Osasu Obayiuwana: Who will untie the Qatari knot?

Whether the Gulf state of Qatar likes it or not, the recurring question of its suitability for hosting the 2022 World Cup is an issue that will just not disappear into the Arabian sunset.

That’s evident from the robust end to the press conference that followed FIFA’s executive committee meeting, in Zurich, last Thursday.

And it’s not just because of the serious allegations of corruption in the bidding process, resurrected by the recent “Qatargate” report in France Football.

As a member of the inspection team for the 2018/2022 World Cup bid process pointed out to me, in an “off-the-record” conversation, the nagging questions that have followed the end of that contest address the salient issue of basing hosting decisions on credible technical advice, rather than pandering to political and non-football concerns.

“We went round all the bidding countries and it was made clear, based on what we saw, that hosting a World Cup in Qatar was the bid that came with the highest risk. And yet, this was the country that was chosen for the World Cup.

“How does the FIFA executive committee justify this, with all the information that we gave to them?

“If they knew that they were not going to take the information that we had carefully gathered seriously, what was the point in sending us around the world to prepare the report?” he asked.

It’s a $64,000 question that’s yet to get a credible answer.

The source subsequently claimed he turned down a lucrative job with the Qataris, which he said would have paid him up to $1 million in consulting fees.

“I was made a good offer but I just couldn’t bring myself to work for them, knowing what my colleagues and I had put in our inspection report. What credibility would I have had, if I had accepted their offer?”

The importance – or perhaps, the lack of it – that members of the FIFA executive committee place on the bid inspection technical reports has been a longstanding issue.

I recall a conversation with Mohamed Bin Hammam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in May 2004, with just days to the vote for the 2010 World Cup host.

Taking place during the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), those were far happier times for its erstwhile president, who has since received a life ban from FIFA.

Bin Hammam’s perspective gave me a wee glimpse into the thought process of some of those charged with selecting the host of sport’s most prestigious event.

“I never expected the [technical] reports to be [publicly] released in the way they were… These reports have always been confidential and I think we should have kept it that way,” the Qatari told me then.

“If a country bidding for the World Cup is a close country from my region or my continent, I’ll prefer to vote for them if their chances are good. This is what will influence me, not the [technical] report,” Bin Hammam said, which was a tacit admission of his support for Morocco at the time.

But the practical impossibility of hosting a 2022 World Cup in Qatar in June and July, with excruciating temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), leaves FIFA with the arduous task of untying the proverbial Gordian (or it is climatic?) knot.

Whilst the Qataris insist that the cooling technology developed, for stadia, makes it practicable for the tournament to be staged, over four weeks, in the sweltering summer, one wonders how FIFA can accept this without a severe loss of credibility.

If football’s governing body has had to wrestle with goal-line technology, for years, before bowing to it – despite rigorous tests proving its reliability – they would be extremely brave (some would say suicidal) to subject players and spectators to an experimental technology that could, if it failed, endanger the lives of players and spectators.

The only ‘solution’, for the climatic problem – moving the tournament to winter – is one the Qataris will never demand for, even though FIFA continues to insist, as they did last Thursday, that a request for such a switch must come from them, which they are yet to receive.

Qatari officials know, only too well, that making such a request would hand their detractors the hammer and anvil with which to smash their World Cup hosting plans into smithereens. They clearly do not want to be scapegoated for the disruption that a winter tournament would do to the global football calendar, with European club football being a major victim.

“Our bid was based on the sole intent of hosting the FIFA World Cup in the summer,” reiterates the recent statement from Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee.

“Various figures from the world of football have raised preferences for hosting in the winter. We are ready to host the World Cup in summer or winter.”

The unwritten part of that statement is that a request for a winter tournament must come from FIFA, full responsibility for making the switch, as they made it clear to all the 2018/2022 contestants that the tournament is to be hosted in the summer.

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, acknowledges the self-inflicted problem that his organisation are in.

“If we change the [tournament] date, how do we explain that to the other contenders that were prepared to host it in the summer? This could lead to a challenge.”

When I pushed Blatter on how the Gordian knot could be untied, without a credibility crisis, he answered in a way that left me slightly bemused.

“Have you ever heard of the million-dollar game?” he asked me, during a pre-interview chat in Morocco.

“How we come to the solution for this problem is a matter for another day,” he smiled.

Until then, I suppose we’ll have to wait for the next scene in this unfolding drama, which would certainly take an interesting turn, should Hassan Al Thawadi, Qatar’s bid chief, win a seat on the FIFA executive committee.

His ascension to that chamber could be the game changer.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1634535312labto1634535312ofdlr1634535312owedi1634535312sni@a1634535312nawui1634535312yabo.1634535312usaso1634535312