World Cup daily: Humiliated Messi a double-edged blessing for Qatar

If this World Cup had a face, it would be Lionel Messi’s. The spirited Argentine was the tournament’s most valuable marketing tool. He is the front man of FIFA’s Football Unites the World campaign and has a lot of support in Qatar. As one of the superstars to play for Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain, it’s hardly a surprise.

Along with Cristiano Ronaldo (and to some extent Luka Modrić and Karim Benzema), Messi has also helped weave the most compelling story ahead of this World Cup. The GOAT era is coming to an end. At 35, this is likely his last chance to win football’s greatest prize. Many fans have come here to witness Messi’s final hooray.

Therefore, the humiliation of his Argentina team – second favorites to win the World Cup before kick-off – at the hands of a lower-ranked Saudi Arabia is a blow to the myth-making of Qatar 2022.

But there is a downside. After days of tales of unfinished shelters, alcohol bans and ‘unauthorized’ rainbows, football has delivered what organizers hoped: a big talking point.

And for Messi, there’s a curious subplot. Earlier this year he pledged to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia. That could potentially put him in a position to support a Saudi bid to host the World Cup in 2030, a competition in which the Gulf kingdom is likely to face his native Argentina.

Worth seeing on Wednesday: Belgium’s golden generation tries again

Belgian Thibaut Courtois training in Qatar

Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois during training in Qatar © Reuters

Belgium has long been the hipsters’ favorite at international tournaments. For years the team has been filled with top-flight talent, from Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku in attack to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in defence.

But perhaps their most important player is goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The Real Madrid stopper was recently named the best goalkeeper in the world after being instrumental in his side’s successful Champions League campaign last season.

In Qatar, Belgium need him to be in top form. The much-vaunted “Golden Generation” is entering the twilight years. This could be the last chance to prove the hipsters right.

Read Simon Kuper’s full profile of Thibault Courtois here.

Schedule Wednesday:

Morocco v Croatia, 10:00 UK time / 13:00 Doha time

Germany vs Japan, 1pm UK time/4pm Doha time

Costa Rica v Spain, 4pm UK time/7pm Doha time

Belgium vs Canada, 7pm UK time/10pm Doha time

Highlight on Tuesday: A boost for Saudi Arabia’s football ambitions

Saudi fans celebrate

Saudi fans celebrate in Souq Waqif, Doha, after their team’s victory on Tuesday © Reuters

As stunned Argentina fans left the stadium after their shock 2-1 defeat, Saudi fans were busy sharing videos of celebrations at home on their phones. The result was so momentous that the Saudi king immediately declared Wednesday a national holiday.

In Riyadh, Saudis celebrated, some driving around with passengers leaning out of windows and raising their green national flags. Social media users shared scenes from celebrations in Egypt and Gaza.

Saudi Arabia’s ambitions in sport are huge and growing. The country’s sovereign wealth fund bought a majority stake in Premier League club Newcastle United a year ago and – backed by hundreds of millions of pounds in oil money – turned the Magpies into real contenders for Champions League qualification this season.

The Saudis have also committed at least $2 billion to building a rival course, LIV Golf, for the PGA Tour. You can watch our explainer video on the Saudi hostile takeover of golf here, part of our scoreboard video series.

A Saudi bid to host the 2030 World Cup is in the works, perhaps in partnership with Greece and Egypt. Tuesday’s win may be just a game, but it will only serve to boost Saudi interest in the world’s most popular sport.

Tuesday’s results:

Argentina 1 Saudi Arabia 2

Denmark 0 Tunisia 0

Mexico 0 Poland 0

France 4 Australia 1

News summary:

  • Cristiano Ronaldo has left Manchester United, his contract was terminated by mutual agreement and with immediate effect. The move comes days after an explosive television interview with Piers Morgan. The Portuguese star will make his World Cup debut against Ghana on Thursday.

  • German retailer Rewe said on Tuesday it was terminating its sponsorship deal with the German Football Association after the team bowed to threats from Fifa and stopped wearing pro-inclusion wristbands as planned.

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