Lionel Messi and the World Cup have left Qatar with a richer sports legacy

FILE - Argentina's Lionel Messi lifts the trophy after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, on Dec. 18, 2022. Just over a year on from Messi winning the World Cup, what sporting legacy has it left in Qatar? (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

Reminders of Lionel Messi and the 2022 World Cup are not hard to find in Qatar.

“Last chance” tournament souvenirs greet visitors on arrival at Doha’s Hamad International Airport. In Souq Waqif — a vibrant eating and shopping area — replica World Cup trophies and shirts are on sale. Decorative soccer balls remain inside the metro carriages.

Elsewhere, a poster of Messi stands tall in a shopping mall, announcing the imminent arrival of a coffee house brand that sponsors Argentina’s national team.

But just over a year on, what is the real sporting legacy for Qatar after soccer’s showpiece was staged in the Middle East for the first time?

The country is currently playing host to another major soccer tournament, the Asian Cup, which organizers say “reaffirms Qatar’s place as a global sporting capital.”

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

FILE - Fireworks go off during the opening ceremony ahead of the Asian Cup Group A soccer match between Qatar and Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

That is up for debate, particularly as FIFA faced intense criticism for giving the tournament to Qatar plus concerns about its treatment of migrant workers.

Yes, the World Cup produced thrilling narratives, as it invariably does; Messi finally won the one major trophy missing from his CV; and Morocco became the first African nation to reach the semifinals. But intrinsic to the delivery of any major sporting event is the question of legacy and whether the fervor generated over a few weeks of competition left a lasting impression.

In isolation, Qatar’s games at the Asian Cup suggest passion for the sport still runs high in the country. More than 82,000 watched the opening game against Lebanon at Lusail Stadium. More than 57,000 attended the host nation’s second match against Tajikistan at Al Bayt Stadium.

FILE - A giant replica of the trophy is displayed on the pitch before the Asian Cup Group A soccer match between Qatar and Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

“The World Cup made more fans of football,” Hamad Sultan, who attended the Lebanon game, told The Associated Press.

Soccer fan Mohammed bin Qhata said, “(The) 2022 World Cup enhanced how important football (is). As you can see, all Qataris are attending this opening ceremony. Football is (the) number one sport in Qatar.”

Organizers said 900,000 tickets were purchased before the tournament. But the huge crowds for Qatar’s games have not been the norm.

Just 4,001 attended China’s 0-0 draw with Tajikistan, though there have also been games in excess of 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000.

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

What is not clear is how many fans regularly attend Qatari league matches, with figures not openly published.

FIFA and the Qatari league cited a recent game between Al Rayyan and Al Arabi that was watched by a crowd of more than 27,000, but it is not clear how representative that is.

With an estimated population of less than 3 million people and only around 300,000 citizens, Qatar would appear to have a disproportionate number of top-class sporting venues after eight stadiums were built or redeveloped for the World Cup.

Seven of those stadiums are being deployed again for the Asian Cup and five have been used in the Qatari league. But it should be noted the delayed 2023 Asian Cup is being staged in Qatar only because original host China canceled its hosting plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The state-of-the-art World Cup stadiums remain as one of the best memories of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and fans are just excited to attend matches at the venues,” Ballan said. “We didn’t leave our amazing venues idle and our Expo Stars League matches in this 2023-24 season are being played in five of them — Al Bayt, Ahmad Bin Ali, Al Janoub, Al Thumama and Khalifa International Stadiums. That was a part of our plans towards further increasing popularity of the game and we’re glad that it’s serving its purpose.”

ADVERTISEMENTQatar said as part of its post-World Cup strategy that capacity would be reduced in some of the stadiums.

Stadium 974 — one of the most distinctive venues created for the World Cup — was supposed to be reduced to nothing. Described as “eco-friendly,” it was constructed from repurposed shipping containers and was set to be dismantled after hosting seven games at the tournament.

Yet, Stadium 974 still stands more than a year on, complete with World Cup signage around its grounds.

As for Lusail Stadium, its place in history is secure after staging Messi’s crowning glory against France.

Qatar said as part of its post-World Cup strategy that capacity would be reduced in some of the stadiums.

Stadium 974 — one of the most distinctive venues created for the World Cup — was supposed to be reduced to nothing. Described as “eco-friendly,” it was constructed from repurposed shipping containers and was set to be dismantled after hosting seven games at the tournament.

Yet, Stadium 974 still stands more than a year on, complete with World Cup signage around its grounds.

As for Lusail Stadium, its place in history is secure after staging Messi’s crowning glory against France.

Qatar said as part of its post-World Cup strategy that capacity would be reduced in some of the stadiums.

Stadium 974 — one of the most distinctive venues created for the World Cup — was supposed to be reduced to nothing. Described as “eco-friendly,” it was constructed from repurposed shipping containers and was set to be dismantled after hosting seven games at the tournament.

Yet, Stadium 974 still stands more than a year on, complete with World Cup signage around its grounds.

As for Lusail Stadium, its place in history is secure after staging Messi’s crowning glory against France.

Qatar said as part of its post-World Cup strategy that capacity would be reduced in some of the stadiums.

Stadium 974 — one of the most distinctive venues created for the World Cup — was supposed to be reduced to nothing. Described as “eco-friendly,” it was constructed from repurposed shipping containers and was set to be dismantled after hosting seven games at the tournament.

Yet, Stadium 974 still stands more than a year on, complete with World Cup signage around its grounds.

As for Lusail Stadium, its place in history is secure after staging Messi’s crowning glory against France.

 

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