Aidan Smith: The worst host team, too many old-timers, penalty fetishes, samey stadia … what an exciting World Cup

It was going to be the worst World Cup ever, remember? Terrible hosts, terrible location, terrible time of year to be staging the greatest show on earth.

Those grizzled gunslingers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are out of the World Cup after the greatest group-stage finishes in the history of the tournament
Those grizzled gunslingers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are out of the World Cup after the greatest group-stage finishes in the history of the tournament

And from those epicly unpromising beginnings, Qatar 2022 seemed to all too quickly worsen as real fans – not the fakes recruited by the organisers to spy on anyone being cynical about the tournament – emerged from their shipping-crate accommodation to witness, jaws thudding onto the sand, Gianni Infantino morphing into Joseph Merrick.

You’ll remember that Merrick was The Elephant Man who reacted to one freak-show display too many of his deformities with the anguished cry: “I am a human being!” Well, The Infantino Man’s blart, biting back at the critics of the Qatari regime and its harshnesses, went something like this: “I am gay. I am disabled. I am a migrant worker. I am a bloody Scottish – though, ha ha, they’ve not qualified – ging-er.”

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Then, five minutes into the opening match, when Infantino had snuggled into his velvety throne – nobody expects the comfy chair, but here you’ll get one – billions round the globe were privy to the strangest disallowed-goal decision in the history of football in favour of Qatar. (Though this wouldn’t save them from defeat and quickly being dubbed the most risible World Cup host team ever).

How had it being going thus far? Pretty hideously. And why were there so many from the veteran class out there? Or was it just because the broadcasters were busily/lazily deifying them and neglected to inform us who in, say, Lionel Messi’s Argentina might be the coming men, the new guard?

And what was with the deification of the penalty kick? When I began watching football, penalties were like half-goals. They were the duty, in my team, of the humble left-back. Minimum fuss, next to no acclaim. Now, there are the tedious rigmaroles of deep breathing, shirt-adjusting, prayerful contemplation and silent intoning. Of what? The earliest encouragement of mothers or the most recent seven figures secured by agents? Then the hysterical celebrations, like the atom has been cracked or cancer cured.

How has it come to this? Because statically from 12 yards penalties were the only way codgers like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale were ever going to find the net? Well, three of them missed and Qatar in those early days looked like no country for old men. And why were all the stadia the same? Did all those builders die for such dull homogeneity? And why was the World Cup happening here – why, why, why?

But then on Wednesday, on Thursday and Friday, too, the qualifying groups spontaneously combusted. Each explosion was louder and more insane than the last. None of this seemed likely, despite the broadcasters’ hype. Poland were probably going through. And Belgium. And Germany. And Uruguay or Ghana but not South Korea.

Mexico deserved to make the knockouts by dint of the goal of the tournament until that moment, the masterblaster free-kick by Luis Chavez. Unfortunately the team with the bonniest colour-combo lost out to the Poles, perpetrators of the most putrid performance.

Surely insipid Belgium were going to wake up and realise the tournament had started? No. The golden generation’s most decisive impact was on the dugout, Romelu Lukaku bursting a perspex wall in the way he couldn’t the net.

Surely sluggish Germany were going to remember who they were, what their heritage was about and progress? No. They scored four goals only to be usurped by Japan’s under 13s.

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In each case the drama was greatly enhanced by the time-added-on boards flashing up nines and tens, numbers we just don’t see in our domestic game, and the red-zone period of the Ghana-Uruguay was easily the most exciting conclusion to a match I’d witnessed since 21/05/16.

Every World Cup produces a gadget, innovation or wheeze which is then copied by leagues everywhere – aerosols for free-kick markings, for instance. The proper and precise reclaiming of stoppages should definitely be Qatar’s legacy.

As mute as Qatar’s winsome figurehead David Beckham has been – never will the reported £150 million be more easily earned – so VAR has dominated the World Cup conversation. The infernal system would appear to be able to do anything. Shave as close as a blade or your money back. See through clothing like the X-ray specs advertised in classic American comics. And, tragically for Germany, spot when a ball remains in play (sort of) and absolutely everyone watching with the naked eye, which is the way football used to be viewed, is convinced it’s gone out.

Ah, but can it do this: detect when the English pundits are unable to contain their glee as yet another football power exits and can no longer be deemed a threat to Gareth Southgate’s men? No, it’s okay. We’ll manage ourselves without the aid of technology, won’t we guys?

So what just happened? The worst World Cup ever produces the best group stage finishes ever? Incredible, and I say that as someone about to contradict himself and shed a tear for the demise of two grizzled gunslingers, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez of the faded aristocrats of Uruguay.

Knockout can’t possibly match the last few days for cliff-hanging thrills, can it? Meanwhile, ponder this: we may not see their like again. In four years’ time the plan is for 16 groups of three teams, so no more white-knuckle finishes. The worst World Cup ever may yet be to come.

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