Could it be that, come 2022, British travellers have reason to be grateful to the FBI? One possible spin-off from the Feds' investigation of corruption at Fifa is that anyone thinking of a Christmas holiday in Asia, Africa or Australia may be spared high air fares and scarce seats.
The final of the 2022 World Cup is due to kick off in Qatar on Sunday 18 December. Five years ago Fifa's Executive Committee decided to stage the planet's premier sporting tournament in a nation with no footballing tradition and which occupies a "low, barren plain" – the description from Fifa's own Bid Evaluation Report (bit.ly/2022Qatar). It added: "The fact that the competition is planned in June/July, the two hottest months of the year in the region, has to be considered as a potential health risk for players, spectators and the Fifa family."
No matter. The Gulf state's merits were clear to the wise men of football's global governing body – described this week by my colleague, Tom Peck, as "the cabal of crooks who controlled Fifa at that time". In the first round, Qatar received 11 votes, as many as all the other candidates (South Korea, Japan, Australia and the US) combined.
Since making the award in 2010, Fifa has reflected on the wisdom of a summer tournament. Like Easter, the date of the World Cup Final is a moveable feast. But unlike Easter, it has never wandered much. Looking back a quarter-century, the earliest final was 30 June (Japan, 2002). The forthcoming final, in Moscow in 2018, is due to take place on 15 July – the latest for decades.
Qatar is different. Fifa has now decided to stage the 2022 Mondiale in November and December, with the final scheduled for the last Sunday before Christmas - which conveniently coincides with Qatar's National Day. Despite the extraordinary revelations over the past 10 days about corruption at football's highest level, both the Qatari government and Fifa insist it will take place as planned on 18 December. Which spells disruption even for travellers who can't tell their Blatter from their Bayern Munich.
Global sporting events involve tens of thousands of competitors, fans, officials and media flying in and out of the host nation, but from a British perspective, the effects are often minimal. Last year's World Cup in Brazil took place during the southern midwinter. Likewise, next August's Rio Olympiad will be held at a time of year when that glorious city is climatically unappealing. The 2018 World Cup in Russia will have little impact because regrettably few people holiday in the world's biggest country. Yet the 2022 tournament could distort the pre-Christmas getaway so badly that one flight specialist advises against heading to Asia or Australasia that winter. "Unless you can set off in mid-November," says Arran Sutherland of Student Universe UK, "it may be a year for staying at home or going somewhere else."
Desert away day
The problem is: Doha in Qatar is a key hub for British travellers, and by 2022 will be even more significant. The airport is set to overtake Gatwick in international passenger numbers this year. Qatar Airways flies nine times a day from the UK to Doha, with services from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh. That's around a million seats a year, mostly filled with passengers connecting to or from other destinations.
Over the next seven years the airline and its partner, BA, will add more flights to funnel through the hub. But in November and December 2022, many seats will be filled by passengers going no further than Doha – possibly for the day. If England, Wales or Scotland qualify, it will be feasible to fly out overnight, watch the match and take another red-eye flight home. For weekend games, you won't even need to take time off work. That Qatar is largely alcohol-free won't prove a chore for day-trippers, because the national airline is emphatically not "dry".
Seasons in the sun
As teams are eliminated through the tournament, their squads and supporters will want to head home, potentially affecting departures to Buenos Aires, Beijing and beyond. And Qatar Airways will not be the only Gulf airline affected, says Arran Sutherland: "A lot of talk suggests that fans will stay in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and shuttle in for matches." Which brings the two big UAE players, Emirates and Etihad, into the mix. "Middle Eastern carriers, which have built up such a big share of the 'kangaroo route' to Australia, may have their loads and planning totally knocked out come 2022," he says. "This may affect the seasonality of Christmas fares."
Yuletide prices normally begin to rise around 10 December, the date when comings and goings for the 2022 tournament are likely to be at their height. Sports fans are traditionally prepared to outbid normal people for seats on planes, so expect fares to soar. And what does it mean for supporters of home teams? Tom Peck, our man in Brazil for the World Cup, recalls:
"Many England fans booked flights to Rio and hoped for the best, football-wise. Some arrived to find England had already been eliminated. But they hung around on Copacabana and had a whale of a time. A World Cup in a country where no one will want to spend a single second they don't have to is a novel prospect. Fans are not going to gamble on being stuck in Qatar with no booze and no England to watch."Reuse content