28
Dec
22

Never-ending story

The World Cup may be over, but football always has plenty of stories to tell… (日本語版)

Lionel Messi finally being crowned as a world champion made for a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable 2022 World Cup finals, and seeing the greatest player of his generation – quite possibly the best ever, although this debate is far too subjective to produce a definitive answer – planting a sneaky kiss on the famous gold trophy as he collected his Golden Ball award will have warmed the hearts of football fans everywhere from Auckland to Alaska.

France – and in particular Kylian Mbappe – made Argentina work for their triumph though, and although Didier Deschamps’ side looked down and out for the first 75 minutes or so Les Bleus mustered a spirited fightback to take the game to extra time and then almost steal victory themselves on more than one occasion, producing in the process the most gripping and entertaining World Cup final in recent memory.

While the feats of Messi and Mbappe added to an impressive highlights reel from a month of terrific football, however, for me the biggest takeaway was not so much what happened on the pitches of Qatar but instead the manner in which the stories written there resonated, with football serving as a medium through which to maintain connections around the globe.

During the competition I was in contact with friends or colleagues from almost half of the competing nations, for instance, and while our conversations were ostensibly about the games and players and fans they were also a chance to catch up, to discuss political issues, or talk about family or career developments. Football is not unique in its ability to act as a social lubricant in this way, but it is surely the only sport capable of doing so on such a wide scale – of creating and reinforcing the bonds between people.

Along similar lines, let us consider the scenes on the pitch at the Lusail Stadium ahead of the official trophy presentation. As the preparations for the show – which is becoming an increasingly over-organised and sterile process with every tournament, detracting from rather than adding to the celebratory mood – took place, thousands of camera lenses focused on the Argentina players and staff as they drank in the first few moments of their success with each other and their fans. 

After a few minutes Messi could be seen beckoning eagerly to the stands for someone to come down and join him, and not long afterwards he was grabbed from behind by an excited figure in an Argentina shirt. His initial look of surprise, possibly even frustration – did he think Fifa had perhaps set the influencers loose early, and that he was already being accosted by the insufferable Salt Bae? – dissipated instantly as he broke into a wide grin and shared a tight embrace with the interloper – his mum.

At that moment Messi the GOAT, the brand, the deity of Argentinian football disappeared and we were reminded of his humanity, the fact that, regardless of what he is capable of doing with a football he is mere flesh and blood – that while to many he is a superhero to others he is simply a son, a husband, and a father, and that his journey to the ultimate glory wasn’t one he had taken alone.

Such human tales could be seen throughout the competition, with Morroco’s Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mum on the pitch after the Atlas Lions stunned Portugal to become the first African side to reach the semi-finals, Louis van Gaal thriving after his recovery from prostate cancer and planting kisses on his unsuspecting players at will, and the outpouring of affection from the football community after American journalist Grant Wahl tragically passed away while covering the Netherlands-Argentina quarter-final.

Further to this, victories for Tunisia and Morocco over their former colonisers France and Spain provided moments of joy for both nations, while the likes of Saudi Arabia and Cameroon also claimed huge scalps as they defeated South American giants Argentina and Brazil in the group stage, providing their players and supporters with memories that will last a lifetime.

And, of course, there was Japan, who sent shockwaves of their own around the world by coming from behind to defeat both Germany and Spain in the group stage, before falling agonisingly short once again in the Round of 16.

As Argentina partied after the final Ryuzo Morioka, working as a pundit for NHK, commented that he hoped one day to see the Samurai Blue experiencing such joy. While that day is surely a long way in the future, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that such moments aren’t just reserved for the biggest stage of all, and that sport has the power to provide connections between players and their fans in this way every weekend.

Football isn’t just tactics and statistics and physical resolve, it is played by people with their own lives, personalities, and struggles away from the pitch. Hollwood-esque pay-offs like the one Messi enjoyed in Doha are of course rare, but each of these stories can be just as satisfying once you buy into the narrative.

That is why I love the game, and with the World Cup done and dusted I can’t wait for the new J.League season to get underway so I can get in amongst the drama set to unfold at stadiums across the country in 2023. The faces change, but in football the story is never-ending.

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