After four long years, the World Cup returned once again in 2022, with Qatar hosting the world’s largest sporting event for the first time. There were several storylines that headlined the tournament. In their last attempt, could either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi win soccer’s greatest prize? Would the world’s brightest talent Kylian Mbappé lead France to a repeat of their 2018 triumph? Could an aging Croatia side shock the world and make a deep run once more? Would the Germans bounce back from their shock group stage exit last time out to do some real damage in 2022? We received the answers to all of these questions as Qatar 2022 produced one of the most memorable World Cups of all time.
The headline of all headlines: Lionel Messi has finally won the World Cup at the fourth time of asking. The tournament has been notoriously harsh on the player many consider the greatest of all time, as he had fallen short on his previous four attempts. In 2006 he was but a teenager in a veteran Argentina side that went out in a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to hosts Germany. In 2010 he failed to score as a well-rounded Argentine side were humbled in the quarter finals by Germany once again, this time 4-0. In 2014 a prime Messi led his nation all the way to the World Cup final, winning the golden ball in the process, only to once again have Germany stand in the way as Mario Götze scored a famous extra time winner to leave the Argentines only a silver. Messi’s hopes seemed completely dashed in 2018, when an uncharacteristically weak Argentina side went out to eventual champions France in the round of 16.
But 2022 was different. Despite being 35 years old and well past his physical prime, you would never have known it based on how he was playing. Reborn with the desire to finally win soccer’s greatest prize, Messi scored in every single round of the tournament, from the group stage to the final. In one of the greatest finals ever played, Argentina defeated France on penalties after the match finished 3-3 in extra time. Messi scored two and assisted the other Argentina goal to keep his nation’s hopes alive, even after Kylian Mbappé scored a hat trick to tie the match.
In the end, a young France squad crumbled under the pressure of a penalty kick shootout, while the veteran Argentine team kept their cool. And Messi? He rolled his penalty into the corner as nonchalantly as if he was in his own backyard. Finally, the GOAT had his prize.
Luka Modrić shows his quality once again
The prevailing storyline from the 2018 World Cup was the magical run put on by Croatia, a country of less than four million, as they went all the way to the final. That run was orchestrated by Luka Modrić, one of the best central midfielders of all time, and ultimately won him the 2018 Ballon d’Or. But in 2022 the golden generation of Croatian footballers is aging, and they were written off as a result. Modric is now 37. His midfield partner in 2018, Ivan Rakitić, is now 36 and retired from international play. Ivan Perišić, the nation’s most dynamic forward, is now 33 and past his peak. Mario Mandžukić, who scored in the 2018 final, is now 36 and retired altogether.
But somehow, come the semifinals, there they were yet again. Modrić, aging like a fine wine, had orchestrated perhaps the upset of the tournament, as Croatia knocked favorites Brazil out at the quarter final stage on penalties. Modrić rolled back the years to dominate the match. He was simply untouchable on the ball, completing 91.3% of his passes and playing the Brazilian midfield off the park. They may have gone out to Argentina in the semifinals, but Modrićproved once again that he is world class, even as he approaches retirement.
The end of Ronaldo at the top level
Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at the top level of professional soccer is over. Entering the World Cup, he had been benched and then released by Manchester United, with no interest from any other top European side. This left the World Cup as perhaps his last chance in the eyes of many to prove he was still worthy of a contract at a Champions League club at the age of 37. The verdict now seems to be that the Portuguese is finished.
Ronaldo scored only once in the World Cup, and it came from the penalty spot against a very weak Ghana side in the group stages. Otherwise, he was largely ineffective. Come the knockout rounds, he was benched in favor of young prospect Goncalo Ramos, who promptly scored a hat trick on his debut for Portugal as they demolished Switzerland 6-1 in the round of 16. He once again started on the bench in his nation’s quarterfinal against Morocco, coming off the bench for the final 16 minutes. He once again failed to find the net as Portugal crashed out, ending his World Cup dream. And to top things off, Ronaldo was included in the worst XI of the tournament. Without a club and coming off of such a grand disappointment, Ronaldo has since signed for Saudi Arabian side Al Nasr, bringing to an end his reign as one of the kings of European football.