Following the 2022 FIFA World Cup was an unforgettable experience for all who watched, from everywhere.
With no Caribbean Community (CARICOM) team playing, most Caribbean fans decided to support Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Netherlands, or Spain.
However, across the world, the month of FIFA games in Qatar was deemed exceptional.
Never mind the strong efforts by the international mainstream media to water-down the hosting of the major global tournament in a small country with big money, their jealous concentration on downplaying the upside of the significance of the first World Cup held in an Arab-speaking Middle Eastern, Gulf state and new stories about old charges regarding labour conditions in building the magnificent stadia, the games went on to be the best-ever, with the best FIFA World Cup Final — ever.
From Day One (when Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in the opener) to the Final match last Sunday, every day was one of the ‘glorious uncertainties’ normally reserved for cricket commentaries, as it became repeatedly clear that no results of any match could have been predicted.
When all the big teams were eliminated in a tournament where one could win (a match) but still lose (by points), when it came down to the final four tops, FIFA President Giovanni Infantino acknowledged 2022 was, by far, “The Best World Cup — ever!”
The hype was well presented ahead of the semi-finals between Argentina, Croatia, France and Morocco; and when Croatia beat Morocco into third place, it was all about the clash between Argentina’ Lionel Messi and France’s Kilian Mbappe – who know each other’s plays better than anyone else, as imported top-skills, high-price players with France’s top team Paris St Germain (PSG).
Messi and Mbappe are among the many non-European star players bought by the richest European teams for the continental league and the team representing France last Sunday (like all before it) was dominated by Black players, but there were none on the Argentine team.
Race has no place in sports but try telling that to those who believe that melanin contributes to skills on the field of play, citing Pele in the 60s and Mbappe in 2022; or to those Africans worldwide who supported Morocco, only to first hear team officials say the victory was “for the Arab world”, until reminded the country is in fact located in North Africa.
Eventually, the Moroccan team returned home, welcomed in glory as “The first African and Arab team to qualify for the World Cup Semi Final.
But even though this was the first FIFA World Cup tournament I’d taken time off to follow from start to finish, the experiences I had and lessons I learned about how Caribbean people follow global sports without a regional team will live with me forever.
I watched the four matches to qualify for the semi-finals from Saint Lucia and viewed the final two from Guyana.
In Saint Lucia, I watched young fans watched the matches from unlikely places — under a tree in a sandy backyard around a laptop placed on the flat top of a sawn tree trunk, outside a Castries Market rum shop and a bar by the bay — and in each case, after each match, the usual celebration and fulminations were expressed by supporters of the winners and losers.
The loudest sounded and behaved like they were actually players (or even the team’s coach), but my very-welcome surprise was that in no case did any one of the young men pull a gun, or resort to threats.
Indeed, a small young man who lost a big bet punished himself by running around ‘The Yard’ several times non-stop, saying afterwards he was “not mad”, but “I feel better than the Jamaican who posted on Facebook that if his team lost, he would swallow everyone else’s vomit…”
I watched the Croatia v Morocco match from my hotel room but decided to go down to the hotel’s Sports Bar to experience the Guyana experience.
And what an experience it was!
I never said which team I supported, but an African American sitting next to me told me he “always” supported Argentina, while the vast majority of mainly Afro Guyanese drinking-out the bar through the match supported France — quietly at first, until Mbappe brought then back from the brink with his two equalizers and the hat-trick that led to the fatal and decisive penalty shootout.
I’d noted that the loudest of the Guyanese supporting France had excluded me from a round of drinks he’d ordered after each of Mbappe’s goals and thought it was oversight, perhaps due to his understandable excessive level of loud excitement, expletives included.
The African American sitting next to me had also switched his support to France before the match was over.
But Mr Loud cooled-down after Argentina won the penalty shootout, at which point I ordered a round of drinks — with ‘a double’ for him, for which he quietly thanked me.
Then he came to my side and softly whispered his heart out into my ear, saying: “I can’t understand why you would support a White team against Mbappe and the other Black Africans playing for France…”
I almost went into normal responsive mode to explain why I didn’t quite care if Argentina had Blacks on its team and why my support for Argentina was both from a geopolitical perspective and my wish that the FIFA World Cup would go to South America, that’s much-closer to Guyana and the Caribbean than France.
But, in the spirit of the sport, my own sporting spirit and my better understanding of the role and place of race in Guyana, I elected to swallow my thoughts and instead clink glasses with Mr Loud, for a first and final time, if only to avoid the broken glass that could have followed or flowed from taking our disagreement further, over drinks…