I Saw France Win The 2018 FIFA World Cup In The Stadium & Here's What The Vibes Were Like
Remember Putin's rogue umbrella?
This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.
Only 78,011 out of the 8 billion global population can truthfully claim to have attended the 2018 FIFA World Cup final in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. I, yours truly, was one of the blessed ones — and very few experiences in life have ever compared.
Against a dogged Croatian team, it was a familiar French team, led then by their current coach Didier Deschamps, that went on to be crowned champions in the Russian capital on July 15, 2018. And this Sunday, France has the chance to become the first team to successfully defend their title since Brazil's repeat triumph in 1962.
The task at hand in Qatar though, is to overcome a Lionel Messi-shaped threat. The Argentine tour de force (and a strong contender for the all-time GOAT title) will be looking to push on the best (5 goals and 3 assists) of his five World Cup career campaigns.
The World Cup trophy is the last piece of silverware missing from Messi's shiny trophy cabinet, which already houses a record seven Ballon d'Ors on top of a host of team accolades from his time with FC Barcelona.
It could also be the last time we see the champion don an Albiceleste shirt in a World Cup game.
This sets up a mouthwatering contest between the European and South American heavyweights, capping off what has been a controversial yet memorable tournament in Qatar.
And if the previous final — which ended up being a six-goal thriller before Vladmir Putin's umbrella refused to cooperate in the rainy post-match ceremony — is any evidence, stadium-goers will be in for a treat: with Paris Saint-Germain teammates, Kylian Mbappe and Leo Messi not just facing off for the World Cup trophy, but also for the Golden Boot.
Before Sunday's final kicks off, here's a throwback to what the 2018 spectacle served up for me in the Kremlin:
Beer at the Stadium
Once upon a time, stadiums served beers at the World Cup. Well, at least attendees of the 2018 edition had the good fortune of grabbing an overpriced bottle/cup of beer ahead of the football extravaganza.
Budweiser, owned by the world's largest brewer AB InBev, has been a sponsor at the FIFA World Cup since 1986. And as sponsors do, they hosted journalists from across the globe to attend the biggest games at the 2018 World Cup. I was the chosen one from India, and literally made friends from all inhabitable continents of the world, with whom I eventually would go on to attend the match.
Bud's hospitality also meant that we had access to unlimited beer in the stadium and it's safe to say that a few of us have blurry pregaming memories. But more on that later.
What changed this year though, that too right before the tournament's kickoff, is that the WC's first Arab host banned alcohol inside the stadium. Of course, this resulted in outcry from beer-loving match-goers; but there's always opportunity in adversity as demonstrated by these two Brits, whose beer-hunt landed them in a party with a Sheikh(!?).
Beer was served at the stadiums during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but women's safety was questionable.Alshaar Khan | Narcity
The silver lining though is that this World Cup has been "the safest event of its kind with zero major crime," or at least that's what Qatar's National Command Centre (NCC) claimed on the basis of the number of complaints received.
Ground reports have indicated that women, in particular, have been able to experience the event rather safely, as a result.
"I think alcohol contributes a bit more to hostility, rather than things like catcalling, wolf whistling and sexual harassment," Billie Molloson, the ambassador for a campaign to tackle sexism in football called 'HerGameToo', told Reuters. She traveled from England to attend the World Cup.
In contrast, Russia's promise of a 'safe, happy and clean' World Cup appeared somewhat shallow, after multiple incidents of female reporters being sexually abused on camera. French officials even had to issue advisories for women's safety ahead of the 2018 final in Russia.
So overall, while I enjoyed the privilege of having alcohol available inside the stadium in Moscow, the largely positive outcome of the ban on women's safety in Qatar makes me wonder if it was worth it.
This time for Africa (and the Arab world)
Attending an event of such global enormity obviously opens up the window to a whole new world. Among various other match-going visitors, I had the pleasure of bonding over Manchester United with a group of South African gents.
We even decided to wear red jerseys to the 2018 final, as a nod to the lone representative of our favourite club, France's Paul Pogba. Interestingly enough, my new friends from the other side of the world considered France as 'the last-standing African team' ahead of the grandstand finish to the World Cup in Russia.
That's because more than 65 percent of the Les Bleus squad had roots in Africa.
Fans cheered for French players with African roots at the 2018 FIFA World Cup final.Alshaar Khan | Narcity
In 2022 though, Africa didn't need second-hand representation. Morocco carried the continent's hopes into the semi-finals, becoming the first African (and/or Arab) country to do so, but ironically fell to the French on Tuesday.
This unprecedented final-four success went a long way to leave its mark off the pitch; Moroccan players celebrating wins with their mothers became an alternative measure of holistic accomplishment.
It was also one of the rare occasions where the Palestinian flag took centre stage at an event of this scale, leading Latin American media outlets to brand Palestine the 33rd country at the tournament. Even some English fans jumped on the bandwagon.
\u201cThe solidarity with Palestine at the World Cup is a powerful and welcome reminder that normalization with Israel is not the will of the people. In Qatar and beyond, the message is clear: to stand with Palestine is to be on the right side of history. \ud83c\uddf2\ud83c\udde6\u270a\ud83c\uddf5\ud83c\uddf8\u201d— IMEU (@IMEU) 1670354042
Scholars like Khaled Beydoun argued that the Atlas Lions showcased a different, more real side of the Muslim world as opposed to the stigma created by various Western world narratives.
Maybe there will be an African World Cup winner in 2026. Maybe my African friends will be here in North America to watch it, as the latter gears up to host the next edition of the tournament.
Russia, Qatar & Hypocrisy
Qatar came under heavy fire from human rights groups for its anti-LGBTQ laws. Led by certain European football associations, there were loud voices of dissent within the sport as well.
Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are illegal in the conservative Muslim country and European football associations voiced concerns for the safety of travelling groups to Qatar.
Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of the 2022 World Cup, however, clarified that queer attendees do not need to worry about "persecution of any sort", describing Qatar as a "tolerant country". The hosts also received unequivocal support from FIFA in the build up to the event.
After initially pledging to wear them as a mark of support for the LGBTQ community, the European soccer nations eventually succumbed to pressure from FIFA and decided to ditch the rainbow-striped 'OneLove' armbands
Germany, however, got called out for its 'virtue signalling' for their team's hands-over-mouths protest against Qatar's anti-LGBTQ laws. It quickly followed accusations of anti-Arab racism and taunts over the country's Nazi past.
What made it look worse for Germany was the announcement of a deal, within a few days of this controversy, with the oil-rich Qatar to import liquefied natural gas.
It left many questioning the somewhat selective nature of Germany's activism and wondering why it turned a blind eye to human rights issues when it came to strategic matters.
Qatari representation at the FIFA World Cup 2018 final in Russia.Alshaar Khan | Narcity
Four years back in Russia, I was surprised to encounter their government's own homophobic stance (which, in hindsight, didn't receive enough attention from Western media as compared to Qatar).
Travel risk watchdog Solace Global, in its 2018 Russia World Cup advisory, even warned of the country's 2013 law "banning the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’."
"The law is purposely vague and may lead to the arrest, imprisonment, or deportation of foreign nationals. LGBT travelers may face harassment and acts of violence, instances of which have reportedly increased since the law came into force," it had added.
Members of Pussy Riot, a group known for its outspoken views on various subjects including gay rights, even crashed the 2018 World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium. This led to a temporary delay mid-game, which match-goers like me didn't understand enough about at the time; but it later brought widespread attention towards Russia's political prisoners.
Critics argue that Western countries like the aforementioned Germany were comparatively tongue-tied against Russia's homophobic laws and human rights violations in 2018, indicating hypocritical attitudes towards the Arab world.
"The discussion around Qatar's World Cup — while sometimes bringing up absolutely correct and valid critiques (like the mistreatment of migrant workers) — has also been motivated by hypocrisy and double standards in many cases," Dana El Kurd, assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told AFP.
"They just see a country of Arabs in thobes (robes) and assume some extremist religious autocracy, when in reality people behave quite freely in Doha in terms of their personal choices."
The point being argued here is that the criticism of Qatar by the majority of Western media has been harsh/borderline racist. However, it does not absolve Qatar of their problematic stances on various human rights issues.
The Menace of 'Sportswashing'
If you bought a ticket to the 2018 World Cup, you didn't need a visa to travel, even on a deemed 'weak' passport, like one from India or Pakistan. A ticket would accompany, what the Kremlin called, a Fan ID, which allowed access to all of Russia.
Initially set out to expire at the end of the World Cup, the validity of these Fan IDs was extended to the end of 2018, given the 'success' of the project and also the World Cup.
A Fan ID for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.Alshaar Khan | Narcity
The World Cup helped change people’s view of Russia, FIFA President Gianni Infantino boasted in front of a packed Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, ahead of the final in July 2018.
The tournament transformed “the perception that the world has about Russia,” Infantino had said. Reuters predicted a resulting 15 percent increase in annual tourism revenue in 2019.
Even when my friends and I frolicked along the Moskva river in the summer of '18, it felt like a fairytale — Disneyland may have nothing on the opulence of the St. Basil Cathedral. But as the confetti settled on Russia's streets later that year, human rights activists continued to bring attention to the miserable condition of the workers, who made that carnival possible.(All this before Russia was recently kicked out of FIFA competitions for its war on Ukraine.)
Other concerns about the 2018 event included, but were not limited to, condoning the acts of infamous Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, and offering him a "global platform to launder his reputation".
This was what the recent Netflix documentary, FIFA Uncovered defined as a classic case of sportswashing.
Sporstwashing has come to be defined as the propagandistic use of athletics by a government to launder its tarnished reputation. Argentina used it via the 1978 FIFA World Cup during its military dictatorship while the 1936 Summer Olympics formed Adolf Hitler's camouflage tactics to cover up his anti-semitic propaganda.
Qatar, with its desire to become a regional power broker amid a questionable human rights record, has been accused of employing the same tactic to repair a contentious global image and strengthen its position as a regional power broker for potential Western allies.
The core philosophy of the World Cup, like any other major sporting event, was born to celebrate human achievement and push the limits of our athletic potential. But the historic misfortune of such fortresses is that they continue to be built on human lives buried anonymously under their cornerstones.
It's a welcome privilege check for most of us who'll be watching the France vs Argentina final from the comfort of our couches.
I will long cherish my time in Russia, which exposed me to a host of new cultures and opened my eyes to the battles of so many marginalized communities around the world.
That's mostly what I took away from being part of the last World Cup final.