World Cup hero? Even triumph for Messi will not save this compromised spectacle | Lionel Messi

Buenos Aires has a new Diego Maradona mural for the World Cup. It looks great, although the vast, Stalinist-scale Diego head selected by the artist is not the obvious version from 1986, when the quality of the light, the white noise in the stadiums and the way Maradona moved were basically all one perfect golden sun-drenched substance.

Instead Buenos Aires has gone for the Italia 90 version, with the insolent stare and the deep blue kit, hair trimmed into an idealised barbershop photo-style low bouffant. Maradona still managed to lead Argentina to the final in Italy and to produce that otherworldly artist-as-pickpocket pass to Claudio Caniggia against Brazil.

But he already seemed oddly careworn, spending most of that World Cup not so much playing football as walking around causing scenes – blubbing, arguing, cheating, appearing at each stoppage in play to issue a series of furious finger-wagging demands.

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Personally I even preferred the on-drugs version at USA 94, when Maradona at least looked (on drugs) a bit more himself, when he scored a brilliant (on drugs) goal against Greece, a startling rat-a-tat of flick-passes finished by easing (on drugs) the ball into the top corner. And yes, no one really wants to talk about that. But it was a very good (on drugs) goal.

The point about the mural is that it marks the fact Qatar 2022 will be the first World Cup in 44 years without Maradona either playing, out there as a living piece of tournament iconography, or popping up in the stands as he did at the last one, leaping about above the press box as Argentina struggled against Iceland.

By the end of that game Maradona had probably expended more energy than Lionel Messi, who seemed drained and mortal in Russia; and who is all set to take part in his own final tournament; and who already looks, a week out, like the single most poignant on-field presence at this World Cup.

Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi could all be the star of this World Cup, and all three play for Qatar-owned PSG.
Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi could all be the star of this World Cup, and all three play for Qatar-owned PSG. Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/PSG/Getty Images

Frankly this could go either way. Either Messi is the saviour of Qatar 2022, a note of pure sporting beauty to illuminate even a horribly compromised spectacle. Or he may just be its most depressing element: embodying the end-to end propaganda coup that runs through this thing from bid committee to a winner’s podium populated, in all likelihood, by paid ambassadors of Qatar.

In the middle of all these noises there is a decent case that it really may be Messi’s year. For the first time at a World Cup he is actually going to be fit, coming off the back of a half-season flush with goals and assists. He seems to have regained the ability to make those flea-like little lateral hops and springs.

There is a misconception this has been achieved in a kind of agricultural workers’ competition, that the French league is a gay, blunt, pastoral affair peopled by hobbits and ploughmen. In reality Ligue 1 is a bruising place stuffed with ambitious players. Messi is 35 years old. He looks, once again, like the best player in the world.

And Argentina are a convincing prospect, unbeaten in 35 games, with a shot at Denmark in the last 16, then England or the Netherlands. Who knows, luminous, endlessly playful human talent may just have the final say. Perhaps Messi winning a World Cup can ennoble even this wretchedly compromised affair, giving us back some sense of pure sport, of human spirit, of beauty visible through the darkest glass.

At which point it is necessary – yep, here it comes – to insert a record scratch and a despairing sigh. Not so fast. Welcome to Qatar 2022 where even beauty is co-opted, where the bullshit piles up so high even a set of wings is unlikely to keep you clear. And where even the prospect of Messi lifting the trophy feels like a bit of a trap.

Even that sense of freshness is a little complicated. Messi is about to compete in Qatar’s grand propaganda show. PSG are miles clear in France. What is he going to do here? Risk it against Auxerre? He will probably play a bit on Sunday. And no doubt this is all completely straight. But right now Messi is on course to go into the World Cup having not played for 20 days, and with just seven games since 1 October. Harry Kane will have played 13 in that time. Everyone wants Messi there. But is this real? Is robust competitive sport happening here?

A giant image of Lionel Messi is displayed on a building in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
A giant image of Lionel Messi is displayed on a building in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Then of course there is the prospect of Messi actually winning this thing. Picture him, for a moment, on that podium. Or indeed picture the star player of any of the favourites. Picture Neymar of Brazil or Kylian Mbappé of France taking the trophy. Any strange vibes? Are the pieces fusing together, patterns emerging on the board, Usual Suspects-style?

This is the beauty of Qatar’s planning and execution, the insane levels of financial commitment. Qatar has not just one inside man, but three. One way or another there is a decent chance that golden trophy will be lifted by an employee of the host state. And do we think there will be dissent on that podium, that these court performers are going to do anything other than emit mannered and grateful joy?

And yes you can hope that perhaps Denmark or England can win it and make a stand by looking furrowed and troubled in victory, or maybe, you know, wearing a badge. Does that sound convincing? This is the effect of this stuff, a kind of disintegration, a realisation that everybody here is compromised in some way.

It is Qatar’s triumph, 12 years in the making: a World Cup where it is now difficult even to want Messi to win it, or to feel that this show built on the backs of Fifa corruption, indentured workers and hard sports power actually deserves such a show of sporting ultimacy.

And yes this is also a little absurd. Messi is not some childlike pure soul, sports Yoda. He is in fact the tourism ambassador of Saudi Arabia (has anyone told the Emir?).

But his talent is precious, a kind of affirmation. Messi in Qatar may still feel like a breath of life inside the machine. It may also feel like the most thoroughly stitched World Cup propaganda coup imaginable, a sportswashing checkmate. The best we can probably hope for is a chance to find out which.

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