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Was there beauty in 'the beautiful game' at this World Cup? Yes, there was plenty to be found in the sweet moves and thrills executed by the sport's star players.KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

Everyone who follows soccer, watching on TV or attending matches, has had the experience. It might, for instance, be a wet, windy Wednesday night in April at BMO Field in Toronto. I remember such a night, and the bone-chilling breeze coming from Lake Ontario. It felt like a mistake to be there at all. Then Sebastian Giovinco got the ball at his feet and danced past one defender, then another. He was gliding and tried an audacious flick of the ball to a teammate. It didn’t work, but it dazzled. He grinned, and everyone watching did.

All of us follow the game for different reasons. It might be partisan, a loyalty to a local or national team. But one reason overrides all others. It was best expressed by Eduardo Galeano in his classic book, Football in Sun and Shadow: “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead, ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle, and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

This World Cup, now concluding, started under the darkest clouds. Qatar? Was FIFA mad or corrupt to allow it? There was justified outrage and hand-wringing. Then on the day Brazil played Serbia in the group stages, Vinicius Jr. put the ball into the box from the left side, Richarlison received it with his left foot, turned gracefully and hit it with his right, on the volley. A gorgeous scissor kick, and the search for transcendence was over.

Of course, there is no transcending the horrific deaths of migrant workers who built the Qatar World Cup infrastructure. There is no excuse for FIFA’s last-minute acquiescence to the host country and banning players from wearing the OneLove armband as a symbol for inclusion and diversity.

But it’s possible to subvert cynicism with beauty. They call it “the beautiful game”, a term overused since Pele called it “o jogo bonito” in Portuguese, back in the day. He didn’t originate the phrase, because it was already popular in Brazil and Argentina to summarize an ideology rather than a literal description. But the description sticks because it is the draw, the pull of the game. It’s the aesthetics that draw you in; the balletic movement of bodies, the dance with the ball that seems to defy physics and the body’s limitations. It is what saves soccer from redundancy and the sour dysfunctions of how the game is run. The “pretty move” brings you back to it.

Writing recently in The Atlantic, Annie-B Parson, a veteran American choreographer, dancer and director who has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, summarized her attraction to the World Cup: “Even though I know little about soccer, I love the complex and ardent interplay of bodies. I am a choreographer by trade, and the game, with its rules about proximity, time and motion, plays out for me as a theatrical spectacle.”

So, did this World Cup produce enough beauty and eloquent elegance? Yes. You can talk about the final as Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé and make a cockamamie story about Messi’s destiny, but what makes Messi matter is that he epitomizes the beauty that can be found in the game.

In the semi-final against Croatia, he picked up the ball on the right flank and surged forward, pestered but never truly bothered by Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol, alternatively accelerating, slowing and turning the ball at his feet, never, ever quite near enough to Gvardiol for intervention. He paused, his right shoulder dropped but he turned left, spinning past, heading to the byline, what seemed a cul-de-sac route, until he passed unerringly to the onrushing teammate Alvarez, who only needed a simple kick to score. Your jaw dropped at the tempo, the virtuosity. The prettiest move.

Morocco’s defiant journey from unheralded outsiders to the semi-final created multiple speculative storylines and a maze of reasons; it was the colonized defeating the colonizers Spain and Portugal, it was defensive rigour, it was collective teamwork. Then when Morocco went a goal down early against France, all that was irrelevant. It played with terrifying intensity and exquisite grace. Jawad El Yamiq launched a stunning overhead kick that only a fingertip save kept out of the net. Achraf Hakimi freebooted forward, playing a breathless, short-passing, linking play with Hakim Ziyech. The English TV commentator stopped talking about the fans, the noise and Moroccan grit, saying simply, “This is beautiful football.”

There have been dozens of goals scored in Qatar, some searing long-distance shots and some others that stand as moments of great cleverness. Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar and Mexico’s Luis Chavez scored magnificent goals. There was virtuosity enough, there was beauty enough to amount to a gleaming silver lining in the clouds that seemed to prevail at the beginning. The pretty moves pushed everything else aside, as they always do.

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