2022 World Cup: Winter of discontent will remain hot topic for Fifa
Governing body meets this week to discuss Qatar quandary; don't expect any answers
Sunday 29 September 2013
After three years of debate and disagreement, confusion and confrontation, Fifa look set this week to take the unprecedented step of moving the 2022 World Cup in Qatar away from the tournament's traditional summer slot in order to avoid the scorching heat of the desert.
But if you think the one-off decision to switch the biggest sporting event on the planet to the northern hemisphere winter, in principle at least, will end at Friday's meeting between Sepp Blatter and his top brass at Fifa's Zurich HQ, think again.
It is a process that could take several more weeks, even months, in order to agree on an exact alternative date that satisfies everyone: clubs, leagues, national associations and, last but by no means least, broadcasters.
While some so-called experts have expressed sensible, well-argued viewpoints, many others have been jumping on the bandwagon for no other reason than to question Qatar's right to host.
Yes, it was a surprise to most people, including Blatter, that the tiny Gulf state half the size of Wales gained such a landslide victory at that infamous ballot in December 2010.
Yes, all five 2022 candidates went into the campaign on the basis of a summer World Cup and so the losers may justifiably cry foul at what they now perceive as a flawed premise.
Yes, Fifa's inspection team flagged up the health risks of a Qatar World Cup. And yes, many of the corruption-tainted Fifa executive committee members who voted at the time have since being kicked out.
Yet none of these factors legally justify overturning the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. Only if Fifa's corruption-busting ethics committee guru, the American lawyer Michael Garcia, comes up with fresh, clear evidence that incriminates Qatar will its dream be crushed.
Whether he is investigating specific allegations of wrongdoing by Qatar is a key question. Sources say he is questioning key credible witnesses, while others say there is simply no evidence of breaking bidding rules.
For example, it is common knowledge that Qatar sponsored the 2010 Confederation of African Football congress in Angola, fertile ground for vote-gathering. Questionable though that might have been, it was deemed perfectly above board.
Qatar may be the smallest ever World Cup hosts but there are no circumstances under which they can be stripped of it, not yet at any rate. If they really do want to make it a Middle East World Cup, as the organising committee's chief executive Hassan Al-Thawadi has stated on numerous occasions, they should perhaps consider sharing it with their immediate neighbours.
Last month, the canny Al-Thawadi banged the drum in a wide-ranging interview with the BBC, bullishly defending his country's human rights record and insisting Qatar is committed to hosting at any time of the year.
But in the build-up to this week's meeting, his committee were yet again forced on the defensive by explosive claims of widespread labour abuses of migrant workers in Qatar including scores of deaths, notably among Nepalese employees.
The issue of when to stage the tournament is a problem that might never have arisen if proper discussions had been held at the time of the ballot. And it isn't all Blatter's fault. The Fifa president has taken much of the flak for his apparent U-turn but it was Uefa's chief, Michel Platini, who admitted from day one that he voted for Qatar to allow the World Cup to conquer virgin territory – just as long as it was staged in winter.
The question now is not if but when. Platini, who has always denied he was pressured into voting for Qatar by the French government, favours January in order to protect Champions' League dates. Fifa prefer January, though that would potentially clash with the winter Olympics. For the Premier League – who vehemently oppose a winter switch but are increasingly in a minority – neither is ideal.
One suggested blueprint is for the 2021-22 season to begin on 8 August, with leagues breaking around 19 December for three weeks of World Cup training and the tournament taking place from 6 January to 6 February. Leagues would then resume on or around 13 February and finish in mid-June, a month later than usual in Europe.
The Premier League, with its 38 games-per-club format and traditional festive fixtures, would find such a schedule hard to accept even if FA Cup ties were switched to midweek and/or replays scrapped.
An even bigger problem would be how to accommodate broadcasters, especially those in the United States, who have already budgeted for a summer tournament. The American stations would almost certainly be unwilling to pay as much for a World Cup that clashes with their traditional sports.
One compromise may be switching to May. It may only be one month earlier than the traditional format but it may appease opponents of a winter tournament and would be as much as 10 degrees cooler than in the height of summer which, according to Michel d'Hooghe, Fifa's top medical man from Belgium, is simply a non-starter for all Qatar's much-trumpeted cooling techniques.
"My position is very clear," says D'Hooghe. "From the medical point of view I think it will be better not to play during the hot summer months. The World Cup is more than about games and players. It's about the the whole Fifa family and the 12,000 to 15,000 media working very hard, and most importantly it's about the fans. They will need to travel from venue to venue. It's not a good idea for them to do that in temperatures of 47 degrees or more."
... and then there was Turkey
Turkey's status as favourites to host the final stages Euro 2020 could be undermined at this week's Fifa meeting. Jim Boyce, Britain's Fifa vice-president who organised the recent Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, will present a report questioning why attendances were so low in one of Europe's footballing hotbeds.
Turkey has also been hit by a damaging match-fixing scandal that saw Fenerbahce chucked out of this season's Champions' League, and by persistent stadium disturbances. Last week, Besiktas were ordered to play four games behind closed doors after crowd trouble forced the abandonment of the derby against Galatasaray.
Backed by Uefa chief Michel Platini after Istanbul missed out on the 2020 Olympics, Turkey is frontrunner to host the latter stages of the revolutionary 2020 finals, being staged in 13 European cities.
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