Lionel Messi and the World Cup left a richer sporting legacy for Qatar

Memories of Lionel Messi and 2022 World Cup not hard to find in Qatar.

Souvenirs from the “Last Chance” tournament greet visitors upon arrival at Doha's Hamad International Airport. Replica World Cup trophies and T-shirts are sold in Souq Waqif – a bustling dining and shopping area. Decorative footballs remain in subway cars.

Elsewhere in the mall, a tall poster of Messi stands, announcing the imminent arrival of the cafe brand that sponsors the Argentine national team.

But just over a year on, what is Qatar's true sporting heritage after the football extravaganza was first staged in the Middle East?

The country is currently hosting another major football tournament Asian Cupwhich organizers say “reaffirms Qatar's place as a global capital of sport”.

The natural gas rich nation sure knows how to show off. State-of-the-art stadiums and public transport catered to millions of fans during the World Cup. The tournament was crowned perhaps by the biggest final in its history when Messi inspired Argentina to win over France on penalties after a 3-3 draw after extra time.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said afterwards that it was “simply the best World Cup ever”.

That's up for debate, especially when faced with FIFA intense criticism for handing over the tournament to Qatar plus worrying about it treatment of migrant workers.

Yes, the World Cup produced exciting stories, as it always does; Messi finally won the one major trophy that was missing from his resume; and Morocco became the first African nation to reach the semi-finals. But integral to any major sporting event is the question of legacy, and whether the fervor created over several weeks of competition has left a lasting impression.

THE FANS

In isolation, Qatar's performances at the Asian Cup suggest that passion for the sport is still high in the country. More than 82,000 spectators watched the opening match against Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium. More than 57,000 people attended the host nation's second match against Tajikistan at the Al Bayt Stadium.

“The World Cup brought more football fans,” Hamad Sultan, who attended the match in Lebanon, told the AP.

Football fan Mohammed bin Qhata said: “The 2022 World Cup has reinforced the importance of football. As you can see, all Qataris are participating in the opening ceremony. Football is the number one sport in Qatar.”

Organizers said 900,000 tickets had been purchased ahead of the tournament. However, huge crowds at Qatar matches were not the norm.

Just 4,001 attended China's 0-0 draw with Tajikistan, although more than 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 matches also took place.

The festival atmosphere created by the World Cup was less evident at the smaller Asian Cup. While thousands of fans made their way to the Lusail Stadium for the opening ceremony, its nearby city streets were otherwise eerily quiet.

It is unclear how many fans regularly attend Qatari league matches, with numbers not openly disclosed.

FIFA and the Qatari league have cited a recent match between Al Rayyan and Al Arabi which was watched by more than 27,000 spectators, but it is not clear how representative it is.

“Our league matches, especially the signature matches, attract large audiences,” said Hani Taleb Ballan, CEO of the Qatar League.

STADIUMS

With an estimated population of less than 3 million people and only about 300,000 residents, Qatar appears to have a disproportionate number of top sports venues after eight stadiums were built or rebuilt for the World Cup.

Seven of these stadiums are used again for the Asian Cup and five are used in the Qatar league. However, it should be noted that the delayed 2023 Asian Cup is being held in Qatar only because the original host China canceled its hosting plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The modern World Cup stadiums remain one of the best memories of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar and fans are excited to attend matches at these venues,” Ballan said. “We have not left our amazing venues idle and our Expo Stars League matches this season 2023-24 are being played at five of them – Al Bayt, Ahmad Bin Ali, Al Janoub, Al Thumama and Khalifa International Stadiums. It was part of our plans to further grow the popularity of the game and we're glad it's serving its purpose.”

As part of its post-World Cup strategy, Qatar has said capacity will be reduced in some stadiums.

The 974 Stadium – one of the most distinctive venues created for the World Cup – was to be reduced to nothing. Labeled as “eco-friendly”, it was constructed from repurposed shipping containers and was set for disassembly after playing seven matches in the tournament.

However, Stadium 974 is still standing for more than a year, complete with World Cup signage around its grounds.

As for the Lusail Stadium, its place in history is assured after Messi came on against France.

“It's like a football museum,” said Mohammed bin Qhatan. “Suffice it to say that this is the stadium that hosted the 2022 final.”

HOME FOOTBALL

Since the World Cup, the focus has shifted from Qatar to Saudi Arabia.

A spectacular recruitment drive has seen some of the world's best players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema move to the Saudi League. More are expected to follow as the country seems intent on turning itself into a major power in the sport.

It also looks set host the 2034 World Cup as the only candidate left in the bidding process, it is organizing the next edition of the Asian Cup in 2027.

While the Qatari league has attracted former Liverpool and Barcelona striker Philippe Coutinho and ex-Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti, it pales in comparison to the signings from Saudi teams.

“Our intention is not to attract more star players from overseas. But we are open about our clubs' recruitment policies,” Ballan said, adding that the league “has always attracted star players from around the world.”

The league's ambitions don't appear to be based on star appeal. Ballan said he wanted it to be “recognised as a leading, progressive Qatari institution” and talked about increasing its professionalism.

“Our aim is to continue to provide high quality competitive football entertainment by raising the playing standards of all teams through higher performance,” he said.

Qatar's star player at the Asian Cup, Akram Afif, has made it clear where he hopes his future lies.

“Every player has a desire to play in Europe,” he said. “I want to play tomorrow in Europe if possible.”

While Qatar suffered elimination in the group stage at the World Cup, they are the defending champions of the Asian Cup and advanced to the round of 16 with a 100 percent winning record.

“Generation 2019 (Asian Cup) raised our level and ambition. We are always required to win in any match and championship we participate in,” Qatar captain Hassan Al Haydos said. “We are playing the Asian Cup as the title holders and in our own home, so we have to perform and show the fans that we mean it.”

THE FUTURE

Qatar calls itself the sports capital of the world and is trying to build on that reputation. The World Aquatics Championships are coming to Doha next month and the Asian Games will be here in 2030.

There is also talk of candidacy for the 2036 Olympics.

As the owner of Paris Saint-Germain, Qatar Sports Investments has a strong position in European football.

Meanwhile, Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani tried to buy Manchester United last year. It remains to be seen if there will be further interest from Qatar in any other top European teams.

SPORTS LINK

It is highly unlikely that Qatar will ever become a global soccer powerhouse on the pitch. That is not a requirement of the World Cup host.

The Qatar league is unlikely to challenge the popularity of the English Premier League, the Champions League or even the Saudi league.

However, the importance of the 2022 World Cup cannot be underestimated.

As the first in the Middle East, it prepared the ground for attracting other important sports events. Saudi Arabia is fast becoming the second country from the region to host the biggest soccer tournament.

Barriers were broken. The World Cup can be held at a time of year that is mid-season for many of the world's top leagues.

The temperatures, which had been a concern before the tournament, proved to be no problem in the air-conditioned stadiums, while state-of-the-art public transport operated smoothly.

FIFA said the Asian Cup is a “direct sporting legacy of the infrastructure and best practices of the FIFA World Cup”.

“The tournament helped instill a greater passion for sports, especially football, in the future generation of Qatar. I am sure it has left a lasting legacy apart from motivating young people to pursue their passion,” said Ballan.

The profile of club football in the region is also growing.

Less than two weeks after the World Cup final, Ronaldo agreed to transfer to the Saudi Arabian team Al-Nassr.

Qatar will always have the image of Messi wearing one of the country's ceremonial robes and holding the World Cup trophy above him.

It is one of the lasting memories in the history of the tournament and because of it, Qatar will forever be associated with football's biggest event.

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James Robson is on point https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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AP Football: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Ferdinand Medina

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