World Cup best and worst: Memorable Messi and Morocco; Infantino’s rant and Salt Bae’s cameo

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With the excitement on the pitch as prominent as the controversies surrounding it, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will go down as one of the most unique in history. Lionel Messi leading Argentina to triumph over France in an epic final will live on forever, but questions will continue over the true legacy of this World Cup.

With the tournament now complete, our correspondents who travelled to Qatar share their best and worst moments from the world’s biggest sporting event.

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Best moment

Rob Dawson: A one-city World Cup seemed like a huge risk given the amount of people who would flock to Doha, but it gave the tournament a carnival atmosphere, particularly in the group stages when there were four games a day. Groups of fans would meet on the metro lines heading in different directions, talking about their teams and their confidence or lack of it.

The World Cup should be about bringing people together, and that’s what it did. It’s hard to see how that will be replicated in 2026 when 48 teams will be playing across 16 cities in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Gab Marcotti: Not in the sense that it was the highest quality — it often wasn’t — but that’s part of the allure of international football. Rather, we got a spectacle and we got entertainment precisely because teams were bold and took chances, and yes, they made mistakes. We got to see upsets, too, but, equally, two of the pre-tournament favourites made it to the final, which meant the World Cup wasn’t just a festival of randomness.

Mark Ogden: The final was the best thing about the World Cup, but that’s the easy answer, so I’m going to nominate the fans who travelled thousands of miles to be there, as well as those from the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.

Buenos Aires is 8,000 miles from Doha and a 17-hour flight, but whenever Argentina played, you could have been at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental or Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera due to the noise and colour of the thousands of Argentines in town. Mexico brought plenty of supporters, and there was a Saudi Arabian takeover in Doha whenever Qatar’s neighbours played.

Morocco and Tunisia also came in huge numbers, while the amount of fans in Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar shirts who told you they were from the Indian state of Kerala or Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan highlighted the passion for the game in countries that have never participated in a World Cup.

Fans of the European nations largely stayed away, so this World Cup was saved by supporters from different parts of the world, and they should be rewarded with tournaments in their region in 2030 and 2034.

James Olley: The World Cup final. It was a privilege to be in Lusail Stadium to witness what is surely the greatest final in history. A game that’s often cagey due to the stakes was absolutely mesmeric from start to finish. And, of course, then there’s Messi.

To witness Messi at 35 define the final just as he had the tournament was a life-affirming moment for just about everybody present. Nobody could begrudge him this: after years struggling under the weight of expectation, so much so that he quit international football for a few days in 2016 before changing his mind, he embraced and harnessed the support of a football-obsessed nation to end a 36-year wait for the biggest prize of all.

Tom Hamilton: Seeing Morocco in the final four was wonderful news for the global game, and a fitting return on their wonderful fans’ support throughout the tournament. In this age of global scouting and incredible detail, you feel some may still have been surprised by some of the breakthrough players in that team like Azzedine Ounahi. More of that, please, moving forward!

Also, the future of central midfield is in good hands. Though Brazil‘s Casemiro and Croatia‘s Luka Modric are the ageless mainstays, the strength in depth across the world is frankly ridiculous. Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez was rightfully recognised with the young player award for his impact, but also bring in the likes of Spain duo Gavi and Pedri, England‘s Jude Bellingham and those French midfielders, and you have several young players who can be mainstays for the next decade.

Julien Laurens: It’s not very original, of course, but having been able to watch Messi live was incredible. It was an absolute privilege to be there against Netherlands in the quarterfinals, against Croatia in the semis and then the final, as heartbreaking as it was for France fans worldwide.

In the semis, when Messi turned over Josko Gvardiol before crossing the ball for Julian Alvarez‘s goal, I looked over at ESPN colleague Gab Marcotti and we looked at each other in shock with our hands on our faces saying, ‘What have we just seen?’ We will never forget this moment. I will tell my children, and one day my grandchildren, that I was there when Messi, the greatest player of all time, lifted the World Cup.

Jeff Carlisle: As much as the World Cup is about the games and its players, it’s also about the fans. You have people from all over, sharing their passion for the sport and taking the games in alongside one another. This was evident as one walked through Doha’s Souq Waqif marketplace on any given day: the cafes were jammed with all manner of fans, some celebrating memorable victories, others stewing over painful defeats, but all experiencing the tournament together.

This was especially true of the fans from African and Arab countries. This was a tournament that by virtue of its location was accessible to those spectators in a way that wasn’t possible in the past, and they brought immense passion and enthusiasm to the festivities. Messi’s heroics and Argentina’s victory will be long remembered, but so should the spirit of the fans who were there to bear witness.

Sam Borden: It’s easy to pick any of a half-dozen moments from the final (I’m partial to Mbappe’s second goal) but for me the purest moment of tension, drama and can’t-sit-still pressure was the last 10 minutes of Matchday 3 in Group H.

South Korea‘s win over Portugal, the incredible wait for Uruguay and Ghana to finish, the tears on the field from Son Heung-Min when it finally ended — all of it was pure ecstasy for those who love the World Cup. It’s still unclear what the future holds for the group stage, but if South Korea (and Japan‘s thriller over Spain, a day earlier) showed us anything at this tournament, it’s that those simultaneous group-stage finishes are the beating heart of big-time international soccer.

Cesar Hernandez: What more could you ask of a final? We had Messi cementing his status as the greatest of all time, an impeccable Mbappe showcasing his potential to become the next preeminent icon in the sport, two breathtaking halves of extra time, an unbelievably momentous late save from Martinez in Argentina’s net, a climactic penalty shootout, and so much more edge-of-your-seat drama that can’t properly be conveyed by words alone. Days later it still feels as if we’re all attempting to catch up to the spectacle.

It might take some time to settle the debate, but those left in awe will be wondering if that was not only the most exciting World Cup final ever, but also possibly one of the most legendary football matches of all time.

Worst moment

Rob Dawson: The World Cup should never have been in Qatar. The football was great, the atmosphere was enjoyable and the final was historic, but none of it should have happened where it did. It’s important to spread football across the world, but hosting the World Cup should be a reward for undertaking positive change — not just a prize handed out to the highest bidder.

Most fans had a great time for a month, but the reality is that, when things get back to normal, not much will have changed.

Gab Marcotti: This was sold as a World Cup for the Arab world. After a month there, I got to see futuristic stadiums and shopping malls, off-shoots of London and New York restaurants, a fake San Siro and tons of migrant workers who have come to work in Doha. Qataris? Not so many. It’s a function of Doha itself (3 million people, 90% of them foreign), but it’s also how we ended up staging a whole World Cup in a single mid-sized city (and no, Lusail, much as it pretends to be, is not a separate city, is not a city at all).

The logical way to do this would have been to make it a Gulf World Cup. Let Qatar be the main host with, say, four host cities and spread the rest around the region. The Gulf blockade and regional tensions made that impossible even though they’re all friends now, but it certainly would have given more of a flavour of the region and the culture, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Mark Ogden: The VVIP nature of Qatar 2022, which stemmed from FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his endless courting of celebrities and world leaders to the scenes on the field at the end of the final, when we saw French president Emmanuel Macron rebuffed by Mbappe and so-called celebrity chef Salt Bae allowed on the pitch to pose for pictures with the World Cup trophy. President Macron had every right to be watching from the stands, but on the pitch it seemed as though he was attempting to force himself into a moment that really should have been reserved for France’s defeated players.

As for Salt Bae, the Turkish restaurateur who has become famous for selling tomahawk steaks dipped in gold leaf for $1,000 each: what has he done to earn the right to not only be on the pitch, but to parade with a trophy that is the absolute pinnacle for every footballer in the world?

In many ways, Macron and Salt Bae embodied the reality of Qatar 2022. With fame, money or status, you get priority access to the best games, the best seats and, if you’re really lucky, the VVIP box inhabited by Infantino. While fans from all over the world were left to struggle for tickets and suitable accommodation, the FIFA bubble was a different place altogether, reserved only for the rich and famous.

James Olley: Infantino and the off-field issues in Qatar. The FIFA president’s opening news conference at these finals was nothing short of an embarrassment.

It is argued that the tournament will drive change in the region, and while there have been signs of progress — improving working conditions, introducing a minimum wage and the abolition of the kafala system — there are concerns that once the World Cup leaves, these advances may not endure and others might not follow. Hopefully, though, it’s just the beginning of a better understanding between the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Tom Hamilton: In a World Cup that preached acceptance, FIFA’s U-turn over the OneLove armbands at the start of the tournament was a poor decision. As was Infantino’s aforementioned opening speech.

On the pitch, Germany were a real disappointment, as were Belgium. Though this was the breakout international tournament for Jamal Musiala, that was just about the only decent return from their campaign. Belgium underwhelmed throughout and just looked exhausted. Player-wise, Ronaldo put in disappointing performances for Portugal, and it was a shame to see his World Cup disintegrate like it did.

One issue on the horizon is the expanded World Cup. We don’t want the group stage to be watered down, and the 48-team format at the 2026 World Cup will likely do that. The group stage drama was at times, box-office worthy, and we want more of that, rather than diluted, unevenly-matched games.

Julien Laurens: It is obviously and unfortunately linked with my best moment. France losing the final on penalties was all cruel. It hurt so much because of the rollercoaster of emotions: I lost my voice screaming so loud when Mbappe scored his second and third goals. My heart could not take extra time, I won’t lie. I could hardly watch, and it felt that the world crumbled around me when Randal Kolo Muani missed the chance to win it in the final seconds of extra time as Argentina keeper Emiliano Martinez arguably made the tournament’s best save.

Les Bleus finished the final with seven players in the pitch either born or raised in Paris (Mbappe, Kolo Muani, Ibrahima Konate, Youssouf Fofana, Axel Disasi, Marcus Thuram and Kingsley Coman) which, for all my sadness and pain, made me really feel proud of my native city.

Jeff Carlisle: If there was a trophy for tone-deafness, the FIFA president would have won it in a walk thanks to that speech of his just prior to the start of the tournament. Granted, this was one example of many in which organizers showed a lack of perspective, but Infantino showed the least out of all of them.

Sam Borden: Infantino’s offensive and unhinged pre-tournament rant (still) comes to mind as a nadir, but I believe in being optimistic, so this is a “worst” moment that’s more of a best-in-hiding: Vincent Aboubakar‘s last-minute game-winner for Cameroon against Brazil was, frankly, marred by him being immediately sent off for a second yellow card after he removed his shirt in celebration.

That said, American referee Ismail Elfath’s grace and sympathy in showing the card (shaking hands and clapping Aboubakar on the back as he did so) actually made for a moment that was both sweet and touching.

Cesar Hernandez: In case you’d momentarily forgotten who the host country was during the emotions of the final, the Emir of Qatar helped take the spotlight after draping Messi in a traditional bisht during the trophy ceremony. There has been plenty of back-and-forth regarding whether the bisht that covered Argentina’s jersey and crest was the correct decision, and yet, it’ll remain as an appropriate and concluding symbol of the tournament that was cloaked in controversy.

There is no perfect nation, and the next edition co-hosted by the US, Mexico, and Canada should be given the same amount of scrutiny, but that hasn’t stopped the uneasiness many have felt regarding Qatar’s myriad of issues. Visiting the country did little to assuage that.

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