The heads of Europe’s leading clubs and leagues, including Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, will make a last-ditch stand this week to prevent the 2022 Qatar World Cup being switched to November and December, causing untold damage to the global calendar and potentially throwing television scheduling into chaos.
Hard on the heels of the record-breaking deal struck for Premier League rights, a break of up to seven weeks in club games could have a seriously detrimental impact on negotiations for the next round of TV deals across Europe. And then there is the damage it would do to relations with fans – and whether staff employed by clubs, already on low-paid contracts, would be paid for those weeks when there would be no club games.
The European Club Association (ECA), representing some 200 clubs, and European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) in 24 countries, will travel to Doha to attend the final meeting of the Fifa 2022 Task Force – set up to consult with stakeholders over the best time to play the tournament in Qatar after summer was ruled out because of the excessive heat.
There, on Tuesday, they will hold showdown talks with the rest of the Task Force who are all in favour of a November-December tournament, and insist that winter is unworkable and push for their joint proposal of May 5-June 4.
However, barring a major change of heart, the Task Force are expected to recommend November-December, a date that would then be ratified by Fifa next month. According to the joint chairman of the Task Force, Asian football chief Sheikh Salman Ebrahim bin Khalifa, winter is now a “done deal”, with November- December in pole position after an alternative of December-January was apparently ruled out because of a potential clash with the Winter Olympics.
Qatar, whose bid won a controversial landslide victory in December 2010, says it would be prepared to stage the World Cup at any time of year and has been testing revolutionary cooling techniques.
The ECA/EPFL proposal, seen by The Independent on Sunday, states: “The May option is the best alternative to the traditional June-July timing, since it retains the logical calendar order and avoids compressing such an important competition as the World Cup in the middle of the traditional and busy club football season.”
As Scudamore prepared to fly out, the Premier League issued a statement which read: “The 2022 Fifa World Cup was bid for and awarded to Qatar as a summer tournament. The prospect of a winter World Cup is neither workable nor desirable for European domestic football.”
Negotiating Premier League TV rights with the likes of Sky and BT Sport if a World Cup – shown on terrestrial TV – cut right into the middle of the domestic season presents a major challenge.
Another complication is that one reason the 2018 and 2022 World Cup ballots were staged simultaneously was to allow broadcasters to tie up rights for both.
American broadcaster Fox, which paid a record amount on the assumption both tournaments would be held in summer, has voiced concern that a switch to winter would clash with its coverage of other sports.
Those in favour of a winter World Cup, including Fifa president Sepp Blatter and his Uefa counterpart Michel Platini, argue that the tournament should be played in the best climatic conditions when it goes to fresh territories and that there is plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments.
But Europe’s leagues and clubs are angry that an unprecedented break with tradition is being imposed on them, making the point that the vast majority of players lining up at the World Cup play their club football in Europe.
“It’s a matter of principle,” said an EPFL spokesman. “Our studies show that any winter option will cause huge damage. November- December is the peak of European and domestic competition. We have to have an option that limits the damage. May is the most feasible option.”
“The fundamental problem of November-December is that it would cut the season in half,” added ECA vice-chairman Umberto Gandini of Milan. “We are talking about a far longer gap than any traditional winter break. Games would be squeezed and the most important part of the season would be played with players who have just returned from the World Cup.
“Just as importantly, it would hit lots of clubs who won’t necessarily lose players to the World Cup but would have no activity for perhaps a month and a half.”
That would have an impact on the clubs’ employment of contracted staff. As the fall-out from the recent TV deal made plain, many such workers are already paid the minimum wage. Gandini makes the point that the international match calendar will also have to be radically re-positioned. But Europe is not the only continent that would have to overhaul its timetable.
Harold-Mayne Nicholls, who headed the Fifa technical inspection team that assessed conditions in all the bidding countries for 2018 and 2022, says November-December would have a catastrophic global impact, not least for the fans.
“You would have to stop more or less 50 leagues all over the world if the World Cup moves to November-December,” Mayne-Nicholls told The Independent on Sunday. “In my opinion that’s very dangerous. It would cause untold confusion and mean several weeks without any income for the clubs.
“And you are changing an entire culture for the fans. Stopping the leagues in October, which you’d have to do for preparation, and starting again in January after Christmas and New Year, would totally lose any atmosphere.”