Qatar 2002 World Cup: Triumph of Qatar’s defiance and Argentina’s resilience

ARGENTINA lifted the World Cup on Sunday night in Doha amid adulation for their iconic captain, Lionel Messi; but they were not the only winners.

Indeed, the hosts and organisers, Qatar and FIFA, could make a case for being even bigger winners than the new world champions.

The World Cup, the first in the Middle East in the tournament’s 92-year history, was ultimately a testament to almost flawless organisation sprinkled with spectacle on and off the field.

While Argentina and France served up one of the best football matches the beautiful game has ever witnessed on such a scale, Qatar topped it up with a magnificent medal and trophy presentation.

In the end, Sunday was the culmination of years of preparation and the willpower to ignore naysayers and focus on the task.

As soon as Qatar was awarded the hosting right for the competition seven years ago, it was a battle to prove the doubters and cynics wrong.

Of course there were legitimate concerns about the health and safety of thousands of migrant workers and the human rights concerns in the oil-rich country.

It was important to have these concerns and keep them on the front burner in order to keep Qatar on their toes.

But it was much more than that.

It was the Western world’s usual thinly veiled contempt for anything outside their comfort zone: if it is not held in Europe or the Americas, then it cannot be done properly.

They had a similar attitude towards South Africa prior to the country hosting the 2010 World Cup.

Instead of focusing on the positive values of the country and the beauty of the African culture that would be on full display, all the Western world talked about was the crime rate in South Africa.

Of course, South Africa had a high crime rate, but it was no more than what you would find in the United States of America with its regular mass shootings and the United Kingdom with its scary stabbings.

South Africa ignored the negativity and hosted the most colourful World Cup ever, even making the Vuvuzela a global phenomenon.

Qatar has followed in the same path and shown the West, again, that impossible is nothing.

The kingdom built eight world-class stadiums from scratch, including one – Stadium 974 – made up entirely of shipping containers that got dismantled after hosting several games.

The entire infrastructure in Qatar earned praise from every visitor, even those who had been conditioned to go there with scepticism.

Qatar won the most die-hard doubters over with the fun fan parks and almost daily musical concerts, in which Nigerian star Kizz Daniel performed.

Even the complaints about not allowing beer in and around the stadiums were soon forgotten as the fans marvelled at what was unfolding before them.

The relatively small size of Qatar, which had been another point of criticism, turned out to be a huge blessing.

Travelling between match venues was easy for the teams, fans and journalists as the stadiums were not far apart.

Some journalists could even dash from one game to the other on the same day during the group phase when three matches were played each day.

Compared to Russia four years earlier when some match venues were two, three hours apart when travelling by air, Qatar 2022 was paradise for fans and journalists.

Just as the organisation was nearly impeccable, the football was spectacular for the most part.

Right from the first round of games, there were upsets, stirring comebacks and controversy, the ingredients in the sporting cocktail that guarantees excitement.

In the opening week alone England and Spain spanked Iran and Costa Rica 6-2 and 7-0 respectively while Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina 2-1 in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

The upsets did not end there as Japan shocked Germany 2-1 and Morocco beat 2018 bronze medallists Belgium 2-0.

By the end of the group phase, a new order had been established, with Germany, Belgium and Uruguay all sent packing as Africa emerged from the rubble stronger than ever.

For the first time, no African team left a World Cup without recording at least one victory.

Although Ghana, Cameroon and Tunisia bowed out at the group stages, they all returned home with some pride, having claimed some big scalps.

Cameroon defeated Brazil, ending the five-time champions’ unbeaten run against African teams, while Tunisia also recorded a stunning victory over France.

At the last World Cup in Russia four years ago, no African team progressed beyond the group phase for the first time since 1982.

Also there were only three victories from the 15 matches played in Russia by the continent’s representatives Nigeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco and Egypt.

This time, there were seven wins, the most victories African teams have recorded in the group stages in World Cup history.

Morocco provided two of those victories by beating Belgium and Canada to top a tough group.

African champions Senegal also had two wins against Qatar and Ecuador to finish second in their group.

For the second time ever, there were more than one African team in the knockout rounds, with Senegal and Morocco advancing.

The only other time this happened was in Brazil in 2014 when Nigeria and Algeria made it through to the round of 16.

Morocco became the headline story of the tournament in Qatar, shining the light on African football with their fairy-tale run.

Years of proper planning and hard work paid off handsomely for the Atlas Lions as they saw off European giants Spain and Portugal on the way to becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals in World Cup history.

Despite losing the semi-final clash to France and the third-place playoff to Croatia, Morocco were one of the most competitive teams in Qatar, making every game a contest until the final whistle.

They won hearts all over the world and became the adopted team of most neutrals. Africa and the Arab world were given something to celebrate by the resilient Lions as they roared to immortality.

The World Cup also provided a show of strength in adversity and the comeback spirit, exemplified by none more than the eventual champions and their leader.

Argentina were written off by most pundits and fans after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia.

Their 36-match unbeaten run going into the tournament was shattered and Lionel Messi was mocked, labelled ‘finished’.

But the team and their irrepressible captain rose from the ashes of that defeat to go on one of the most remarkable runs in World Cup history.

Since conceding that second goal to Saudi Arabia that wrapped up the 2-1 defeat, Argentina did not trail for a single minute again until they emerged champions.

In fact, they scored the first two goals in each of their six matches that followed that defeat and Messi was at the very heart of it.

Argentina beat Mexico and Poland 2-0 each to win their group and edged past Australia 2-1 in the round of 16.

They led 2-0 against The Netherlands in the quarter-finals but the Dutch rallied late to equalise and force a penalty shootout.

Messi and his crew had an unexpectedly easy semi-final, dismissing 2018 runners-up Croatia 3-0.

Again, Argentina took a 2-0 lead in the final but were pegged back by another late response as France scored twice in the final 10 minutes of regulation time to take the epic final to extra-time.

It is a testament to Argentina’s mental strength that despite losing yet another lead in extra-time as Kylian Mbappe completed a rare World Cup final hat-trick, they could be so composed in the shootout.

With Messi leading from the front and taking the first kick, Argentina converted all their four penalties to win 4-2 and claim their first World Cup since 1986, when the great Diego Maradona was captain.

Like the late Maradona 36 years ago, Messi was Argentina’s top scorer (with seven goals and three assists) in Qatar and won the Golden Ball for the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

The 35-year-old was not the only shining star of the Argentina team and the tournament though.

His Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe emerged as the top scorer with eight goals after the stunning final hat-trick and was obviously the second best player of the tournament.

Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez and Enzo Fernandez were named the Goalkeeper of the Tournament and Young Player of the Tournament respectively, prizes their performances justified.

Martinez stopped penalties against The Netherlands and France, and made probably the save of the tournament in the dying seconds of the final to prevent an agonising defeat for his country.

Fernandez, 21, was supposed to be an understudy in Qatar but he seized his opportunity when given playing time and became a vital part of Coach Lionel Scaloni’s plans.

Nicolas Otamendi, Rodrigo De Paul, Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez were all exemplary in the battling Argentina side that mixed silk and steel to achieve their success.

France also reached their second World Cup final in a row due to the inventiveness, graft and lethal instincts of the likes of Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann, Adrien Rabiot, Aurelien Tchouameni and Olivier Giroud, in addition to Mbappe’s explosiveness.

Morocco gave the world Sofyan Amrabat, Romain Saiss, Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech, Bono, Azzedine Ounahi and Youssef En-Nesyri.

On their part, Croatia were led to their second straight World Cup medal by the wily Luka Modric and his midfield partners Matteo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic as well as the defensive solidity built around the towering goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and young centre-back Josko Gvardiol.

Even among those who did not reach the semi-finals, there were standout players across several teams.

England had Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Marcus Rashford; Senegal had Ismaila Sarr and Kalidou Koulibaly; Cameroon had Vincent Aboubakar; Ghana presented Muhammed Kudus, and Portugal introduced the likely heir to the great Cristiano Ronaldo in Goncalo Ramos, who scored the first hat-trick in Qatar on his first start.

Like in every tournament, there were teams and players that did not live up to expectations.

Belgium, Germany and Spain were kicked out early as their star players, notably Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Muller and Alvaro Morata, underperformed.

Cristiano Ronaldo was involved in more controversies than he scored goals, as a talented Portugal squad, tipped to go all the way, got knocked out in the quarter-finals by Morocco.

The hosts Qatar and organisers FIFA performed far above expectations though, as they pulled off a magnificent tournament.

They rose above the relentless negativity to stage a tournament that will live long in the memory for the goals, the epic matches, the star players and the spectacular closing ceremony, which featured Nigerian pop star Davido.

Even without the Super Eagles, Nigeria still played a part in the success of Qatar 2022. 

Importantly though, the country needs to learn from Qatar how to focus on what is important and put resources to judicious use.

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