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World Cup a rare chance for Messi, Mbappe and Neymar to perform on a stage their talents deserve

If Messi’s last dance were to take Argentina to the title it would be a story beautiful enough to bring out the inner eight-year-old in all of us

It’s 12 years since Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup. Twelve years: nearly a quarter of Qatar’s entire history as a state. Twelve years makes this the longest build-up in the history of sporting mega-events. Twelve years of preamble that has been about anything but football: power, money, corruption, exploitation, sportswashing, infowar.

“Qatar was a mistake,” Blatter declared in an interview last week, though the big problem in his eyes was not that his Fifa committee was bribed, nor that the tournament ended up getting moved to Northern Hemisphere winter, nor indeed anything to do with human rights. Blatter’s problem was that Qatar is simply too small.

Why should a tournament big enough to light up a country the size of Russia or Brazil be squeezed into one medium-sized city on the edge of the desert? If you want to get a sense of the geographical scale of Qatar 2022, imagine Dublin was about to host a World Cup in the area stretching from Balbriggan to Greystones.

The puny canvas may have offended Blatter’s sense of grandiosity, but the super-concentration of this World Cup in both space and time – with everything based in the city of Doha, and four matches per day throughout a group stage compressed into 13 days rather than the usual 15 – reflects the super-concentration of wealth and power that brought it about. The ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power is the dominating trend of football in the 21st century. The Doha World Cup is, in this sense, a logical outcome.


We know that the massive gravitational force of Gulf wealth has been reshaping the sport for years now. We have watched as inconceivable things have come to pass. Manchester City are the world’s highest-earning football club, thanks, we are told, to their unique attractiveness to global sponsors. There are people who regard Eddie Howe as a managerial genius on a par with Napoleon or Alexander. Yet surely the greatest absurdity of all is that the three biggest and best paid stars of this World Cup are all playing for the same club in the football backwater of Paris.

Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar were drawn to PSG by the same force that crammed 64 World Cup matches into Doha and its suburbs. For the glory and greatness of Qatar, three of the best players we’ve seen are playing out their careers in a league even the French struggle to care about, like priceless paintings locked away in a bank vault. Yes, PSG have a few nights a year when they play against the best in the Champions League, but as far as the weekly league matches are concerned Neymar, Mbappé and Messi might as well be playing in their back gardens. The World Cup, where they are the star players for the first, second and third favourites for the title, is a rare chance to perform on the sort of stage their talents deserve.

The one who will feel the greatest desperation to seize the day is Neymar because there are too many days behind him now that he has failed to seize. Some 5½ years ago he left Barcelona for PSG with the supposed aim of establishing himself as the greatest player in the world. Even at the time this was obviously a terrible idea: you don’t become the best in the world by leaving the strongest league in the world for the fifth or sixth strongest.

In the end he did not even succeed in establishing himself as the best player on his own team. Mbappé came to Paris the same summer and immediately outshone him by winning the World Cup with France. The arrival of Messi has since bumped him down to number three, back where he was when he left the Barcelona of Messi and Luis Suárez.

He can surpass Pele as Brazil’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup (Pele scored 77 in 92 internationals, Neymar has 75 in 121) but nobody would dream of seriously comparing them: Pele was the greatest player anyone had yet seen, while Neymar remains an unfulfilled talent, and he is haunted by the knowledge. For much of his time in Paris he has seemed sad and withdrawn, struggling to come to terms with his self-demotion, aware on some level that he had sold himself out.

But something is stirring in the last few months. The once-faded brilliance that seemed lost is back, the goals and assists piling up. Neymar is playing with the intensity of a man who knows that he is about to have a last shot at redemption, one last chance to imprint himself on the imagination of the world as the great player he promised to be, rather than the gilded irrelevance he has become.

Mbappé, too, has been dealing with the downside of hitching his star to Qatar’s toy club. Widely expected to join Real Madrid last summer, he chose instead to sign a three-year contract worth a reported €630 million to become the best paid footballer in history. The decision to put money over career progress surprised many, including Zlatan Ibrahimović, who pointed out that Mbappé could not emulate his football heroes like Zinedine Zidane unless he understood the need to keep driving himself to higher and higher levels. “He made the right choice for Paris not for himself,” Ibrahimović said. “Because he put himself in a situation where he is more important than the club. And the club gave him the keys for that.”

Mbappé seems to know he made a mistake; there have been stories of friction with Neymar and general discontent, even a report (denied) that he had asked for a transfer in January. At 23 he already seems to have outgrown both his teams.

How much simpler it was four years ago in Russia, when he was the 19-year-old superstar whose addition transformed France from runners-up at Euro 2016 to champions of the world. Didier Deschamps’ template was simple: the other 10 players formed an immovable object and Mbappé provided the irresistible force.

Now the solid centre of 2018 has melted into air. N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba and Samuel Umtiti are injured, while Raphael Varane is struggling for fitness. The hard-running Blaise Matuidi has aged out of the squad, despite being younger than Hugo Lloris and Olivier Giroud, who plough on since nobody better has come along.

France do have fresh talent like Aurélien Tchouaméni, Eduardo Camavinga, and a host of strong young centre-backs, as well as the current Ballon D’Or in Karim Benzema, but this team, as a team, has not proved anything yet. The two French World Cup-winning sides built a clear identity and structure over years of sustained excellence; the 2022 team goes to Qatar having lost in the second round of Euro 2021 and won one of six matches in the Nations League. Deschamps used that competition to experiment with different selections and formations without finding a system that worked. Now France go to Qatar without any more time to prepare. Maybe it will be all right on the night. If not Mbappé can at least believe that his future still contains more World Cups than his past.

The third and greatest star in Qatar’s Paris collection is Messi, who moved to PSG so reluctantly and now, ironically, is the only one of the three who seems to be at the right club at the right time. No longer subject to the stress and misery of being held personally accountable for the declining fortunes of a chaotically-run Barcelona, he has been free to focus on getting himself in shape for Qatar. PSG, whose league matches are like training sessions, turns out to be the perfect high-end training camp for a 35-year-old who has nothing left to prove, and nothing left to win except the World Cup.

Messi essentially checked out of club football for a time last season as he processed the shock of his break-up with Barcelona, and the mental time-out has done him good. Playing for a club he doesn’t really care about has allowed Messi to devote himself to Argentina, who finally feel like “his” team. Now his international career, long plagued by the suggestion that he was more interested in his club, is enjoying a dazzling late renaissance.

Last year, at the Copa América in Brazil, he finally won a senior international tournament at the tenth attempt. He ended up playing 16 matches for Argentina in 2021, more than in any previous year, and he has scored an astonishing 10 goals in four matches in 2022, meaning this is already his second-top-scoring year ever for the national team; 26 goal involvements in 18 matches for PSG underline his outstanding form.

The rest of Argentina’s team is an improvement on the editions of 2014 and 2018. Last time 14 of the 23-man squad were in their 30s. Now they have athletic young players like Lautaro Martinez, Rodrigo de Paul, Leandro Paredes and the outstanding Manchester City forward Julian Álvarez to do the running for Messi and Angel Di María. Argentina have not lost a match since 2019 and if they avoid defeat in the group matches in Qatar they will set a new world record of 38 matches unbeaten.

Messi’s ashen performances in Russia looked a sad way for him to sign off at the top international level yet here he is four years on, bursting anew with creative vitality like WB Yeats in the monkey-gland serum years. The psychology surrounding Argentina feels completely different. Last time the pressure felt like a curse under which Messi visibly wilted. This World Cup somehow feels more like an opportunity than an obligation.

If Messi’s last dance were to take Argentina to the title it would be a story beautiful enough to bring out the inner eight-year-old in all of us. That feeling, after all, is the whole point of the World Cup – and it’s just that innocence that is threatened by Fifa’s venality, stupidity and greed.

Some time over the next few weeks someone will tell you that Messi needs to win the World Cup to finally prove his greatness. Whoever does so will have exposed themselves as an idiot. After 12 years of scandal and shame it’s the World Cup that needs him.