Don’t look up in Doha. You won’t see the stars. The light pollution from the stadiums and the city’s Middle Eastern twist on Las Vegas leaves the solar system hidden in a blurred glare.
Here, in this architect’s playground, the stars are in the stadiums and on the skyscrapers.
Drive into Doha on the Majlis Al Taawon freeway and the buildings flashing by are draped in mile-high awnings of the best players at the World Cup. They tower over Doha like they tower over the competition. Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, who else? The Qatar Sports Investment fund acquired Paris Saint-Germain and PSG acquired those players to be front and centre of the country’s soft power investment in club football and nation-building exercise in hosting the World Cup.
The podium of the Ballon d’Or was supposed to complete the constellation. But its winner, Karim Benzema, and runner-up, Sadio Mane, flew back home shortly after touching down at Hamad International Airport, an injured quadricep forcing one to depart, knee surgery sending the other on his way. The player with the most Ballon d’Or votes still left in the competition, Kevin De Bruyne, did not have a building dedicated to him like PSG’s three musketeers (at least not one this correspondent saw), with his star power still not as strong on the world stage.
How did they all get on, then, in the first week of the 2022 World Cup? The five-time Ballon d’Or winner (Messi), the sole World Cup winner (Mbappe), the game’s most expensive footballer (Neymar), and the player to whom FIFA president Gianni Infantino presumably relates most, a ginger who would no doubt have a higher profile were it not for his hair colour (De Bruyne) — The Athletic watched all of them.
To attend Messi’s press conference on the eve of the first game was a religious experience for the Argentinian journalists in much the same way an audience with his compatriot Pope Francis is to Catholics. A blue and white flag was tossed at his coach Lionel Scaloni and Messi was applauded as he left the conference hall. Outside the golden bowl in Lusail, the stadium hosting Argentina’s first game against Saudi Arabia, casual fans spoke about going to see Messi rather than one of the teams, as if it were a pilgrimage.
After a week in Qatar, the call to prayer has often provided the soundtrack to watching teams train. In Lusail, the call to Messi as he emerged from the tunnel for the warm-up crescendoed in a huge roar.
When he tapped an early penalty past Mohammed Al-Owais it felt like a procession was about to get underway. The 88,000 at the game drew breath and then gasped when Papu Gomez set Messi through on goal and Messi then slipped in Lautaro Martinez one-on-one. Both times, Al-Owais was beaten but the semi-automated offside kept coming to his aid and disallowed the goals.
It was as good as it got for Messi, as the Saudis came back to pull off one of the great upsets. The 35-year-old looked tentative. The way he struck his penalty was, on the one hand, indicative of control and, on the other, a sign of someone perhaps wary of straining a muscle like his team-mate Paulo Dybala did when taking a spot kick for Roma.
The deferral of some of his other set-piece duties was telling and seemed indicative of a banged-up Argentina team attempting to nurse its way through the first game unscathed. But the Saudis weren’t a soft touch like the United Arab Emirates were last week when their coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena, a former Boca Juniors left-back, told his players to go easy on Messi in Argentina’s final friendly before the World Cup, “otherwise I won’t be allowed to set foot” in Buenos Aires.
Herve Renard, the Saudi coach, didn’t give his Saudi players the same instruction. Half the stadium erupted when one of his centre-backs Saud Albdulhaid scythed down Messi as he bore down on goal and the clip of Ali Al-Bulayhi patting Messi on the back, asking for his shirt and then saying, “you won’t win” went viral.
“Where is Messi?” the Saudi fans chanted and they kept breaking out into the same song on the metro back to Doha. One of them was in a Saudi shirt with ‘Messi No 10’ on the back. The game could not have gone any better for him. He got to see Messi score and his country win. Flicking on the local broadcaster later that night, the glossy commercial featuring Messi as part of an ad campaign for Visit Saudi, the nation’s tourist board, felt awkward to say the least.
The gold No 10 on his back, the rose gold boots catching the light, a cheeky little backheel, and that brilliant injection of pace. Mbappe exuded star quality in France’s opening 4-1 win against Australia on Tuesday night at the Al Janoub Stadium.
He was even jeered by a small group of green-and-gold fans after yet another marauding run down the left wing — no mean feat in front of a crowd seemingly more worried about Mexican waves.
Mbappe set the tone early, bursting past Australian right-back Nathaniel Atkinson twice in the opening minutes. Central defender Harry Souttar provided back-up the next time Mbappe ran at pace but even then, the Frenchman accelerated past the pair of them to the byline before finally being blocked.
The 23-year-old’s pace is startling. At one point, he was looking backwards to time his run and receive the ball from Antoine Griezmann. Yet his chest faced forwards, his arms still pumped, his knees lifted high and he stayed on the balls of his feet with the grace and alignment of a 100-metre sprinter.
Minutes later, another example. He stole two yards on the Australian defence over what can only have been 10, sprinting straight towards goal to hit a Griezmann cross first-time with his right foot. He couldn’t keep the shot down but, again, the movement to get there was sublime.
There were moments when it seemed the entire Australian defence was being arranged simply to neuter Mbappe. A picture later emerged of him appearing to attempt to jink through six defenders: swap Mbappe’s dark blue shirt for Argentine blue and white, and Australian gold for Belgian red, and it could have been a carbon copy of one of the defining images of Diego Maradona’s career, from the 1982 World Cup. Such are the comparisons Mbappe invites.
After France recovered from going behind, Mbappe began to relax and have fun. There was a touch and a delightful backheel to tee up Griezmann and he joined the French celebrations with vigour, smiling broadly.
Then came his first goal of the tournament in the 68th minute. A ball across goal was picked up by Ousmane Dembele, and Mbappe drifted into the middle, jogging on the spot in half-a-yard of space, and then darted ahead of and above the green-and-gold wall to power a header into the net and put France 3-1 up. He sprinted off in celebration, jabbing a finger at the crowd and then raising his right hand defiantly.
France were cruising but there was still time for Mbappe to set up Olivier Giroud. Fittingly, it was Mbappe’s pace that made the goal as he burst down the left yet again and delivered a cross for his team-mate. France’s victory was complete, and so was Mbappe’s night. He looks in the mood to have a lot more fun before this tournament is done with.
Brazil were the last team to arrive in Qatar after spending a week in Turin at Juventus’ training ground. Expats in Italy gathered outside the J Hotel’s glass facade, following Neymar and begging him to join their team. “Come to Sao Paulo! Come to Santos!” They know Neymar’s future is in doubt at PSG and, at 30, this, by his own admission will probably be his last World Cup. But he flew to Qatar in arguably the best form of his career.
“We feel that Neymar is calmer, stronger and more confident,” Brazil’s captain Thiago Silva said on the eve of the game. “This time, he had a different preparation. Neymar is in great shape and the best part is that he has no vanity. The team welcomed the young guys with open arms. In my opinion, they will help Neymar on the pitch because they can share responsibilities. Our forwards are great in one-v-one situations. That can open space for Neymar between the lines, where he is deadly.”
When the teams were announced on the big screen in Lusail on Thursday night, the noise his name generated was unlike anything at the World Cup so far. It was louder than the welcome Messi got at the same venue three days earlier and underlined his global popularity — and, perhaps, the willingness of Brazil’s supporters to move on from the country’s divisive presidential election, unite behind him and the team.
Serbia’s imposing back five was set up to squeeze the space in the channels and made it hard for Brazil to play through the middle. Neymar was tailed everywhere by Sasa Lukic and made a point of taking his shirt off early in the game as if to say: you want it? Take it.
The attention Neymar got from the Torino midfielder and the Serbia centre-back Milos Veljkovic meant he was often crowded out and so it was left to Vinicius Junior and Raphinha to try to puncture their obdurate opponents. Neymar’s best chance of the first half was a corner kick that curled so wickedly it almost became a gol olimpico. As he emerged after the interval, he did not look ready. Neymar was still changing his shirt as he walked out onto the pitch and the game kicked off around him while he knelt down to tie his shoelaces.
But Neymar came to play.
He was cleaned out by Nemanja Gudelj and forced manager Dragan Stojkovic to take his midfielder for fear of a red card. Neymar’s free kick hit the wall instead of the back of the net but the vibe he gave off changed. Neymar seemed determined to bend the game to his will. A side-stepping dribble on the edge of the box led to the opening goal as Vinicius took the ball off his feet, had a shot and watched Richarlison tap in a ricocheted save. The night belonged to ‘O Pombo’ (the pigeon) as Richarlison’s second, a perfectly executed scissor-kick, provided an early contender for the goal of the tournament.
Sadly for Neymar, his night ended in tears. When Nikola Milenkovic slid in, Brazil’s No 10 accidentally stood on him and then hobbled off fearing the worst, in a state of despair. It can’t happen again, can it? A fractured vertebrae ruled Neymar out of the 2014 World Cup semi-final. A broken metatarsal meant he was not at his best in 2018. “We hope he recovers as quickly as possible,” Antony said after the game. “We know the importance he has in the national team.”
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Kevin De Bruyne
Any De Bruyn-iacs milling around hotel lobbies in Doha hoping to bump into their hero will be disappointed to learn Belgium are staying on the other side of Qatar, on the west coast of the Persian Gulf, out near the border with Saudi Arabia. It’s an hour away in the car, a secluded resort on the edge of nowhere, where the desert slakes into a beach.
De Bruyne is as hidden away here as his profile is in Doha. Look around and the player rivalling Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for ad space isn’t even at the tournament — it’s Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, an icon of the Arab world. De Bruyne lets his football do his public relations for him but Wednesday’s game against Canada at the Ahmad bin Ali sStadium wasn’t the image he wished to project.
Stalking around between the lines, De Bruyne acted like a coach on the pitch. Off the ball, he tried to direct the play behind him, suggesting the runs and passes his team-mates should make. When Jan Vertonghen played an aimless long ball from the back to nobody in particular, De Bruyne let him know about it. And yet the only goal of the game came just minutes later from Toby Alderweireld hoofing it for Michy Batshuayi to run down and score. Still, the route one approach was not to De Bruyne’s liking.
“The momentum was with Canada and we didn’t find the way to break through their press,” he said, offering a better tactical explanation than that offered by his manager, Roberto Martinez. “There was more space than we thought in the game and I think in the second half when we started to get through their pressing from the midfield there was actually more space but I don’t think we played a good game today — me included.”
De Bruyne’s judgment in the final third was not up to his normal impeccable standards.
Oddly for him, he often selected the wrong pass, trying to thread the needle for Yannick Carrasco without seeing a wide-open Youri Tielemans in a better position to his right, then under-hitting a first-time ball in transition for Batshuayi, to whom he later apologised after messing up another defence-splitting pass five minutes from time. At one stage in the game, De Bruyne had completed only 16 of 25 passes and had the lowest passing accuracy (64 per cent) of the entire Belgium team.
Handed the player of the match award afterwards, an embarrassed De Bruyne said: “I don’t know why I won it, maybe because of my name!”
So there you have it, Infantino; ginger men with freckles aren’t discriminated against after all. If any Belgian player deserved the accolade it was Thibaut Courtois for stopping a penalty and the other saves he made as Canada racked up 2.55 expected goals (xG).
De Bruyne’s performance called to mind Pep Guardiola’s comments earlier this season when, even after a goal against Brighton, he said: “(Kevin) can be better. He’s not playing at his top level, Kevin, not yet. He scored a fantastic goal, but he’s not playing at his best. He knows, I don’t have to tell him. His dynamic is still not perfect, he knows that, I’ve spoken to him.”
A week later De Bruyne was “back” and the hope is he will be when Belgium play Morocco on Sunday. It might be his last World Cup and every minute counts. It’s why he has brought his family out to savour the moment with him.
A week into the tournament, the stars are slowly coming out but so far it’s been the bolts from the blue, Japan and Saudi Arabia, that have made this World Cup sparkle.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)