The World Cup has come and gone in a flash, with 64 games crammed into 29 days in eight venues across five cities in Qatar.
Lionel Messi had the final say, leading Argentina to victory in yesterday’s final, but what were the other highlights from a frantic tournament?
Our writers deliver their choices for the competition’s standout performers on and off the field, reveal how they think the Middle East’s first World Cup will be remembered… and revisit their predictions from a month ago…
Player of the tournament
Adam Crafton: Kylian Mbappe. After that final, I cannot choose anyone else. Mbappe in full flight, scaring the living daylights out of Argentina’s defenders from the moment he scored his first goal was the most extraordinary individual performance I have seen live.
Jay Harris: I flicked between Mbappe and Messi in the final, but had to choose the man Argentina fans call God. The insane passes, memorable goals, dancing and even shithousery towards the Netherlands means he gets the nod.
Stuart James: Antoine Griezmann was a strong contender but, realistically, the final made it a two-way fight. Messi was outstanding — remarkable to think that he’s 35 years old — and few will begrudge him a World Cup winner’s medal. That said, Mbappe single-handedly dragged France back into the final. His second goal was outstanding and he showed incredible composure to convert two penalties either side of that. The Frenchman won the Golden Boot and gets my vote.
Carl Anka: Messi will get the majority of the plaudits while Mbappe will be crowned as the coming force. Griezmann can talk his talk, too. But Morocco’s defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat needs his flowers. He turned up as a relative unknown and bossed the tournament.
Dom Fifield: Messi, simply because of the drama of it all. But also the calmness of his penalties, the quality of his movement and creativity, and the speed of his feet, not least when dizzying Josko Gvardiol in the semi-final. To end a tournament that started so poorly by clutching the trophy felt remarkable, but he inspired the revival. His script writers should take a bow.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Griezmann. I’m sure everyone else will say Messi so how about Griezmann? His reinvention as an attacking midfielder was a genius move from Didier Deschamps, giving his team extra creativity in the middle of the pitch in the absence of Paul Pogba. Griezmann ran the games, popping up wherever there was space, and was always decisive when he got on the ball, even though he did have a poor final.
Daniel Taylor: Did you see Amrabat’s tackle on Mbappe in the semi-final? Oh my! That was a modern-day, speeded-up Bobby Moore v Pele. What a man, what a player. Amrabat epitomised the Moroccan spirit. He was a brick wall. If Nottingham Forest haven’t put in a £15million bid in January, there is something seriously wrong. That said, the answer is: Messi.
Amy Lawrence: Mbappe. Messi’s story was written in his celestial atmosphere but Mbappe was so electric, it is impossible to take your eyes off him and his achievement in leading France through the final comeback will live long in the memory.
Abi Paterson: How can anyone not say Messi? He’s the man on and off the pitch. You cannot move in Doha without seeing his shirt on someone’s back. He has truly transcended this tournament.
Matt Slater: Everyone is going to say Messi, aren’t they? Even if you could make a case for another player having a more consistently effective tournament, what’s the point? Messi is the man the masses adore. I came here expecting that to be a closer-run thing. But Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Mbappe and all the other guys who are on the tifos hanging off the high rises in West Bay; you’re miles off, I’m afraid. Griezmann has been bloody good, too.
Oliver Kay: Messi, Messi, Messi. If only I could always be that concise.
Liam Tharme: Mbappe’s brilliance deserves acknowledgement. The most World Cup final goals of any player, pulling France out of the depths from 2-0 single-handedly with only the second men’s World Cup final hat-trick ever. His ceiling is scarily high.
Tim Spiers: It was Amrabat. The lynchpin on which Morocco’s incredible defensive success was built, he not only shielded that defence with the protection of a triple-thick condom, but also relieved pressure and then generated it at the other end by intelligently launching counter-attacks. But it has to be Messi.
Coach of the tournament
Adam Crafton: Lionel Scaloni. The pressure to be the man overseeing Messi’s final World Cup must have felt obscene and no more so than after the opening game defeat by Saudi Arabia. He has built a team where the collective is unified and maximises the individual talent of their best player, even if they did have an unfortunate habit of becoming very vulnerable when games became tense late on.
Jay Harris: Walid Regragui. All logic dictated it would be a difficult task to quickly implement his style on the team. Yet, his squad inspired the entire continent of Africa and the Arab world by reaching the semi-finals.
Stuart James: Regragui. He took over only 81 days before their opening World Cup match, against Croatia. What a team Regragui created in every sense — tactically (in and out of possession) and emotionally. Morocco played with togetherness, courage and quality.
Carl Anka: Regragui managed to fashion the best coached and most balanced African team I’ve ever seen at a World Cup. He not only welcomed exiled players back into the national team, but got the likes of Hakim Ziyech to defend in a manner not seen at their clubs.
Dominic Fifield: With a doff of the hat to Regragui, Deschamps remains the man for the World Cup. He lost half his first team to injury ahead of these finals. There were unsettling off-field issues eating away at the French Football Federation, and his side had demonstrated precious little form in the build-up to their title defence. They were a tinderbox ready to ignite. And yet the French found a way to progress beyond every obstacle flung down until the penalty shoot-out in the final. Even his substitutions on Sunday helped change a game, if not a result.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Regragui. This one is undebatable. Morocco beat Belgium, Spain and Portugal, playing aggressive, entertaining dynamic football. They gave France a real fright in the semis, far more than Belgium did in the 2018 semis. An example of how underdog countries can compete.
Daniel Taylor: Easy one. Morocco didn’t even qualify for the first four World Cups of the 21st century. Then, all of a sudden, they were knocking out Belgium, then Spain, then Portugal, and the only goal they had conceded in their first five games was a deflected own goal. Morocco surprised everyone, maybe even themselves.
Amy Lawrence: It has been mightily impressive how both coaches in the final mastered some remarkable circumstances, but Regragui’s leadership of such an eye-catching, emerging team in Morocco should inspire everyone outside of the traditional powerhouses.
Abi Paterson: “Coach Walid” made for great content with our “Morocco’s World Cup dream” podcast.
Oliver Kay: Even if it was “just” for surpassing expectations with a less fancied team, Regragui would be a contender. But for Morocco to get past Belgium, Croatia and Portugal without conceding a goal, combining tactical discipline with non-stop running, was so impressive, particularly when you consider how many injuries they suffered.
Matt Slater: Regragui. Next question. You all know about the “firsts” he’s achieved — and we’ll see how many zeroes he’s helped add to his players’ worth — but he’s been the most fantastic ambassador for African football.
Liam Tharme: Not sure this is arguable — he won the CAF Champions League in May and this Morocco side had strong shades of Regragui’s Wydad Casablanca team. Strong defensively but dynamic in attack, constantly switching play, with the full-backs running forward and scoring a variety of goals.
Tim Spiers: Regragui oversaw one of the biggest overachieving performances in World Cup history. Oh and he belts out his national anthem like your average Brit singing Champagne Supernova at 3am on a drunken Friday night. Get him to the Prem, now.
Goal of the tournament
Adam Crafton: Wout Weghorst’s equaliser for the Netherlands v Argentina. Smart thinking under extreme pressure, it was an extraordinary moment to witness at the stadium. It felt, for a few minutes at least, as if the bloke recently relegated with Burnley was about to end the dreams of the world’s greatest player.
Jay Harris: Salem Al-Dawsari’s winner for Saudi Arabia in their group-stage match against the eventual champions Argentina is not being talked about enough. It was a goal of sublime quality, but the added shock value makes it stand out.
Stuart James: It was going to be Richarlison’s acrobatic goal against Serbia, but the final changed that. Argentina’s second goal against France was a thing of beauty — a wonderful team goal that showcased the brilliance of Alexis Mac Allister, featured a lovely first-time pass from Julian Alvarez, a gorgeous flick from Messi and Di Maria’s finish. Counter-attacking at its best.
Carl Anka: Weghorst’s second against Argentina was a triumph, mixing collective collaboration with a bit of individual skill. Brave, creatively clever, requiring teamwork, but also not afraid to give it to the Big Lad to get a goal.
Dominic Fifield: Argentina’s second in the final or Weghorst’s second in the quarter-final. Or Richarlison’s flick and bicycle kick against Serbia. Or Alphonso Davies’ booming header against Croatia. Or, for pure dramatic “what is the VAR looking at that we can’t see” tension, Ao Tanaka’s winner for Japan against Spain which had the world scrutinising the overhang of a football over a chalked byline.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: After snubbing Messi for player of the tournament, I have to give him this one. His strike against Mexico was a miracle of placement under pressure, into the only part of the goal Guillermo Ochoa could not reach. So good it reduced Pablo Aimar on the Argentina bench to tears.
Daniel Taylor: Messi v Mexico. A narrative was building. Argentina had lost to Saudi Arabia. They were struggling to get past Mexico and the television pundits were making sniffy remarks about Messi not running very much (something, funnily enough, for which he is now getting praise). One swish of his left peg changed everything.
Amy Lawrence: Top three: that split second when the Holland free kick rolled towards Weghorst was exhilarating. Messi’s mesmerising run for Alvarez was a moment for the ages. But Mbappe’s technically perfect strike for France’s second in the final given the context pips it.
Abi Paterson: Weghorst v Argentina. It’s not the most technical, or the one with the biggest wow factor but it’s the one that got me out of my seat, hitting my colleague Luke Bosher.
Oliver Kay: Our American readers won’t thank me for saying this, but it has to be Memphis Depay’s goal for the Netherlands against the U.S. The way they passed the ball out of defence under pressure — particularly in that moment when Frenkie de Jong had to body-swerve twice in his own penalty area to escape from Jesus Ferreira, but then the way they manoeuvred the ball all the way to Cody Gakpo to Denzel Dumfries to Depay — was just brilliant.
Matt Slater: I can’t keep giving you consensus answers, even if I do probably agree that the Messi-made Alvarez goal against Croatia was awesome. But Gvardiol should have rugby tackled him. He’ll learn. So I’m going for Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header against Switzerland. If that doesn’t spark the return of the burly No 9 to world football, nothing will.
Liam Tharme: The Netherlands’ first goal versus the U.S. — team goals that build through the thirds are like artwork. Starting with Frenkie de Jong’s composure on the edge of his own area and then suddenly the Dutch turning on the pace and carving through the press in a couple of passes.
Tim Spiers: Like Amrabat, Luis Chavez is a 26-year-old midfielder who your average football fan will never have heard of and it’s heartwarming that in the internet/data/computer game age there are still surprise packages. Chavez’s pacey, bendy 30-yard free kick for Mexico against Saudi Arabia was perfection.
Match of the tournament… apart from the final
Adam Crafton: I should probably stop talking solely about moments involving Argentina but they’ve just been the story of the tournament. The match against Saudi Arabia was superb because both teams brought numerous fans, the atmosphere was authentic, an upset came about and it felt like the World Cup had truly begun.
Jay Harris: Argentina-Netherlands. There were nasty tackles, tantrums and fights. Leandro Paredes blasted the ball at the Netherlands bench, Virgil van Dijk charged into him as revenge while Messi mocked Van Gaal and Weghorst. You almost forget there were some superb goals in the game. An instant classic.
Stuart James: Nope, I’m having the final. Perhaps it’s the greatest final of all time. From the 80th minute onwards it was breathless stuff. The best two players in the world, Messi and Mbappe, were magnificent, and I didn’t want extra time to come to an end. What a spectacle.
Carl Anka: Argentina v Netherlands was the pick of the knockout rounds, but I am particularly fond of that point in the World Cup group stages where a game is played with the pace and quality of a semi-final. On that basis, Spain v Germany was a delight and a declaration of intent for Jamal Musiala.
Dominic Fifield: A nod to Argentina’s meeting with the Netherlands in the quarter-final, a madcap frenzy of an occasion. Throw in Argentina’s resolve to recover in the penalty shootout, and the squabbling after the final whistle — Messi versus Edgar Davids and Van Gaal was a rare treat — and it was a game that had everything.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: England 1 France 2. What you really want from a big game is two good teams playing well, and the tension that comes from a tie being in the balance throughout. That is what we got from England v France. Even though England lost they played well and with a bit of luck with decisions and finishing they would have won.
Daniel Taylor: It was fun being there for South Korea’s stoppage-time drama against Portugal. And it was fun again with Morocco when they knocked out Spain and Portugal. There is something special, though, about watching Brazil in the World Cup and that penalty shootout against Croatia — the tears, the drama, the scene with Neymar and Ivan Perisic’s kids — offers all sorts of memories.
Amy Lawrence: There was something so surreal about sitting at home in the morning in winter and watching Saudi Arabia deservedly beating Argentina with a second-half performance of exceptional discipline and effort. It was the moment this World Cup, on the pitch, took off. Herve Renard’s half-time team talk, and his team’s response, was a marvel.
Abi Paterson: There was something so exhilarating about Japan beating Spain 2-1. With the Germany v Costa Rica game going on this group went down to the wire and throughout the second half my heart was pumping: how could that ball possibly be in? Am I about to see Spain crash out? Wait, we’re about to see Spain and Germany exit before the knockouts? Final whistle, there’s nothing that Germany can do now. And the Japanese fans really brought the atmosphere too.
Oliver Kay: Until the final, I don’t think we had had a timeless classic — nothing close to, say, the France v West Germany semi-final in 1982, the France v Brazil quarter-final in 1986, the England v West Germany semi-final in 1990, the Netherlands v Brazil quarter-final in 1994. I could go on, but you get my drift… but that final was incredible. Not just the best match of this tournament, not just one of the great World Cup finals, but a match that will go down in history.
Matt Slater: Is it just me and Toni Kroos who thought the England-France game was the best? He likes James Blunt and Olly Murs, too, doesn’t he? Hmmm. I better pick another one, then. Can’t go for Netherlands-Argentina, too obvious, and first 70 minutes were pretty dull. How about Serbia 3 Cameroon 3? That was a hoot.
Liam Tharme: Hajime Moriyasu’s substitutions changed the game against Germany and their comeback to win 2-1 from 1-0 down at half-time was incredible. They deservedly won their group and those few seconds where Japan and Costa Rica were qualifying with Germany and Spain out were… magical.
Tim Spiers: Some of the group-stage finales elicited emotions from me that ex-girlfriends took years to draw out. South Korea’s last-minute winner, Poland basically going through on their fair play record, Japan dumping Germany out. Saudi Arabia beating Argentina was the biggest World Cup shock of my lifetime. But the one thing the tournament lacked was a proper humdinger take-your-pants-off classic… until the final. Theatre on grass.
Moment of the tournament
Adam Crafton: The Morocco mums. I loved seeing Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mum on the pitch after their unexepected but deserved victories, as well as Achraf Hakimi immediately searching for his mum in the crowd to give her a hug and a kiss. It was heart-warming, life-affirming and a true expression of Arab culture at the first World Cup in the Middle East. P.S. I also loved Ghana’s Osman Bukari doing a copycat “Siiiuuu” celebration when he scored against Ronaldo’s Portugal. Bukari, however, was left to celebrate on his own as his team-mates knew they were still losing the game in injury time…
Jay Harris: Achraf Hakimi’s Panenka which knocked Spain out of the tournament. Morocco had never reached the quarter-finals and when the ball hit the back of the net it sent their fans into a dream.
Stuart James: The final whistle in the Saudi Arabia-Argentina match. It was hard to comprehend what you were seeing, bearing in mind Argentina came into this World Cup unbeaten in 36 matches. And what a great quote afterwards about the coach Herve Renard’s half-time team-talk. “He (was) telling us stuff that made us want to eat the grass,” the midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki said.
Carl Anka: The second half of Brazil v South Korea saw many a broadcaster trying to fill time as the 4-0 scoreline robbed the game of any drama. Over on ITV, Jon Champion started a story about what tourist attractions the Ras Abu Aboud of Qatar would have after the dismantling/recycling of Stadium 974 after the tournament. Co-commentator Ally McCoist was not impressed.
“A desalination plant?” asked McCoist, incredulously. “It’s not high on my agenda that one.”
I have been repeating his response and laughing to myself about it since.
Dominic Fifield: The sight of the indefatigable Amrabat in sprinted pursuit of Mbappe in the semi-final. The French striker was away, searing off down the left. No one could catch him.
He had time to consider his options. And then, from nowhere, there was Amrabat, a thundering Atlas Mountain looming large in Mbappe’s rear-view mirror, head down and arms pumping. A player who had needed pain-killing injections in his back to feature leapt into a challenge near the byline, won the ball emphatically and sent Mbappe yelping into the air. The striker wanted a foul. Amrabat was more concerned with keeping the ball in play, then calmly strode back to the edge of the area and sent a team-mate away in possession. The 26-year-old was a colossus. His performances epitomised Morocco’s quality, spirit and strength.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: There were a few minutes when Japan and Costa Rica were both going through from their group at the expense of Germany and Spain. It did not stay that way, but in the end, Japan and Spain went through and Germany did not. A reminder of the thrill of the four-team group system, something that will be lost with the 48-team format.
Daniel Taylor: Where were you when the Netherlands were playing Argentina? I was stuck on a metro, making my way back from Brazil v Croatia. It was coming up to 1am, I had no way of watching the penalties. I knew, via Twitter, everything was boiling up. I had serious Fear Of Missing Out.
And then, outside the metro station, two security guys were watching it on a mobile phone. Hallelujah! A crowd was gathering: two Ecuadorians, some French, a couple of Indian guys, a family of Bangladeshis, various locals, a policeman and me. We watched it together, pressed against a wall, straining to see a screen measuring about four inches wide. Then we said goodnight, bumped fists and headed away. Maybe you had to be there… but I will remember it.
Amy Lawrence: Je suis une baguette. Oh man, that is the heart that makes a World Cup right there and reminded me of the silly global melting pot of people that means more than any FIFA slogan. Runner up Jack Grealish’s dance for his little mate Finlay.
« Je suis une baguette » ?? ? ?? pic.twitter.com/6sO5qz60uQ
— Pierre-Antoine Damecour (@padamecour) November 29, 2022
Abi Paterson: Saudi Arabia beating Argentina. I took in this game in at the Fan Festival surrounded by Saudis in Messi shirts, when that final whistle blew it was controlled pandemonium and the sheer joy of those around was infectious.
Oliver Kay: The moment Messi got his hands on the World Cup. Brilliant as his performances over the past four weeks have told us anything that hadn’t been apparent for years. But this was his crowning glory, embellishing a career that needed no embellishment. Truly a wonderful moment.
Matt Slater: Ronaldo trying to claim Bruno Fernandes’ goal (below) — and to double down on the claim despite Adidas et al telling him he just didn’t touch it — was very funny… but also quite sad. So, I’m going to relegate that to second place and go for the sight of Perisic’s son running over to Neymar to console him after the penalty shootout.
Liam Tharme: Vincent Aboubakar’s red card. Perhaps this is exemplified by there being hardly any red cards this tournament, but everything from the cross, to Aboubakar’s header, to the exchange with the referee after he received a second yellow for scoring the winner against Brazil — a handshake and genuinely apologetically brandishing the card — was perfect.
Tim Spiers: Amrabat’s slide tackle on Mbappe was very good. Weghorst’s jaw-dropping free kick against Argentina was great. But for 11 Iranian men to refuse to sing their national anthem, knowing full well there could be very serious repercussions, was braver than we’ll ever know. “At worst I’ll be kicked out of the national team, which is a small price to pay for even a single strand of Iranian women’s hair,” forward Sardar Azmoun said.
One thing from this World Cup I’d love to see in the Premier League…
Adam Crafton: Mbappe. Does it need further explanation?
Jay Harris: Mohammed Kudus. The playmaker shone for Ghana, even though they underwhelmed, and it is tantalising to think about watching his mazy dribbles every week in the Premier League.
Stuart James: As someone who pays to watch football (albeit in the Championship), I’m all for getting value for money — and that means adding on the time that is routinely wasted. So the 100-minute games are fine with me.
Dominic Fifield: Jude Bellingham. The teenager has it all and should be a mainstay of this England team for years. The mad scramble among the Premier League’s elite clubs to sign him up will presumably rumble from now through to the summer.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: My heroes at this World Cup were the big Plan B strikers, Niclas Fullkrug of Germany, Weghorst of Netherlands, Marko Livaja of Croatia. All three of them came on, went up front and made an impact. No more messing around with fancy passing patterns, just get it launched! More of this please.
Carl Anka: Semi-automated offsides would be a great help. Sober tents and chill-out zones outside stadiums where lubricated fans can catch a breather isn’t such a bad idea, either.
Daniel Taylor: It’s difficult to believe sometimes that, at Premier League grounds, they will take your money (often lots of it) but don’t have the decency to let you know everything that is going on. Every VAR decision, the crowd has to guess why the verdict was reached. I mean, is there any other sport where the paying spectators are last to know? In Qatar, the decision would be followed by a computerised image appearing on the screens to show the results of the offside check. It’s not too much to ask, is it?
Amy Lawrence: When the Argentina fans get going it is something else. When they get the pulsating rhythm of their songs echoing around an entire stadium, it does make you wish for such overloaded primal energy inside our stadia.
Abi Paterson: Stadium 974. The best, most unique stadium here. I fully expect it to go on a world tour. It could be a star with fans flocking to see it, bask in its presence. If IKEA did stadiums…
Oliver Kay: I started off disapproving of seeing eight/nine/ten minutes of stoppage time added on what felt like a routine basis, but it has seemed to work as a deterrent. Timewasting became pointless because players knew the time would be added on at the end — sometimes with interest, it felt. I know some prefer the idea of a stop-start-stop-start countdown clock, but it shouldn’t be necessary. This is the first time in decades it has felt like there’s a serious attempt to crack down on timewasting, so let’s try that.
Matt Slater: Trinidadian rapper The Mad Stuntman has made a big impression and I can’t get enough of I Like to Move It. But I like the chance to talk to my mates/kids at half-time, so I would turn him down a bit. I’m also a big fan of FIFA’s take on Fergie time. I want my money’s worth, so I endorse these nine-minute injury times.
Liam Tharme: Harry Maguire playing football! How this works logistically under Erik ten Hag is a different story but his aerial threat in both boxes, big diagonal switches from left to right and partnership with John Stones were a nice reminder that people should never write anyone off. Maybe a move in January is best for both parties, but he does not deserve to be a bench player.
Tim Spiers: The boring but correct answer is semi-automated offsides. However, I’d also quite like a novelty oversized inflatable Premier League trophy on the pitch before every game just for how silly it would look at Bournemouth v Brentford.
How will Qatar 2022 be remembered?
Adam Crafton: Exactly as expected. When you stick a bunch of talented footballers and excited fans in the same place, you tend to get a pretty good show. I didn’t believe FIFA or Qatar when they said LGBT people would be welcomed at the tournament, and so it proved. And an iconic photo of Messi does not change the fact thousands of migrant workers have been poorly paid and poorly treated and we still lack clarity over the true death toll.
Jay Harris: It was an incredibly fun, but equally strange tournament. There were outstanding matches and huge shocks, yet a lot of the time the stadiums weren’t full and the atmosphere was underwhelming. It has been more pleasant than I expected in Doha too, but will that stay the same now the football is over?
Stuart James: From a purely football point of view, as the World Cup when Messi completed his trophy collection and confirmed his status as one of the greatest footballers we have ever seen. Morocco’s story was special too. Off the field, there is another narrative and it makes me feel uncomfortable in so many respects. Gianni Infantino does well to keep a straight face when he talks about “defending human rights”. As for the “death is a natural part of life” comment made by the Qatar World Cup chief executive after a migrant worker was killed doing his job… dear me. I could go on and on.
Carl Anka: Gianni Infantino promised us that this World Cup would be the best ever, and for a certain kind of football fan that enjoys moments of high chaos and drama, Qatar 2022 will be fondly remembered.
Yet it also provoked deep ethical questions about how we consume football and who bankrolls it. It saw the sport collide with geopolitical issues as well as the rights of marginalised people. It relied on the hype and spectacle of pre-existing narratives and characters to make up for its poor pace and weird plotting. It saw some of the custodians of the game make silly statements.
It was entertaining. It was also exhausting. It was a sugar high and a horrible sugar comedown, often on the same matchday.
Dom Fifield: It will probably be remembered for the glory of its final, an occasion that defied belief at times and was driven by the stunning subplot that was the head-to-head between Messi and Mbappe — a Qatari Sports Investment employees’ derby for the ages. The tournament will always mark a first appearance in a semi-final by an African nation, too. But the controversies should not be forgotten. Migrant workers continued to die in Qatar even once the football had begun. There are families out there still struggling to comprehend why loved ones will not be coming home. Families waiting for answers.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: This tournament should be remembered as something that should never have happened, an absurd idea delivered at an unpalatable human and environmental cost. This should be a stain on football and FIFA, and a prompt for a new start. But in practice? Football exists in an amoral bubble and I am sure that the organisers will be delighted with the World Cup. Especially with the absurd sight of the Emir dressing Messi in a robe when he lifted the trophy, summing up the whole point of the exercise. That Messi v Mbappe finale alone was enough to make Qatar think they got a return on investment. I’m sure Saudi Arabia will want their own equivalent in 2030.
Daniel Taylor: It was my sixth World Cup and my first with The Athletic. You might think I’m bound to say this, but we have some brilliant journalists. It was a pleasure to spend time with them. The World Cup was… lots of fun. But it was strange too. Everything was so perfect, but also so imperfect. You can feel a bit guilty for enjoying it. Oliver Kay explains it well here.
Amy Lawrence: It is so difficult not to want to separate the legacy of this World Cup between matters on and off the pitch. The matches have been better than anticipated considering it has come mid-season, and the evidence of a diminishing gap between traditional powerhouses and emerging nations is fascinating. Off the pitch, that knot in the pit of the stomach has been hard to loosen. Also as a viewer from a distance, the World Cup experience outside the host country has been significantly duller for it being mid-season and in winter. The fever has not been what it should be.
Abi Paterson: By those that were in Qatar, I suspect it will mostly be remembered as being this clean, largely empty, atmospheric-less space which prepared for more people than arrived. It will be remembered for the hundreds and hundreds of “volunteers” forced to stand around at unused metro stations all day in the searing heat, with an undefined and unnecessary role. The party never really got going and those invited barely turned up.
Oliver Kay: Messi’s farewell tour and for a truly great final, which this World Cup needed more than most. And for Morocco going further than any African team had been before. Off the pitch? A World Cup taking place across the Middle East might have achieved a meaningful legacy, but there were no such ambitions with a tournament held in one small country where there is very little public enthusiasm for football. Some will recall Qatar 2022 as a “game’s gone” moment, football selling its soul to the highest bidder. But it pains me to say this was just the latest development of a depressing trend. It wasn’t the first nakedly political World Cup and it won’t be the last.
Matt Slater: Messi and Argentina’s win… but I hope people remember some of what has been discussed over the last 12 years and makes sure Qatar sticks to its promises on improving the lot of its massive expat workforce.
Liam Tharme: Hopefully this tournament has proved that football, or sport in general, and politics are not only inseparable but also importantly intertwined. Group-stage shocks, knockout games going the distance and a final that just kept delivering means it will be remembered for its uniqueness on the pitch. Seeing an African team reach the semi-finals for the first time and three Asian sides qualifying from the groups to make history was incredibly pleasing and bodes well for the expansion of the tournament in four years’ time.
Tim Spiers: Messi’s tournament after the greatest final there’s ever been. Overall a fair conclusion is that it’s been a very good tournament on the pitch and a dangerously farcical one off it. I’ve really enjoyed it. Just a shame it had to happen in Qatar. Like most people, I didn’t want the tournament to be played there. Ultimately, they had an awful team who should have been nowhere near a World Cup, people weren’t allowed to wear a rainbow on their clothes (they would hate cycling) there were small crowds, some awful atmospheres, inflated attendance figures. People died to make this happen. In that respect, the tournament will forever be a stain on the sport, but I don’t think a single thing will change because everyone (Gianni Infantino, David Beckham, Chesney Hawkes, etc) just went along with it.
Predicted winners for 2026
Adam Crafton: France. So many players who stood out here in the final should be even stronger by 2026. Mbappe, Tchouameni, Camavinga, Upamecano, Konate…
Stuart James: FIFA. They’ve won the lottery with the 48-team nonsense in 2026. Now we hear they’re re-considering their (ludicrous) decision to have 16 groups of three because they just realised — only just — that groups of four generate more excitement. Anyway, to answer the question: France.
Jay Harris: Mbappe will be in his prime at 27, while Tchouameni and Camavinga will only get even better. Mike Maignan is the perfect replacement for Hugo Lloris and William Saliba will surely be at the heart of their defence for the next decade.
Carl Anka: Hard to answer when FIFA is umming and ahhing about how their 48-team format tournament will work so I’ll just go for Brazil.
Dominic Fifield: We now have to make wild and inaccurate predictions four years, rather than four weeks, ahead? In that case, 2026 will be England’s year at last. Bellingham will be vying with Mbappe to be the best player in the world by then. Phil Foden will be irrepressible and Harry Kane will have the disappointment of Qatar to exorcise. And Gareth Southgate, having signed a two-year contract extension on the back of winning the 2024 European Championship, and his methods will be cherished.
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Spain. Gavi and Pedri will dominate international football just like Xavi and Andres Iniesta did in their own generation. Rodri, Unai Simon and Aymeric Laporte will still be the spine of the team. They just need to find a centre-forward. How nostalgic they must be for the days when they had to choose between David Villa and Fernando Torres!
Daniel Taylor: Spain to beat USA. Yes, the USA. And, yes, Spain, if they can come to terms with the fact that 1,000-plus passes with only a couple of shots on target is not the way to win a World Cup.
Amy Lawrence: Europe has dominated in recent tournaments but the location of 2026 makes a more convincing case for a winner from South America (it is probably a stretch for North America although their representatives are on the up). Otherwise France’s production line of talent is scary and shows no evidence of stopping. Mbappe’s brother Ethan will be 19 then and there may be two of them…
Abi Paterson: Spain. They have a young midfield team that’s had a taste of the World Cup which means they’ll be ready for the next time out. With Pedri and Gavi you just feel something good will happen.
Oliver Kay: Brazil. If I keep saying it, I will be right eventually. (This theory does not necessarily apply to England)
Matt Slater: England. There, I’ve said it. Actually, can I unsay it? Law of averages suggests Brazil will win one again soon. But France and Spain have got a lot of young talent… oh, I don’t know! England. Why not?
Liam Tharme: Four years is a long time but, if they can learn to mix their game more than just passing it, Spain’s next generation of talent — led by Pedri and Gavi — look particularly exciting.
Tim Spiers: England. I guess the smartest thing to do is look for a team which has played attractive winning football, just fallen short this time but has young, emerging world-class players who’ll have benefitted from the experience and should be better for it in 2026. Yep, it’s coming home.
And a word about my pre-tournament predictions…
Adam Crafton: I thought Argentina would win, SO THERE. But I did think Spain and Germany would be better than they turned out to be, and I thought England would be a lot worse than they in fact played.
Stuart James: I said Argentina would win it and that “Messi holding the World Cup is surely the way that 2022 ends for Ronaldo”, forlornly hoped Canada would surprise us, and predicted France would disappoint — they disappointed me because I pulled them out in the office sweepstake.
Jay Harris: That Musiala was about to evolve from a potentially great player into a truly world-class talent. Even though Germany were knocked out at the group stages, I am prepared to argue I wasn’t wrong. Musiala didn’t score but he was a creative force for Germany with his dribbling and slick passing.
Carl Anka I simply must stop predicting the end of an era for Croatian football. That midfield of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric get onto the ball and grind opposition teams to dust. I await the 3,000-word feature from The Athletic on how a nation of four million creates so many technically secure midfielders.
Dominic Fifield: Time to come out fighting. Brazil would have won it if they could score penalties. Denmark did surprise us, albeit not necessarily in the way I’d envisaged. And the French did leave Qatar choked by disappointment, even if they had not been disappointing. Musiala would have been the breakthrough player of the tournament had his finishing been as impressive as his build-up play, while Thiago Silva was outstanding and Neymar is now up there alongside Pele as Brazil’s highest-ever scorer. Which is worthy of more than a mere Golden Boot. OK, on second thoughts, it is probably just best to issue an apology.
Amy Lawrence: Particularly thrilled that I backed Lauturo Martinez to be top scorer and suggested France would disappoint. Moi? Predictions are for mugs.
World Cup XIs: Our writers pick their teams of the tournament
Daniel Taylor: You know I was joking about Denmark as tournament dark horses, right? I must have been the only person, surely, who thought Messi might be the star of the tournament (incredible foresight). I also triumphantly note my campaign to Get Phil Foden Picked finally worked. But yeah, let’s move on ….
Abi Paterson: The vast majority of us predicted a France v Brazil final and so we’re half right. But we all forgot about last tournament’s runners-up, and as John Herdman and Co found out to their detriment, you don’t fuck with Croats.
Oliver Kay: Well, luckily I was otherwise engaged that day so for once I didn’t risk exposing myself to embarrassment. But a look back through WhatsApp messages with friends suggests I was firmly on the Brazil bandwagon: a fairly conservative prediction but one which looked solid going into the 117th minute of their quarter-final against Croatia.
Liam Tharme: It turns out that even three months of preparation still doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. My dark horses shout for Serbia fell in the group stage and Harry Kane did not get a second World Cup Golden Boot.
Tim Spiers: There’s no need to actually look but I did pretty well (ed — Tim you said Kevin De Bruyne would win the Golden Ball, Belgium would reach the final and Harry Kane would win the gol…). Anyway quit living in the past, it doesn’t matter. No hang on I predicted young Portugal striker Goncalo Ramos would be a breakthrough star! Next.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design by Sam Richardson)