Messi completed football! Winners and losers of the 2022 World Cup as Mbappe runs riot while Ronaldo ruins his reputation
And breathe... The 2022 World Cup has just come to a close after four frenetic weeks of 64 games in eight stadiums located in and around Doha.
The drama was relentless. The group stage alone was remarkable, producing one upset after another, while the Moroccan miracle continued all the way to the semi-finals.
In the end, Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the trophy that appeared destined to elude him, with Kylian Mbappe having to content himself with the Golden Boot after becoming only the second man after Geoff Hurst to hit a hat-trick in the World Cup final.
That game alone produced countless talking points, so trying to pick out the winners and losers from the tournament overall was a thankless task.
Below, though, GOAL has tried to pick out the most memorable moments from a tournament that was truly unforgettable, and not always for the right reasons...
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Loser: The 2026 group stage
Gianni Infantino talked a lot of rubbish in Qatar. He was arguably right about one thing, though: the 2022 World Cup boasted the greatest group stage in the tournament's history.
Matchday three generated an unprecedented level of drama, with nearly every single set of fixtures producing late twists and turns. That is not always the case, of course, but the 32-team group stage just works. It reduces the risk of dead rubbers and increases the likelihood of exciting finales. It also makes for a convenient way to reduce the field to 16 teams.
The only trouble is that FIFA have only realised this now. In their infinite wisdom, they've already decided to increase the World Cup to 48 qualifiers in 2026, so they've now got a problem to solve. The plan was to have 16 groups of three but even Infantino has realised that they need to revise that plan because four-team groups is what makes the first round great.
However, the most obvious solution as it stands is the re-introduction of the dreadful format which allows some of the 'best' third-place finishers to progress to the knockout stage. And even that won't address the issue of more meaningless matches on matchday three. It's a mess. And one all of FIFA's making.
Winner: Kylian Mbappe
The kid is a freak of nature, a natural-born phenomenon, a heaven-sent talent destined to rewrite the record books. When Didier Deschamps says the World Cup is Mbappe's competition, he means it.
This is the game's grandest stage and yet he's completely at ease in the spotlight. He just doesn't fluff his lines. Ever.
Think about it, at any point did you think he was going to miss any of the three penalties he took against Argentina? What's more, when that ball dropped for him 95 seconds after his first spot-kick, you just knew that he was going to volley it home.
Mbappe is inevitable. If he stays fit, he will go down as one of the greatest players in history.
Loser: Ronaldo's reputation
Well, at least Fernando Santos has been sacked. That's the one positive to come out of the 2022 World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, there's no guarantee that the next coach won't come to the same conclusion as the man who benched him him in Qatar (and Erik ten Hag before him at Old Trafford) – that a team trying to play a modern brand of football is better off without a player who can't/won't press.
This tournament was meant to be about redemption for Ronaldo. It was supposed to remind everyone of what he still has to offer at the very highest level. Instead, it provided evidence of his dramatic decline. But it didn't have to be this way.
Ronaldo didn't arrive in Qatar match fit because he had long since burned his bridges at Manchester United. He then promptly set fire to his relationship with Santos and his whole reputation as a great sportsman went up in smoke.
For a man who talks a lot about respect, it was interesting that he didn't afford anybody any in Qatar – not his coach, not his team-mates, not his opponents and not even his own supporters. Some GOAT...
Winners: Argentina fans
The best fans at the World Cup? The tidiest were definitely Japan's, who even helped volunteers clean up after games. We should probably given a special mention to England's supporters. Not one arrest is a historic achievement for the Three Lions' followers.
Meanwhile, anyone who attended a Morocco match will tell you that there was a ringing in their ears for hours afterwards. They whistled in unison for every single second their team didn't have the ball, which added up to a fair bit of time given Walid Regragui's players revelled in their counter-attacking approach.
In terms of support, though, this tournament belonged to Argentina. They not only didn't just take over stadiums for 90 minutes; they occupied them until long after full-time. Argentina's tournament triumph really was as much theirs' as it was the players'. They visibly inspired one another.
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Loser: Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger used to be one of the most respected figures in football. Not anymore. A man who used to complain about fixture congestion is now pushing for the expansion of existing tournaments and the creation of others.
Just this week, the legendary Arsenal manager-turned-FIFA employee even lashed out at the "negativity" of the debate surrounding player welfare, despite the fact that those that are actually being told to carry the extra workload are dead against the introduction of more and more games.
Worse again, Wenger made a fool of himself by claiming that the sides who made political statements in Qatar performed worse on the pitch, referring to early exits for Denmark and Germany, while completely ignoring the historic progress being made by Morocco, who took every opportunity to highlight the plight of the Palestinian people. It was an argument as nonsensical as his previous proposal for a World Cup every two years but even more pathetic.
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Winner: Luka Modric
Croatia, a nation of four million people, followed up a runners-up finish at Russia 2018 by claiming bronze at Qatar 2022. Luka Modric is the man behind the miracle. The midfielder is 37 and yet he was, as coach Zlatko Dalic pointed out, playing with the energy of a 20-year-old. Indeed, Modric isn't just incredible from a technical perspective, he also remains a human dynamo, winning ball after ball in midfield. "Some people think this is the end," Dalic said, "but I think Luka Modric stays with us a long time." Let's hope so, because he remains a privilege to watch.
Loser: German football
What went wrong for Germany at Qatar 2022? Well, pretty much everything.
"We concede goals too easily," Ilkay Gundogan admitted, "we lose balls too easily and up front we miss goalscoring chances too easily. Of course, as Germany, we have to have different aspirations, so we have to take a good look at ourselves. We just didn't manage to do our best as a group, or maybe even individually. We have to question what the reasons were and everyone has to look in the mirror and tell themselves that it wasn't enough."
That period of self-reflection is already well under way, with Germany having returned home some two weeks ago after a second consecutive World Cup first-round exit. Hansi Flick has held on to his job as coach for Euro 2024 but Oliver Bierhoff has already resigned as managing director of the country's national teams and academy, underlining that Germany's problems are more structural than anything else. The country's football system is clearly in need of an overhaul similar to the one that paved the way for the 2014 World triumph in Brazil, 14 years after their embarrassing showing at Euro 2000.
Roy Keane most definitely wasn't a fan of Brazil dancing their way past South Korea and into the quarter-finals, feeling they would have been better off focusing on football. He'll argue he was right, too, given the Selecao were upset by Croatia in the last eight.
However, Tite doing the 'Pigeon Dance' with Richarlison remains one of the abiding images of the tournament. It was nothing, though, compared to the sight of Sofiane Boufal and his mother dancing on the pitch after Morocco's sensational win over Portugal.
It was a heart-warming expression of pure joy and a timely reminder of what this whole game is meant to be all about: fun. As Roger Milla, the man who brought the Makossa to the World Cup, memorably put it, "playing football and celebrating are the same thing – that is dancing." And nobody – not even the paid killjoys like Keane – is going to drive it out of the game.
Loser: Kevin De Bruyne
Was Kevin De Bruyne right about Belgium being too old to win the World Cup? A first-round elimination would certainly suggest so. Should he have said it, though? Absolutely not.
That De Bruyne signed off on the publication of that interview after Belgium had played – and won – their opening game was astounding. His comments immediately became a distraction for Roberto Martinez, and a bone of contention among his team-mates.
It evoked memories of Roy Keane's dramatic withdrawal from the Republic of Ireland squad before the 2022 World Cup for comments made in a newspaper article. And yet Keane had merely – and rightly – slammed the standard of the facilities in Saipan. De Bruyne threw his team-mates under the bus. A bitter backlash was inevitable, particularly as De Bruyne proved a bigger disappointment in Qatar than any other Belgium player.
Winner: Moroccan, African & Arabian football
Morocco's campaign ended with two frustrating defeats but disappointed soon gave way to pride. As Kylian Mbappe told Achraf Hakimi: "Don't be sad, bro, everybody is proud of you. You made history."
And he was spot on. No African side had ever previously made it past the quarter-finals. Well, they have absolutely smashed through that glass ceiling, redefining what is possible for the international game's undervalued and underappreciated nations when talent is combined with organisation, fighting spirit and vociferous support. Walid Regragui claimed before this game that his team were the ultimate underdog story, the footballing equivalent of Rocky, and that the entire world had fallen in love with his side. And he's right. Dima Maghreb!
For 90 mesmeric minutes, it appeared as if Tiki-taka was back. Spain announced their arrival in Qatar with a 7-0 schooling of Costa Rica that was as emphatic as it was easy on the eye.
However, that was to be as good as it got at this tournament for both La Roja and possession football. Spain bowed out in the last 16 after having the ball for 78 percent of their meeting with Morocco. The likes of Rodri complained afterwards that their opponents had done nothing remotely positive during the game. In reality, though, it was Spain who had contributed nothing to the contest other than a thousand passes.
This was possession with zero penetration and they paid a heavy price for the total lack of variation in their game. By that point, it was already abundantly clear that this tournament was all about quick transitions and rapid wing play.
It's no coincidence at all that both France and Argentina reached the final after having just 39% possession in their respective semi-final wins over Morocco and Croatia, respectively.
It didn't really matter who won Sunday's final. Qatar had already won this World Cup. And that's in spite of the fact that they became the first nation to bow out in the group stage without winning a single game, after their supposed supporters had given up on them at half-time in their tournament-opener against Ecuador.
For the Gulf state, the only objective was to stage a well-run competition that would allow fans and journalists to focus on the football. And they achieved that goal with the help of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, two footballers employed by Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatari Sports Investments (QSI).
Seriously, in the circumstances, amid all of the criticism and allegations of corruption, this couldn't have gone any better for the tournament organisers. France against Argentina, Mbappe versus Messi, it was the final of their dreams. And they even managed to get a bisht for the trophy presentation...
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Loser: Brand Beckham
David Beckham's face has been everywhere in Qatar yet his voice was never heard, which was rather fitting. Amid constant calls for him to voice his support for the LGBTQ+ community which considered him an ally for such a long time, the former England captain stayed strangely silent.
Perhaps his lucrative ambassadorial role for Qatar 2022 had something to do with it. He may have made millions as a result of his promotional work but it's cost him a lot of fans.
Winner: Lionel Scaloni
They might not admit it now but plenty of Argentina fans were against the appointment of Lionel Scaloni as the national team's permanent manager. He was fine as a caretaker coach but they didn't think he had the credentials required for the top job.
Well, Scaloni now boasts one of the most impressive CVs in international football history. Indeed, he is just the third manager to win both the World Cup and Copa America, after Mario Zagallo and Carlos Alberto Parreira. What a story!
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How much World Cup heartbreak can one man take? Neymar has experienced almost nothing but physical and emotional pain at this tournament.
He was nearly left paralysed by a tournament-ending challenge at Brazil 2014. He was heavily criticised for his play-acting after the Selecao's shock exit from Russia 2018. And here, in Qatar, he suffered an injury in his country's tournament-opener.
He appeared to have flipped the narrative by the last eight, though, having scored on his return against South Korea and then again against Croatia, with a stunning solo goal, to become Brazil's all-time record goalscorer. However, a late leveller from Bruno Petkovic resulted in a shootout that Neymar didn't even get to participate in, having been put down as Brazil's fifth penalty-taker.
Once again, his World Cup campaign ended in floods of tears. "Your legacy is far from complete," Pele told Neymar. It was an attempt at reassurance but, in the circumstances, it actually read more like an admission that this supremely-gifted player is doomed to never realise his full potential.
Winner: France's fighting spirit
Let's face it, France didn't turn in one complete performance at the 2022 World Cup. They didn't dominate a single opponent for 90 minutes. They played only in patches, which proved purple enough to see them past England and force extra-time and then penalties against Argentina.
There were mitigating circumstances, though. Didier Deschamps' squad was rocked by the loss of a number of world-class players, including N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema, before the tournament had even begun.
Then, in their World Cup opener, Lucas Hernandez's campaign was ended by a knee injury, while the group was hit hard by a virus during their final week in Qatar. It is testament to France's strength in depth, but also their fighting spirit and outrageous resilience, that they were only denied a second consecutive triumph on penalties.
Deschamps and his players may not have taken home the trophy this time but they remain a team of champions.
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England brought a cat home. And a fair play award. But football remains frustratingly out of reach for the Three Lions.
The good news is that they will be among the favourites to win Euro 2024. As they underlined in Qatar, they have a ridiculous amount of young attacking talent. Gareth Southgate's decision to stay on should also be welcomed. Whatever one thinks about his conservative tactics, he has done a good job until this point and clearly retains the trust and support of a stellar squad.
There was also no shame in losing to the defending champions, whom they had the misfortune to run into in the quarter-finals. However, that does not alter the reality that England squandered their best chance to win the World Cup for the first time since 1966.
They dominated France in much they same way that Argentina did for the majority of the final but just could not get the job done. Again. England undeniably had the players to win a major tournament, but they still don't have the courage or conviction to beat the best teams in the biggest games.
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Winner: Lionel Messi
It's easy to understand why Lionel Messi wants to continue playing international football. He's enjoying it more than ever before, and that's down not only to the success he's enjoyed over the past 18 months, but also the unbreakable bond he's formed with Lionel Scaloni and his band of brothers.
However, there really is no need for Messi to continue. He's won it at all and he's done it all. Despite all of his awesome achievements at club level, the few remaining skeptics used to slate Messi over his lack of international honours. Well, he's now followed up a Copa America success with a World Cup win. Messi has completed football.