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Why the cape worn by Messi is a problem

Never before has the host country bent the World Cup celebration to its will

Why the cape worn by Messi is a problem Never before has the host country bent the World Cup celebration to its will

Yesterday, after a dramatic and legendary match, the 2022 World Cup hosted by Qatar came to an end. And even more than Leo Messi, who fulfilled his World Cup dream at the age of 35, and Kylian Mbappé, who scored a hat-trick in the final, the undisputed protagonist was the tiny Saudi Arabian state itself, which managed to bend the demands of FIFA, the federations and the media to its will and turn this month into a perfect chapter of sport that controversy over workplace deaths, LGBTQ associations and alleged corruption cases failed to scratch. The final act was staged at the very moment of the final match, the moment always reserved for the winners.

The captain and the best player of this World Cup, lifting the World Cup to the sky, the object of every footballer's desire, is the photo for the headlines. The one that over the years will become the icon that represents the entire competition, and can hardly ever be as symbolic as the one seen on the podium in the centre of the Lusail Stadium. Lionel Messi, who has led the Albiceleste back to the top of the football world 36 years after Diego Armando Maradona, receives the trophy from the hands of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as he takes the final steps that separate him from his teammates and eternal glory. So far, so normal. Heads of state are always present at award ceremonies and Alberto Fernandez and Emmanuel Macron personally congratulated the two finalist teams.

But then something happened that has never happened before on the World Cup stage. Messi was helped to put on a bisht, a semi-transparent black coat with gold embellishments, which al-Thani himself explained is a dress for official occasions, worn at ceremonies. So it would have been an honour for Messi to wear such a gown just seconds before lifting the trophy he has chased throughout his career. Indeed, it was the final and symbolic way in which Qatar made its mark on the entire event, here even in a more literal sense, by donning the celebrating team's jersey. The sanctity of the match jersey, which in the case of national teams becomes the banner of an entire people that recognises its tradition and identity in these colours, is veiled here in the official photos.

A unique situation that surprises Messi himself, although he had probably been warned beforehand, while Infantino laughs and claps. In this brief but surreal interlude, the world's most powerful player looks almost like a puppet in the hands of adults who enjoy dressing him up as they please before parading him on a stage of their own design. We will probably never know how Messi felt at that moment, whether he had to follow Qatari protocol not only as captain of the Argentine national team but also as a player for Paris Saint-Germain, a club owned by the same Al Thani who helps him find his sleeves. Or whether the adrenaline rush of the cup itself made him forget this disrespectful and degrading little joke.

A World Cup that has already raised big questions and critical issues did not have to end this way, confirming the aggressiveness with which the Qatari royal family has tried to bend the world's most watched football event to their liking this decade. And without wanting to draw unnecessary comparisons with Maradona, the iconic 10 albiceleste deserves a different kind of respect for all that it represents than what received in Qatar. Messi's jersey, stained with dirt and sweat after 120 minutes of fighting, was supposed to be football's return to its most popular and universal dimension, the stuff of dreams. Instead, the most beautiful final in the history of the World Cup had to suffer a sad, unfair ending that achieved the opposite of its intended goal, which was to moonlight the predatory attitude of those who thought they could buy the passion of the public. Unfortunately, they did not, by going too far.