World Cup good or World Cup bad? Or was it absolutely both at the same time?

Ian King
Argentina supporters in Bangladesh celebrating their World Cup win

So the World Cup is over and poring over its legacy can begin. But was this a great tournament, was it a disgrace, or might it even have been… both?


So it’s the morning after the night before, and it’s time to reflect. Was this the greatest World Cup final of all time? Was this the greatest World Cup of all time? Was this a fundamentally flawed sportswashing experiment that will cast a shadow over both the World Cup and FIFA in perpetuity? Now that the bunting is being taken down – and with the shipping containers having already been dismantled – what did all of this mean, and what will all of this mean for the short and medium-term future of the global game?

Or, and this feels increasingly like a radical thought in the polarised and binary times in which we live, is it possible that both the positive and negative feelings that come from this World Cup can be held in our heads at the same time? At this time of year, perhaps the appropriate analogy is the album A Christmas Wish For You by Phil Spector. Spector was an extraordinary music producer, one of the greatest of all time, and A Christmas Wish For You may be the greatest festive recordings ever committed to vinyl. But he was also an abomination of a human being who, amongst many other things, murdered a woman who spurned his advances.

The matter of whether this album is forever tainted by the misdeeds of its producer is perhaps one of the great ‘your mileage may vary’ questions. After all, Spector wasn’t a performer. It’s not his voice you hear dreamily bouncing its way through Santa Claus Is Coming To Town or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (you do hear it during the particularly creepy closing track, but that’s easily enough swerved by lifting the needle from the record at the right moment).

From an entirely personal perspective, I’d contend that it’s clearly plenty possible for very, very bad people to produce incredible pieces of artistic work, but that the decision over whether this means that any individual can actually enjoy the spectacle is entirely personal.

The best World Cup, as I’ve opined on here before, is the one that takes place closest to your tenth birthday. As such, any conversation over whether this was The Best World Cup of All-Time™ is always likely to be a similarly personal one. To a point, it’s one of the great unknowable questions, one to which there is no objective correct answer. But we can have a stab at the question of whether the tournament was any good or not, because the answer to that seems considerably more straightforward.

Put briefly, it was. For the first time, an African team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, and once there they had a damn good go at untoppling the defending champions before finally surrendering. Morocco were an unexpected thrill to watch throughout the tournament, arguably its most consistent team right the way up to the semi-finals.

And in a further reminder that there are no guarantees of continuing European hegemony at the top of the tournament, Japan beat both Spain and Germany in the group stages before only losing to Croatia on penalty kicks in the second round.

It was also a somewhat enjoyable tournament for those who enjoy bubbles of hubris being popped. Brazil looked like the safe bet to win the trophy until, yet again, they didn’t any more against the first European team they met in the knockout stages. Portugal offered both brilliance and soap opera throughout their five matches, putting in a stunning performance against Switzerland with Cristiano Ronaldo glowering on the bench before finding themselves on the wrong end of a defeat to a Morocco team that seemed to embody all the team spirit that they lacked. Belgium imploded spectacularly throughout their three group matches, scoring just one goal and getting eliminated at the first available opportunity.

And as for the matches themselves, well, there are classics in every tournament, but this one seemed to have a high proportion. There was only one goalless draw in the whole of the knockout stages of the tournament and the matches between the Netherlands and Argentina, South Korea and Ghana, and England and France – amongst many others – will live long in the memory, as will the frantic end to some of the groups.

But it might be contended that this feels more like a function of international football that the club game really cannot really replicate because one of the greatest things that the World Cup finals bring is the flawedness of its teams. The richest countries cannot simply buy players in from abroad if they’re struggling a little bit. Qatar themselves tried something akin to this, and it’s safe to say that it failed with the worst record of any host nation in the history of the tournament.

Teams can be a mixture of players from the EFL and the Champions League and they haven’t had much time to prepare, and a lot of the time it shows. This adds a level of jeopardy which feels increasingly absent from elite-level club football, where the growth in the gulf between the game’s haves and have-nots increasingly turns league matches into little more than exhibition matches and league titles into processions for the wealthiest clubs.

But all that other stuff absolutely should not be forgotten, either. The migrant worker deaths were a disgrace and a stain upon all concerned before a ball was kicked in Qatar and remains so today, no matter how high the quality of the actual tournament might have been.

FIFA’s last-minute reverse-ferret over some teams showing solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities across the world told us everything we needed to know – and probably already did know – about where they prioritise their commitments. Although not related to the controversies that surrounded the tournament, the death of American journalist Grant Wahl during the match between Argentina and the Netherlands was a tragedy which cast a shadow of its own.

The fundamental strangeness of this particular World Cup certainly cannot be denied, and this isn’t just about the fact that it was played close to the European midwinter. A tournament in which all the venues were within 40-odd miles of each other was always going to be a strange experience. The empty seats were at points jarring, while the feeling that this tournament was being played in ‘Generic International Football Tournament Environmnent #29’ felt inescapable at times.

But this, perhaps, is how football in the 21st century is expected to feel. The corporate statements will be the same asinine blandishments. The sponsors will come from a familiar range of global leviathans. The kits will be cut from the same templates from major manufacturers. The TV directors will continue to focus their gaze upon attractive young women in the crowd. The creases will all have been smoothed out. That’s not a matter of this tournament, more a matter of a cultures that have been converging through globalisation for decades.

The rush to cement the legacy of any major tournament is a feature of the modern age. During the World Cup, it can occasionally feel as though some people are trying to consecrate it with each passing moment. In truth, it’s too early say where Qatar 2022 will end up standing in the overall pantheon of World Cup tournaments. But with the Premier League restarting in just a week’s time there’s little time to dwell upon the events of the last four weeks, and maybe it’s for the best that we now just all move on. Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.