Phew! The 2022 World Cup is over, Lionel Messi has that elusive prize and Argentina have bragging rights over the soccer world for the next four years. So, it’s time to re-rank.
Prior to this tournament, Bill Connelly and I tried to put every previous edition into a highly scientific and rigorously analytic ranking from worst to best. With the festivities in Qatar wrapped up, now let’s figure out where the 2022 edition fits into everything.
Every FIFA representative near a microphone has been quick to call this one of the best World Cups ever, but in one way or another, most of them have been pretty good. While recency bias will almost certainly play a role here, let’s go category-by-category and see how the last month shapes up with its historic peers.
Great players (1-10): 5
Bill Connelly: When the primary storyline of the final pits Kylian Mbappe vs. Lionel Messi, both playing at or near the peak of their effectiveness, that’s a pretty good start. And you certainly get some points for the number of incredible international talents almost certainly playing in their final World Cup — Messi, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, et cetera.
The competition is also noteworthy, however, for who it lacked: Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah and [pick your favorite player from the Italian team], plus injured stars like Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Christopher Nkunku. There is always star power at the World Cup, but in the end I don’t feel like this competition had any more than others even if the two biggest stars shined particularly bright.
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James Tyler: I agree with you here. Also, this World Cup has been about the surprise packages (Morocco, Japan) as well as the more surprising names on various rosters. (Did anyone have Alexis Mac Allister as one of their players of the tournament? Me neither.) This has been a tournament where the collective has broadly outdone the individual talent, not to mention the drop in star power either through those injuries or through failure to qualify.
Oh, and some of the players to really impress aren’t quite at that level, either, from Hakim Ziyech to Julian Alvarez (he’ll be there someday, though) to Cody Gakpo. They might be on the billboard four years from now, but their performances in Qatar this winter certainly weren’t the ones we were watching for pre-tournament.
BC: And honestly? That’s the kind of tournament I tend to enjoy even more. I knew Messi was awesome, so nothing he could do here would have surprised me. Getting to know someone like Alvarez and getting a huge reminder of what Ziyech can do when he actually plays was delightful.
France sure could have used Benzema, Kante, Nkunku and Paul Pogba in the final, though, huh?
Goal quantity/excitement (1-5): 5
JT: I’ll take this one first. The excitement has been there from start to finish, with a number of knockout round games going to the wire and several others showcasing the best that soccer has to offer — that’s right: all-gas, no-brakes attacking soccer and heroic, last-ditch defending. But at the same time, we did get more 0-0 games than the past World Cup and I think more than 2014 as well, while some of the games (any involving Croatia, Belgium) were simply lacking in quality and finishing.
The US huffed and puffed but failed to blow anyone’s houses down, and if you take out some of the more lopsided results — Portugal’s 6-1 rout of the Swiss in the round of 16, England thundering Iran and Spain laying waste to Costa Rica — it definitely lacked some of the pizzazz of tournaments past. I do think the midseason fit had an impact here, as players were a little tired at times and tactics were mercifully kept quite basic. Several games had the feel of something attritional rather than attractive.
BC: On the flip side, we got the most goals ever and a 3-3 final. Really, this was a “something for everyone” situation. The group stage gave us six 0-0s, nine 1-0s, three 3-2s, two 4-1s, a 3-3, a 4-2, a 6-2 and a 7-0. The knockout rounds gave us a shootout after 0-0 and two shootouts after 1-1 — so, four total goals in 360 minutes, plus a 1-0 after 90 minutes as well — along with two 3-0s, a 4-1, a 6-1 and a glorious final. In the end, I’d say the latter outweighs the former.
Upsets (1-5): 4
BC: Morocco beat Belgium, Spain and Portugal. Japan beat Germany and Spain. (In between, Costa Rica beat Japan.) Saudi Arabia nearly derailed Argentina’s title bid before it even got started with a 2-1 win. Croatia beat Brazil, which was an upset even though it was also a defending finalist beating a 2018 quarterfinalist. South Korea advanced over Portugal and Uruguay. If we’re including what amounted to dead rubbers, Cameroon beat Brazil and Tunisia beat France, which likely mattered quite a bit to Cameroon and Tunisia.
That’s a lot. Upsets were this competition’s calling card in the group stage.
JT: Even though we mostly got chalk in the knockout stages — with the notable and joyous exception of Morocco — the group stage had plenty of humble pie for overconfident superpowers.
BC: One more knockout upset, and it gets the full five points.
Location/Fans (1-5): 2
BC: When the host nation doesn’t bring an enormous and vocal fan base to the table — and a percentage of the fans it does bring are hired hands from elsewhere — and its team quickly exits the tournament (Qatar lost its three group stage matches by a combined 7-1), and the location itself is pretty expensive and hard for millions of fans to reach, it’s going to be difficult to give a score of more than 1.
I say we should add a bonus point, however, and for basically one reason: The Arab and North African fans showed the hell up. Morocco fans made this tournament. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia matches popped as well. And with the noise that Argentina fans made (as always), some of the most important matches had great atmospheres. That’s worth something, I say.
JT: The lack of visible fan groups definitely meant we were struggling for those defining images off the pitch of wild celebration or melting pot-like joyous collisions of culture and custom, as well as some of my fave World Cup stories around the journeys taken by fans simply to get to the games. That said, the stadiums were packed with regional support, the surprise teams were warmly embraced by the host nation, and the scenes of Morocco celebrations in particular will stick for a long time. Not to mention the Japan fans cleaning up after their games. We still got some cool fan moments, but not as many.
Gab Marcotti gives his thoughts on the reaction of Qatar’s fans after many were seen leaving the stadium from half time onwards.
Controversies (1-10): 10
BC: When we were putting together the initial rankings, this was the part I struggled with the most. Some controversies live on in a fun way, like Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. (Well, fun to most fans, anyway.) But other controversies we gave points for were things like, “Mussolini promoting fascism” or “Everything to do with Argentina’s junta in 1978.” Some were, “This quirky thing happened!” and others were, “Families were destroyed,” and we were giving points for both.
I finally made peace with the idea when I realized we were ranking these competitions by memorability as much as anything else. And despite great goals and great players, we will end up remembering the notorious things from Qatar as much as anything. This tournament was awarded in the shadiest possible fashion, hundreds (at least) of migrant workers are believed to have died during its preparation, and Qatar leaned too far for comfort into “Respect our culture!” when its criminalization of being gay was raised and or rainbows threatened to appear on shirts or armbands.
FIFA ran proper and constant interference for its benefactors/hosts. That will forever be tied in memory to the exploits of Messi and Mbappe, and that’s FIFA’s fault. There were the typical on-field controversies, too, but that doesn’t really matter because the 10 full points had already been granted. Congrats for max points — it came with a cost.
JT: Right, and it feels like the whole thing had a grimly scripted feel, especially in the days leading up to the tournament opener. Did we really think we’d get an open embrace of global tradition here? Could we really have expected to see Argentina lift the trophy without a robe being positioned on Lionel Messi’s shoulders to make those images feel like they belonged to Qatar?
In terms of on-field controversy, the use of semi-automated VAR did rub fans the wrong way on many occasions, and the officiating of Antonio Mateu Lahoz in that Argentina-Netherlands game was a kind of chaos we tend to expect from World Cups. (Eighteen yellow cards? Really?) But by and large, results were accepted as largely fair based on VAR reviews, officiating and the lack of any sinister subtext. From that perspective, we got a reasonably clean event on the pitch.
On a more personal note, the shocking death of journalist Grant Wahl at Argentina’s quarterfinal with the Netherlands. It was a reminder to all of us how fragile life is and how hard it is to cover a competition of this kind.
Great final (1-5): 5
JT: OK, this wasn’t just a great final, but perhaps the best World Cup final ever? It wasn’t just the six goals and penalty shootout that makes me think this, but the flurry of narratives (Messi’s cruising to his first World Cup!), the explosion of those narratives in favor of crazier ones (Mbappe’s about to win his second World Cup before turning 24!) and the eventual return to Messi finally holding that elusive trophy.
We had 79 minutes of Argentina control before 93 seconds of Kylian Mbappe brilliance — one converted penalty, one emphatic volley — took the game to extra time. We had two of the best nations in the world defending like deer on ice to stop further goals. We had dives in the box and legitimate penalties. We had Hugo Lloris and Emi Martinez conceding three times apiece but also making enough saves to feel like they could have won Player of the Match, with Martinez’s sprawling shin-stop to deny Kingsley Coman with seconds left in extra time the most crucial stop of all.
We had enough momentum swings to power the electricity needs of a small town, we had goals in extra time, we had a gripping penalty shootout and a partridge in a pear tree.
BC: I think only three finals have a claim for competing with what we just saw: 1974 (West Germany 2-1 Netherlands), 1954 (West Germany 3-2 Hungary) and 1950 (Uruguay 2-1 Brazil, which technically wasn’t a final, but whatever, it basically was). Both 1950 and 1954 were among the greatest upsets the sport has ever seen, all three had plenty of plot twists, and both 1954 (Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti) and 1974 (Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer) featured some of the greatest players in the history of the sport. At worst, this final was equal to those. We gave all those matches 5s, so this one is a 5 too. But that almost doesn’t feel like enough.
Ale Moreno says the World Cup final delivered on every level as Argentina took the trophy in dramatic fashion.
Bonus points (1-10): 4
JT: Richarlison’s goal. The glut of 90+whatever minute goals that were either decisive or heart-breaking thanks to the revised guidelines around added time. (Like Iran over Wales thanks to not one, but two strikes in that injury time window.) Every single group (bar maybe A?) literally coming down to the final 5-10 minutes. Mexico’s second half against Saudi Arabia, including that Luis Chavez free kick. The denouement of Group E in which every single one of Spain, Japan, Germany and Costa Rica was through or eliminated. Every game involving Serbia. Jose Maria Gimenez’s naked rage when Uruguay were knocked out by South Korea’s win over Portugal. England thinking It’s Coming Home until Harry Kane had other ideas, skying that second penalty against France into the heavens. Cristiano Ronaldo’s sadness juxtaposed by Lionel Messi’s joy.
In short, there were more than enough magical moments to merit a decent score, but a decade from now, I’ll remember this World Cup for who ended up holding it in Lusail and probably little else. (That said, this World Cup, the last one with 32 teams, actually made the best possible argument for why it should remain at 32 teams. Alas…)
BC: I say all that you just mentioned is worth a few bonus points, as is the fact that it was Messi and Mbappe driving the best final of our respective lifetimes. So … six points for all of that, and then a two-point deduction for the weird timing (and the fact that everything was crammed into the shortest possible time frame imaginable, which meant the whole thing just raced by us with minimal time to react), and we end up handing out four bonus points? How’s that sound?
JT: I’m good with this. The fact that I’m sitting here knowing full well I’m forgetting some other epic moments is all thanks to the dizzying speed at which this tournament went ahead. And I also feel like we could be stingy and knock another one off for all the superstars who simply didn’t turn up at this tournament, for one reason or another. We’ve talked Ronaldo, but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet by his standards, Romelu Lukaku had a hat-trick of HOW DID HE MISS THAT attempts, and Uruguay had three all-world forwards (Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Darwin Nunez) who didn’t trouble the scoresheet.
Points total: 35
So, after all of that, we’ve arrived at 35 points for this World Cup — some granted through raving, some through ranting. Here’s where that fits into the overall ranking:
1. 1982 (40)
2. 1986 (39)
3. 2006 (38)
4. 1998 (37)
5. 1970 (36)
6-T. 1994 and 2022 (35)
8. 1966 (34)
9. 1974 (33)
10. 1950 (32)
11. 2002 (31)
12. 2014 (30)
13. 1954 (29)
14. 1958 (28)
15. 2010 (27)
16-T. 1962 and 1990 (26)
18. 2018 (25)
19. 1978 (24)
20. 1938 (23)
21. 1934 (19)
22. 1930 (14)
BC: So, Qatar 2022 goes down as the second-highest ranking competition of the 2000s and the second among competitions won by Argentina. Messi has tied or topped Maradona in just about every possible category now, but it appears we’re still giving Maradona’s run the higher billing in this regard.
JT: We should absolutely give Maradona a higher billing for the surrounding moments of his crowning accomplishment, though Messi has certainly etched his name in soccer lore by finally claiming this. And maybe there’s a weird bonus point in our scoring for Messi’s sake, too.
It’s also somewhat fitting that the US hosted World Cup shares the same rarified air of sixth place — good enough for the Europa League! — given that it’ll be North America’s turn up next. Considering that 1994 was the USA’s real maiden voyage on the global soccer scene, and you look at the frenzied popularity of the sport here in 2022, it’ll be fascinating to see what comes next in 2026. I mean, 48 teams playing across three countries should be fun, right? RIGHT?