take Messi away and there were no really outstanding teams outside of France and Argentina. England, Croatia and Morocco were in second place here. This is a pretty functional stock. But they produced great games, lots of goals, good refereeing and a welcome absence of red cards.

Fernando Santos single-handedly saved football by knocking out Ronaldo and playing against a 21-year-old who scored a hat-trick, one of the great managerial gestures of all time. Croatia was a captivating group of super intelligent dinosaurs. Brazil made Brazil.

Related: The World Cup, match by match: extraordinary photos from Qatar 2022

And it was a good job too because a bad World Cup on the pitch could have mortally wounded the whole idea of ​​international football given the background of this thing.

Otherwise Messi wrote the story of Qatar 2022 and did so by manifesting the key paradox of Big Football. Here is a player whose talent expresses freedom, beauty, love, imagination, uplifting human qualities. Messi is basically a sporty unicorn – and a very unusual unicorn, the kind of unicorn that other unicorns also look at and say, ‘That unicorn, that’s a little bit special.’

Often the word “player” can seem like a ridiculous anachronism. The game is fun, joy, free stuff. Modern football, on the other hand, is a suffocating matrix, all constraint and physicality. Somehow even Messi, the greatest footballer of the time, is a player.

At the same time, his professional existence is still experienced as a tool of despotic regimes, anchored in the global commodified game. Messi is the face of the Qatar propaganda World Cup. Messi is Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador. It’s almost an act of involuntary rebellion to be all of these things and act like him, the rebellious heart to Argentine football expressed not through any conscious act of will, not through guns and cops and drugs, but through a way of playing, the whisper of one free spirit.

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, the two best players of the tournament, both play for the Qatar-owned PSG. Photography: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Apart from all this, we still have death. Not to mention the suffering, corruption and grotesque monarchical vanity. So many things at this World Cup seemed to scream in horror, from the gaping mouths of the glittering stadium roofs, to the scary cartoon avatars of Bein Sports graphics, to the universal public address system.

The stage was haunted by ghosts. The People’s World Cup was also the World Cup of the Dead. We can argue about the final count, which is also part of the horror, lack of care, death as part of life, in the words of the good old Supreme Delivery Committee. But this was football as an accessory to the overclass world, football as a VVIP product.

There are other costs. An otherworldly shiver came over the Lusail Iconic Stadium an hour before kick-off for the World Cup final. To rain? Guilt? No, this was air conditioning on a giant scale, the brainchild of Qatar’s famed “Dr Cool,” whose indirect carbon footprint must be one of the most frighteningly large on earth. Hopefully, Dr. Cool will also recycle and cycle. But in the end we all pay for it.

Otherwise this too was a World Cup of illusions and falsehoods, football in the era of populism and post-truth. Concerns about lack of care from landlords have been systematically dismissed with a useful dead-end moral relativism; even described, absurdly, as racism (reality: few things are as racist as a structurally racist state that recklessly harms migrant workers).

Fifa introduced the idea of ​​’unnatural lost time’ into this World Cup and Qatar 2022 has often felt that way, from the artful deception of the 974 stadium, which pretended to be an ecological triumph, to the strange dance of the conscience bracelets, supposedly long burned on the Al-Wakrah docks like the 1970 team van full of corned beef; to Infantino’s malleable quality that he believes in a reenactment of European oppression 3,000 years ago, but he argues he cannot be held responsible for what happened to FIFA five years before he became president. Are you still feeling dizzy?

And this is the last thing worth saying about Qatar 2022, which is ultimately simply a mirror of the world. Qatar is not an aberration. Qatar is the way the world works, presented with brutal, unapologetic clarity. Other nations may have checks and balances, unions, democracy, free speech, ways to mitigate the brutality of upper class rule. Doha may also have deliberately neglected its duty to care for migrant workers, explicitly targeting nations suffering the most from climate change to build its World Cup, because desperate people are cheap people. This must not happen.

Related: World Cup in Qatar concludes with biggest final and a coronation for Lionel Messi | Barney Ronai

But ultimately the real question about migrant workers is why are migrant workers so poor that they are willing to do this, and who benefits from that world? Qatar 2022 may be a bloodstained thing but it is also a light and a lens, a sheet on how the world works. Not to mention its superheated carbon center. Qatar is the source of energy. Qatar won: it was not an aberration, but a prophecy.

One final note on what may come next, beyond the US, Mexico and Canada in 2026 and our newly opened book on the morality of the World Cup hosts. It was interesting that Michel Platini refused Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to participate in the World Cup final. Platini is said to be unwilling to meet Infantino and his circle, whom he sees as malevolent architects of his own downfall.

There is real enmity here. Platini is now also free from criminal charges. Newly re-elected Infantino befriending world leaders looks bulletproof. But if there is someone who knows something about the things that no one knows, it is perhaps Platini, who seems not to have finished yet.

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