Once again, the World Cup — soccer’s quadrennial battle royal — gave a troubled and weary world more than enough dazzling athleticism to marvel at, demonstrating once again what feats of physical skill some who walk among us can deliver. No wonder audiences tuning in numbered in the billions: Soccer truly is the world’s most popular sport.
Additionally, this World Cup, which concluded Sunday, inspired our troubled and weary world in another way: It showed yet again what racial comity, teamwork, and sheer grit can achieve (about which, more later).
Controversy shrouded this Cup from the start and was an early storyline: controversy over the manner in which Qatar “won” the nod as Cup host, controversy over Qatar’s human rights record — an estimated 400 to 500 migrant workers were killed in building the eight stadiums where 32 national teams were to play. Usually I am quick to prioritize human rights as supreme (my just-previous post is about the barbarism of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine). But consider: Is it fair to the athletes themselves, who have dedicated themselves to the sport since childhood and who train and sacrifice to a degree few can imagine, to have their Cup smeared, boycotted, or even cancelled because of a host’s bona fides? Does anyone remember the (political) reason why President Jimmy Carter cancelled U.S. participation in the 1980 Olympics Games? (It was over the USSR’s refusal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.)
Had this Cup been boycotted or cancelled, we would have been robbed of another storyline: the thrilling spectacle of the “little guys” defeating and even dispatching to the exits the nations that are the recognized soccer powerhouses.
It started early, in group play, with Saudi Arabia defeating Argentina — the team that went on to win this year’s Cup. Then Germany, which won the 2014 Cup, lost to…. Japan? And France, which won the 2018 Cup and played in this Cup’s final against Argentina, lost to….Tunisia? One by one, the soccer powerhouses — Germany, Spain, Brazil (expected to win it all), Belgium, the Netherlands, England (the nation that invented soccer) — were all, per the astonished announcers, “put on the next plane out of Qatar.” Meaning: The quality of play was high throughout, there were no easy-breezy games. You tuned in and you were, indeed, astonished.
For quality play alone, no team astonished more than Morocco. The Atlas Lions fought their way into the final rounds — the first African nation and the first Arab nation to do so. Along the way they ousted Spain, winner of the 2010 Cup, and Portugal, which boasted Cristiano Ronaldo as its star. The team’s infectious joy upon vanquishing one opponent after another, their fans’ astonished joy (and tears, even sobbing), and goalie Yassine Bounou’s astonishing saves, earned them the world’s warm embrace. That they lost to Croatia for third place overall dented neither their achievement nor elation. Morocco was the darling (and hot ticket) of this World Cup.
As for astonishing athleticism, everyone has their favorite goals. Mine were two: One was early — from Brazil’s Richarlison (some players go by one name) who delivered an astonishing scissor kick against Serbia (extended video from all angles here). And to think Arsenal, “my” English Premier League team, could have acquired this massive talent during the recent transfer window! (Political note: Richarlison is highly respected in Brazil for his vocal opposition to just-defeated Trumpist president Jair Bolsonaro, while another star, Neymar, is vocally pro-Bolsonaro. This adversarial dynamic did not impede their teamwork, though, and both were gutted at Brazil’s ejection in the knockout round after losing at penalty kicks.)
My other favorite goal came late, in the final with France versus Argentina, when after a surprisingly desultory French performance in the first half, French phenom Kylian Mbappé, deep in the second half, poured it on with two (2) goals in two (2) minutes, to tie Argentina. The goal in question was administered like a low-flying UFO — he was nearly parallel to the ground — with another scissor kick (video here). Mbappé got a third goal, in penalty kicks, making it a hat trick (three goals) — a feat not seen in a World Cup since 1966. It was enough to beat Argentina’s Lionel Messi for the Golden Boot award, for most Cup goals, but not enough to enable France to win and defend its 2018 Cup victory. The high drama of this final made it, per many sports commentators, the best final ever.
Speaking of drama: On such an epic stage, themes of classic Drama play out, notably that of redemption. In that scintillating final, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, by finally winning the Cup, also won his own redemption. In earlier Cups, when he’d “sky” the ball yet again, Argentina’s media roasted him for spending too much of his career in Europe (Messi played many years for Barcelona and now plays for Paris Saint-Germain). To see Messi, aging legend working his “late style,” bask in his anointment was stirring. On the French side, Ousmane Dembele, whose EPL career never quite gelled, was having a terrific World Cup performance….until that final game when he fouled, giving Argentina an early penalty goal. Roasted by French media for an “unworthy” error, Dembele is back on the redemption trail.
There were lesser-scale human dramas, too. Most notable for me, a regular EPL fan, was the duel between England’s Harry Kane and France goalie, Hugo Lloris. Kane and Lloris both play for EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur and have been teammates for 10 years. In the knockout round when England faced France, it all came down to penalty kicks — one in regular play when Kane scored off Lloris, the other in shootout, when Kane missed. One wonders: Did scoring once against his old friend make it impossible for Kane to score again? Kane seemed in shock at his failure to prevent England’s ouster; Lloris tried to console him, a class act of sportsmanship and friendship. As Fate had it, in the final, Lloris failed to save France in that penalty kick shootout. One expects, when they return to EPL duty, they will have a philosophic beer together.
Another class act of sportsmanship and friendship: Poland’s great Robert Lewandowski congratulating France’s Mbappé after France had just ousted his own team. (Former president Donald Trump could learn from Lewandowski the art of graceful concession.) Before exiting the Cup stage, and likely retiring from soccer altogether, Lewandowski did his part and sent his penalty kick into the net.
As to the factors cited above — racial comity, teamwork, and grit: At a time when, here in the U.S., we avoid racial reckoning because it discomfits some (white) citizens; we are so polarized politically that teamwork is a fantasy; and grit is on display far less often than sheer gall (see: the FTX crypto fraud), watching — or rather experiencing — teams of star athletes, diverse in composition, play at peak performance, in sync, in a game that has its strict rules and regulations is, well, simply tonic. In soccer, if you foul once, it’s a yellow card; if you foul twice, it’s red card and you’re out. In a year when the “rules-based international order” is under violent assault by Putin’s war in Ukraine, this rules-based aspect of soccer was especially moving.
Racial comity was on view throughout this Cup and has been in other recent Cups, seen especially in the teams from France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and the U.S. — nations where racial assimilation in the larger society is still ongoing, but with varying degrees of amicability. This is what I specially love about soccer: that diversity succeeds, amicably, made manifest when a goal is finally scored — so hard to do — and the team embraces in elation, arms around shoulders. The proof is on the scoreboard. Which is why I’m such a fan of the EPL: It is wonderfully diverse — many World Cup stars play in the EPL — and, being so diverse, it is super-competitive throughout the 20-team league. An early post-win knock on Argentina is why, as a diverse nation, its national team is not more so.
As for teamwork: Members of the national teams going to a World Cup do not, for the most part, play on the same teams at home or abroad. They come from all over. Thus when they are tapped for the national team, teamwork must coalesce immediately over a staggered schedule. If not, it’s a short stint at the Cup. Also, soccer employs all 11 team members constantly (unlike baseball, which is a pitcher-batter thing). Again, at a time of extreme political polarization and even enmity, it is inspiriting to watch a team work the ball — in concert — up the pitch. Another reason why it’s called “the beautiful game.”
As for grit: This being an epic event, there were many instances of grit displayed in crunch-time, especially in the many penalty kick shootouts. The major instance for me was in that final game, with France behind 2–0. With just 12 minutes left in regular time — repeat: 12 minutes left, which is way beyond crunch-time — Kylian Mbappé found another gear and new quantities of grit to create two goals. Tellingly, he cut short the celebratory scrum, grabbed the ball, and waved his team back into play, pronto.
Impressively, the U.S. team reflected all these factors. For racial comity, just look at the team photos. For teamwork, this 2022 team redeemed itself from 2018, when we didn’t even qualify for the Cup. The U.S. is a great power, but not a soccer powerhouse — not yet: U.S. fans can justifiably anticipate the ’26 Cup, to be hosted in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. As for grit, there is Christian Pulisic’s goal against Iran in a must-win game: Taking one, as announcers say, “for club and country,” Pulisic “clattered” into the Iran goalie, scored, then was sent to hospital. Cleared, he got back to the hotel before his team: Video shows one happy reunion. When the U.S. “crashed out” at the knock-out stage, against the Dutch, they were gutted, together. Also displaying grit: At a press conference before the Iran game, Tyler Adams, African-American and team captain, faced hostile Iranian reporters baiting him on America’s racism. He handled it masterfully, saying “the U.S. is continuing to make progress every single day.” Make Tyler an ambassador.
And a special note about the political bravery of the Iran national team: In solidarity with antigovernment protests sparked by the death of a Kurdish woman at the hands of the “morality” policy, the team — as a group — opted not to sing the national anthem at their Cup games. This “insult” to the anthem ignited the wrath of the extremist regime, with threats of reprisal against both them and their families; in response the team mouthed the words. The fate of these brave players once home is unknown, as internal reporting is severely controlled. How tragic that these young men should pay so dearly for supporting their Irani sisters and their country’s advance.
Going from that somber note to a far lighter one — a World Cup “contains multitudes”:
A final word about the fans: Soccer fans are a breed apart in their passion. Amazingly, the enormous stadiums were packed for most games: Some fans had to dig into savings to get to Qatar, pay for weeks of lodging and food. At a time when nationalism has taken a negative us-versus-them connotation, these fans, in their varying costumes, expressed buoyant love of country and its symbols. There were Mexican sombreros everywhere, with other countries adopting the sombrero and draping their nation’s colors atop the brim. In the U.S. contingent, George Washington and the Statue of Liberty were sighted often. And, yes, Elvis was in the building! I could not confirm if Elvis left the building when the U.S. team left Qatar midway. I can confirm, though, that my fellow Americans have awakened to the glories of soccer.
Ah, the glories of soccer. One glory being that soccer is, for me, much like life: You struggle, and you struggle, and you struggle some more, and then maybe — just maybe — you score a goal. Which of course calls for joyous celebration, arms around shoulders. I can’t wait for the 2026 Cup. Since it will occur at its proper time, in summer, not in winter as with this Cup, we have a somewhat shorter wait. Hang on, soccer fans: Only 1,264 days until “Game on!”