Qatar 2022 is a World Cup like no other, and the host nation performed like no other.
Theirs was the worst group-stage record of any home side at a World Cup, becoming the first to lose all three matches and conceding a landmark seven goals. Only South Africa, in 2010, had previously failed to make it out of the first round.
Controversially awarded the tournament months after Spain’s Barcelona-inspired success at South Africa 2010, Qatar had plenty of time to prepare and soon put its faith in Catalan coach Felix Sanchez.
He worked first with the nation’s youth teams before taking the top job five years out from the World Cup.
Although Sanchez led Qatar to Asian Cup success in 2019, he never considered a World Cup run a serious possibility – or so he said after a third straight defeat last month.
“Our country has 6,000 federation football licences, so this was a likely outcome,” he explained. “We never set a goal to reach the round of 16 or quarter-finals.”
While Sanchez believed this to be a “very realistic” approach, Qatar undoubtedly underwhelmed.
However, fortunately for those with a vested interest in the country boosting its reputation at the finals, its presence on the pitch extends beyond Sanchez’s national team.
Lionel Messi and Neymar, like Sanchez, were poached by Qatar from Barcelona, and they are having a far greater impact.
Of course, neither are counted among the naturalised Qatari citizens who turned out in the colours of the gulf nation, but the South American superstars, along with Kylian Mbappe, represent Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain every time they step out on the field.
If disappointed by Qatar’s woeful displays before his eyes, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir, could at least therefore be heartened by the influence of his club side.
PSG’s takeover by Qatar Sports Investments followed hot on the heels of FIFA’s vote for the 2022 hosting rights, yet it scarcely could have dreamed of the status its players would enjoy when the tournament finally came around.
Admittedly, things could have been very different had this World Cup taken place in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, as is the norm.
At the end of the 2021-22 season, Messi was coming off the worst club campaign of his career, Neymar had again spent long stretches out injured, and Mbappe appeared set to leave PSG for Real Madrid.
Six months on, all three were in form, all three were fit, and all three were still at PSG.
In Europe’s top five leagues, Erling Haaland (21) alone has more goal involvements in 2022-23 than Neymar (20). Mbappe (10) leads the same metric in the Champions League. Both in Europe’s top five leagues and in the Champions League, Messi sets the benchmark for assists (10 and four).
For Messi and Mbappe, that level of performance has continued in Qatar. They have carried Argentina and France respectively into the quarter-finals, with Messi scoring three and assisting one of La Albiceleste’s seven goals while Mbappe has netted five and created two of the world champions’ nine.
Meanwhile, Neymar was forced to watch as his club colleagues seized control of this competition, injured after a brutal Brazil opener in which he was fouled nine times by Serbia players and hobbled off with a severely swollen ankle.
But now he has come to the party – and it is always a party where Brazil are concerned.
Neymar scored one goal and assisted another in a dazzling first half against South Korea that set up a 4-1 last-16 victory. He is the first Brazil player since at least 1966 to both score and assist at three different World Cups.
The first of those Neymar World Cup goals came back in 2014 against next opponents Croatia, who have not looked capable of stopping a Selecao side in full flow, scraping past Japan only after a penalty shoot-out.
As in Sao Paulo at Brazil’s home World Cup, the stands at Education City Stadium will be decked in yellow for Friday’s quarter-final, although many of those present will be supporting Neymar himself as much as his team.
Travelling fans from outside the Middle East are in relatively short supply in Qatar, but there are no shortage of Neymar, Messi or Mbappe shirts at Brazil, Argentina or France matches.
It speaks to the success of the PSG project that this foothold in the world game has been established not by Qatar’s investment in its national team or by its hosting of the greatest tournament of all.
While there is focus in Europe on QSI’s failure to deliver Champions League glory, its thirst for star-power has been rewarded with a genuine interest in the last eight of a World Cup, Qatar’s own World Cup.
And unlike in club competitions, where cohesion is key and PSG cannot blow the best teams away, superstars can single-handedly decide the day at this level.
Brazil – and QSI – have one of those; there could yet be cause for celebration for Sheikh Tamim and Qatar if Neymar again performs like the world’s most expensive player over the next 10 days.