There he was, jumping in his seat — drawing more attention than the players on the field — throwing his limbs (and expletives) around like a frantic Bangkok traffic cop. High on life (and probably something else). One of the most enduring images from the Russia World Cup came from football’s Sorcerer Supreme — as entertaining in the stands as he was on the field.
Four years down, a world without Diego is finally shaking off the fears and restrictions of COVID-19. And the football World Cup — to be held in West Asia and in winter — needs to find its new Master of the Mystic Arts to teleport us away from this Dark Dimension. This edition, the last to have 32 teams in the fray, has been plagued by controversy surrounding the selection of Qatar as the host and issues of labour and other human rights in the petrorich Gulf nation. But football — with its mix of science, art, ballet and drama — can play for a win for humanity, to bring in joy, and a change.
We want the magicians of the game — with their mind and body working together — to create a Multiverse of Happiness to help us forget the worries and make football triumph over politics and policies that leave our world more divided than ever.
The World Cup has always had its superheroes — Pele, Garrincha, Mario Kempes, Romario, Ronaldo Nazario, Zinedine Zidane and many more — working in their own Astral Plane to forge legacies that have stood the test of time and inspired generations. Qatar 2022 will be the first World Cup in 44 years without Diego Maradona, who, with magical feet and quick wit, had made the 1986 World Cup his own. 1986 was not a World Cup for the world, it was not a World Cup for Mexico, or a World Cup for Argentina. It was Diego’s World Cup — his one-man show eclipsing everything around.
And without its Ancient One drawing all the attention, Argentina perhaps and Diego’s successor — Lionel Messi — will find their magic, channelled by the spirit of its original Sorcerer Supreme.
Messi, who looked weary and dreary in Russia, can be the saviour of Qatar 2022, this Cup’s Doctor Strange to lift the veil of darkness that pandemic and politics have thrown upon us.
Messi travels to Doha wearing the Cloak of Levitation — on the back of a half-season of exhilarating form with Paris Saint-Germain — regaining his joy, vision and penchant for goals and assists in a league that is not as easy as its detractors make it sound.
His Argentina, too, is more compelling, enjoying a 35-game unbeaten run that has brought home the 2021 Copa America — La Albiceleste’s first silverware in 28 years — and the Finalissima.
Coach Lionel Scaloni, after an endless loop of turmoil and lack of playing balance, has moulded an Argentine side that looks at amplifying the talents of its talisman without imposing any undue burden on him in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Messi and Angel Di Maria playing wide and Lautaro Martinez as the conventional No. 9. It has a midfield of workmen and illusionists — despite the absence of the injured Giovani Lo Celso — to keep the forwards well fed and the defence well protected.
However, the team’s lack of match time against quality European opponents with their brusque game might pose a problem against group mate Poland, and then perhaps with Denmark in the round-of16, followed by England or the Netherlands (if the teams progress as expected).
With 13 teams in the hunt, Europe — despite being home to just 9.59 percent of the world population — continues to dwarf other continents in terms of participation. The two most populous continents, Asia and Africa — accounting for a little over 75 percent of the earth’s inhabitants — will have 11 representatives in Qatar. The number will rise to a maximum of 18 — Asia (81/3) and Africa (91/3) — for the 48-team 2026 USA-Mexico-Canada World Cup. Europe, though, will continue to enjoy the advantage of 16 berths.
The 2022 edition, however, will miss the presence of current European champion Italy, which was knocked out by North Macedonia in the first round of playoffs.
The continent still comes to this World Cup with seven teams in the Top 10 (eight, if Italy is included) and its challenge will be spearheaded by defending champion France — ranked four — with two of the world’s best attackers, Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema, leading the charge. Didier Deschamps’s team, though, will be plagued by the absence of the injured midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and the fitness of experienced central defender Raphael Varane.
Belgium, ranked two notches higher, missed an opportunity in 2018, finishing third, and its ageing Golden Generation will find it tough to recreate the magic.
A buoyant, well-constructed Spain’s trouble is the inexperience in its ranks, while for Hansi Flick’s Germany the problem is lack of cohesiveness despite the abundance of talent.
Denmark, bolstered by Christian Eriksen’s fairytale return from a near-death experience in EURO 2020, might be the dark horse of 2022, with coach Kasper Hjulmand finding a winning formula — beating world champion France twice in the Nations League — in his 4-3-3 formation.
Brazil, as starstudded as Marvel’s Avengers, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro and Vinicius Junior, looks well balanced to make a move for a record sixth crown and put behind the disappointments of the past two editions.
Asia and Africa’s best bets to create a ripple will come from Japan’s new generation trained by Hajime Moriyasu and Cup of Nations winner Senegal, stacked with Premier League regulars like Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy, Nampalys Mendy (Leicester), Pape Matar Sarr (Tottenham) and Idrissa Gueye (Everton).
This strange World Cup in winter — FIFA is paying clubs GBP 8500 a day for each player pulled out to play this midseason madness — has all the ingredients of a global blockbuster.
It remains to be seen if Lionel Strange (Messi) can fight off the challenge from Messis of other Dimensions — the Iranian Messi (Sardar Azmoun), the Alpine Messi (Xherdan Shaqiri) and a few more — to finally emulate Maradona’s men, and end the South American nation’s 36year wait for the world crown.
There will be challenges aplenty and battles of different dimensions, as every team mirrors the same ambition.
P.S. The FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura said: “Qatar will be a festival of football and, a month of celebration. You will enjoy one thing: the love of football and its unique power to unite people around the world. No matter your race, your religion, your social and sexual orientation, you are most welcome.”
In this Cup of many firsts — the first in the Arab world; the first in winter; the first where all teams stay and play in one city — Qatar and its World Cup should embrace the unique opportunity to let the world be united by the greatest show ever.
To be a runaway success, the post-credit of this 29day extravaganza should be positivity, inclusivity, and diversity, helping us recover from the pandemic’s finger snap.