In 2014 at the Maracana, Germany captain Philipp Lahm was given the World Cup trophy by Brazil president Dilma Rousseff, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter hovering next to her.
In Russia four years later, as the rain poured down in Moscow, France captain Hugo Lloris walked past three presidents trying to keep dry under their umbrellas: Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron of France.
Macron hugged Lloris before the goalkeeper joined his team-mates to receive the trophy, prompting a slightly awkward moment Infantino had to wheedle his way into the throng to hand over the most glittering prize in men’s football.
At the end of the first World Cup to be held in a Muslim country — and the first tournament to take place mid-season in and around a single city — however, the world’s greatest player lifted the trophy wearing a piece of clothing that ties him to Qatar forever.
“We are eternal,” said Rodrigo De Paul. “We’re part of a select group who have lifted the World Cup trophy.” Yet only one man has lifted it like Lionel Messi.
He had a huge, warm hug with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who then placed a black robe with a gold trim around Messi’s shoulders. A bisht, as it is known, is typically worn by male dignitaries in Islamic culture.
It was a historic moment as Qatar celebrated its National Day.
Many will have felt understandable pride that Messi was adorned with a traditional Arab robe as he prepared to celebrate the greatest personal achievement of his remarkable career.
Others will be pleased that, for a few moments at least, this 5ft 7in magician of a footballer looked a little bit like them. Maybe, too, for those who have seen this World Cup as an opportunity to break down Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern culture, this was the most high-profile platform imaginable to answer questions about how many people here dress the way they do.
It is possible, though, to acknowledge all of these things and also to be cynical about what else the gesture meant. To wonder whose idea it was, how long it has been planned and how much Messi, the most famous player on the planet who has signed a lucrative deal to promote tourism in neighboring Saudi Arabia, knew about it.
The manner in which the Emir presented Messi with the bisht on a platform in the middle of the stadium with billions watching at home was certainly unusual. Offering a polite no, or trying to take it off as he walked with the trophy towards his team-mates, was not an option, either.
But maybe it was fitting, because this has been an unusual World Cup in so many ways — for positive reasons and to its detriment.
On Sunday night, as this small Gulf nation has done so many times since Blatter pulled his name out of an envelope in 2010, Qatar revved up its turbo-charged supercar and brazenly bashed its way through convention. And again, Infantino was the willing facilitator — standing by, grinning and clapping, and letting Qatar do what it wanted while the world watched.
The message felt clear: this is our stage — and you are merely a player in it.
Argentina may have won the World Cup but this was a huge victory for Qatar too.
It is easy to say this was sportswashing in action but that implies a desire on Qatar’s behalf to polish up its image; to the Western world, at least. Yet over the past month, this has not felt like a country trying desperately to impress anyone. It has, instead, appeared to take great delight in doing things exactly how it wishes, then firing accusations of Western bias or racism at those who disagree.
You’re not having any beer in our new, shiny stadiums (even though we said you could until two days before the tournament), you can’t bring in your rainbow flags (although Infantino said “everyone would be welcomed” a month before kick-off) and you can’t wear a T-shirt that says “Woman. Life. Freedom” either because that is a political statement.
“I think it (the World Cup) was more than we expected,” Qatar’s World Cup chief executive Nasser Al-Khater told The Athletic on Sunday night. “We said we would deliver amazing and we delivered amazing. It’s the best World Cup so far and will be the best for a very long time.”
Many will agree with him. Although pesky journalists and human rights activists have kept “banging on” — to use Al-Khater’s phrase — about women’s, workers’ and LBGTQ+ rights (although arguably not loudly enough), it has largely been background noise. Aside from the furore over wearing an armband — an armband! — and administrators giving wildly differing figures about something as fundamentally important as migrant worker deaths, Infantino’s pre-tournament plea to stick to football has been largely successful.
The two migrant worker deaths we know about during this World Cup have felt like inconveniences. Statements have been issued without a word of sympathy and an “investigation” has been opened and then left to drift.
Why was that? Because the football was good and the metro worked (until the day of the final). Not as many people came as Qatar expected but those who did were largely compliant and had a nice time: happy to feel very safe in FIFA Disneyland, eat good food, drink £15 pints of lager in dingy bars and fancy hotels, enjoy the sunshine and be waited on hand and foot.
And, despite taking place in the middle of European football seasons and clashing with the third round FA Cup draw, the football was at times breathtakingly brilliant. The exciting denouements to some of the groups contributed to a re-think about the ridiculous idea of three-team groups in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2026. Morocco were a revelation, becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals. Kylian Mbappe, who plays for a club in Paris Saint-Germain that is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, won the Golden Boot. Saudi Arabia beat Argentina! Remember that?
And Messi, feted on the back of every knock-off light-blue-and-white striped shirt available to buy in Souq Waqif, the traditional market in the middle of Doha, got all the way to a magnificent final that will live long in the memory. Not only that but he scored (twice), his team went ahead twice only for France to drag themselves back level, and then Argentina won the whole thing on penalties. Oh, and he plays for Paris Saint-Germain, too.
Then the main man lifted the trophy dressed like a member of Qatar’s elite. What more could the hosts possibly ask for? For Qatar, it really was “amazing”.
(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)