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The players saved this World Cup, but soccer deserves so much better

Argentina forward Lionel Messi celebrates after Sunday’s final. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

There’s an old saying in sports that is usually directed at the Olympics: “Only the athletes save the games.”

It’s an accurate shot at the never-ending corruption of the International Olympic Committee, which is exposed time and time again with no end in sight.

The same can certainly be said about FIFA and the World Cup, which came to a dramatic end — that should have been even more dramatic — Sunday when Argentina beat France, 4-2 on penalty kicks, after they finished tied at 3 at the end of 120 minutes of breathless soccer.

Almost completely forgotten in the wake of the brilliant match and the play of superstars Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé were the events that took place in the years leading up to Qatar 2022.

Lionel Messi earns World Cup glory as Argentina tops France in a chaotic, captivating final

It began with FIFA awarding the World Cup to a country with little soccer history, no stadiums and heat that would make playing in June and July — the normal time frame for a World Cup — entirely impossible.

No one believed Qatar won the bid on the basis of anything other than money — big money — changing hands.

During the 12-year lead-up to the World Cup, there were horrific reports of migrant workers dying as they built the tournament’s stadiums and of the Qatari government’s corruption — not to mention its treatment of members of the LGBTQ community and minorities. But, as late IOC president Avery Brundage declared after 11 Israelis were murdered by terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics, “The Games must go on!”

From November: Families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers

The games must always go on — there is too much money at stake for them not to.

Last month, my colleague Sally Jenkins wrote a superb column about FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who had angrily lectured the media for having the audacity to criticize FIFA in any way. FIFA and the World Cup were about love and the beautiful game, he insisted, his arm no doubt getting sore from patting himself on the back.

Jenkins essentially called Infantino a thug, which is exactly what he is. This came in the wake of threats from FIFA that led several teams from Europe to not have their captains wear rainbow-striped “One Love” armbands with their uniforms. The “One Love” program was launched in 2020 by the Dutch soccer federation to protest discrimination in all of its forms.

Initially, FIFA had told the European federations that a player was likely to be given a yellow card for wearing a “One Love” armband. This past weekend, the New York Times reported details of a meeting held on the day of the opening match between Ecuador and Qatar in which FIFA went a step further and suggested players could face suspension.

Jenkins: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of cash are better.

The Europeans backed down, and Qatar and FIFA got their way. The World Cup began with Qatar, which automatically qualified for the 32-team field as the tournament host, losing to Ecuador, 2-0. Qatar would go on to score one goal in three matches while surrendering seven, a woeful performance.

Qatar spent billions to host the World Cup. But Qatar, much like Saudi Arabia in golf or Russia or China in anything, didn’t care how much it spent. It is an oil-rich country and clearly saw sportswashing as a way to distract the world from its never-ending list of human rights violations.

Guess what? It worked.

People will talk endlessly about the brilliance of Sunday’s final and about the brilliance of the players who appeared throughout this World Cup. They will be right, but they will miss the point.

If the United States is such a great defender of human rights, why was Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Qatar? It’s one thing to send a team to compete in places such as Qatar, Russia and China, but why should such a high-ranking member of the government endorse sportswashing by attending?

Taken a step further, should the United States be hosting in four years with Mexico and Canada? Will it be great fun, and will it enhance the chances of the Americans, who were beaten by the Netherlands in this year’s round of 16?

Yes and yes.

As the ambitious USMNT exits the World Cup, the focus shifts to what’s possible

But does anyone think FIFA will clean up its act in the next four years and that Infantino or whoever succeeds him will be any better than Brundage? It was Brundage, it should be remembered, who removed two Jewish athletes from the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team in Berlin in 1936 so as not to insult Adolf Hitler. Infantino and his band of thugs have already proved they will do anything for a buck, and they will love collecting money in U.S. dollars. What’s more, does anyone think a discouraging word will be heard from U.S. TV partner Fox? That certainly wasn’t the case over the past few weeks.

Should the United States boycott the 2026 World Cup? No. That’s not fair to the athletes or the fans. But it doesn’t have to host. Heck, they could play the games in Qatar and people will watch, right?

Fans celebrate Argentina's win against France in the World Cup on Dec. 18. (Video: AP)

As great as the World Cup is on the field, we again saw its fatal flaw Sunday. You cannot decide a championship in a sport without actually playing the sport. You don’t decide Game 7 of the World Series with a home run derby, the Super Bowl with a field goal kicking contest or a basketball title with a three-point contest. You play on until somebody wins.

Imagine the drama Sunday if Mbappé or Messi — or one of their teammates — had scored in the 140th minute to win the championship. The better team should win, not the team that’s better on penalty kicks. Yes, penalties are part of soccer, field goals are part of football, and three-pointers are part of basketball. And what if a team has to play 140 minutes — or more — in the round of 16, the quarterfinals or the semifinals? Tough. Win sooner. Or as one coach I knew in basketball said years ago, “Play better.”

I had no horse in Sunday’s race. I admire both teams and both superstars. But the game should not have ended with penalty kicks. If someone had scored the winning goal in super extra time, it would have been one of the most memorable moments in sports history. Great might have become greatest.

Regardless, the athletes saved the games again. Now it’s up to the rest of us to do something about the horrible humans who run this wonderful sport.