Andrew Warshaw: A slow creep towards a Winter World Cup

Every time you ask FIFA whether they would sanction switching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to the winter, you get the same answer: only if Qatar, as the host nation, officially requests us to do so.

And every time you ask Qatari organisers the same question, you also get the same answer: only if we are asked to do so by FIFA as world football’s governing body.

It’s a clever tactic, a subtle ploy that allows both sides to save face, show respect, maintain the status quo and avoid unnecessary awkwardness whenever the issue is raised – as it frequently is.

Now, however, for the first time, FIFA have acknowledged – albeit ever so gently – that if there was actual medical evidence to suggest players’ health would be at risk, they might take the initiative and move the event to November and December, the only possibly winter dates since a clash with the winter Olympics in January is a non-starter.

When FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke was quizzed about a possible switch during the International FA Board meeting last weekend, he initially trotted out the usual response. “It’s strange that we are talking and talking about this issue when we know that the people who have to ask the first question are from Qatar itself,” said Valcke.

“Qatar has to tell us: ‘We want to move the World Cup from summer to winter.’ But as long as Qatar is not coming to FIFA then FIFA cannot make a decision. Qatar is aware of the situation and that if they want to move the World Cup from June … they have to send a request. There is no working group within FIFA working on what it means to move the World Cup from summer to winter for the time being.”

It was a predictable response from Valcke because as everyone knows, Qatar are resolutely opposed to any change. However, Valcke did push open the door, albeit ever so slightly. “For sure, FIFA could always say: ‘Guys, we definitely think there is a risk to play the World Cup in summer and we are asking you to think about moving the World Cup,” he said.

“The international calendar has been agreed for 2015-2018, meaning that we kept open all potential [change] for period 2019 to 2022. We have time.  The FIFA exco has the power to make decisions and if this issue starts to be a real point for discussion . . . then maybe the FIFA exco will say: ‘Based on medical report or whatever we really have to look at playing the World Cup not in summer but in winter. I am not saying that the case is closed but what I’m saying is as long as long as we have not fixed the international calendar all alternatives are open.”

Qatar, unlike FIFA, insists that any change must be announced by 2014 for organisational reasons. One man who will have listened intently to Valcke’s remarks is UEFA president Michel Platini who has repeatedly stated – despite having voted for Qatar – that it will be far too hot, and potentially dangerous, to have compelling, competitive matches in mid-summer in the middle of the Gulf.

The UEFA president repeated that stance in an interview with a German newspaper at the weekend. Not only, Platini said, did he vote for  Qatar on condition the tournament was played in winter but also that “neighboring emirates” must be included “so that the World Cup is staged throughout the entire region.”

Qatari officials, who have ruled out any inclusion of their neighbours, privately claim that no such conditions were laid down by Platini ahead of the Dec, 2010, ballot. Which suggests the Frenchman has subsequently widened the goalposts. Quite why, apart from the totally understandable issue of heat, remains baffling. Platini may have a valid point about the temperatures but Europe’s major clubs are, in the main, fiercely opposed to any radical change that would extend their season into the summer if they have to freeze their leagues and release players for World Cup duty six months earlier than usual. What, by association, would happen to Platini’s precious Champions League and Europa League?

Valcke implied it could, theoretically, all be done. “As long as we have not fixed the international calendar (for 2019 to ’22) all alternatives are open,” Valcke said. “The most important thing is to make sure (we) work with all stakeholders and make sure there is full agreement with all parties, leagues, clubs, and we would have to find eight weeks in the mid-season to play the World Cup.”

He concluded his remarks by calling for an end to the impasse once and for all. “I think it would be good to have a final decision about when this World Cup will be played and have an agreement between all the football family – but it’s in 2022, nine years away, so there is some time.”

Time enough, perhaps, for Platini to somehow produce the necessary medical evidence and for the public clamour for a winter World Cup to escalate among grass-roots supporters despite Qatar’s insistence that its revolutionary cooling techniques will offset the oppressive, searing summer heat.

As things stand now, it appears that Platini is alone among confederation chiefs in his determination to have the tournament moved.  Concacaf president Jeffrey Webb, for one, says his confederation voted for a summer World Cup and that’s how it should stay.

Perhaps what really lies behind the continuing uncertainty is the threat of legal challenges by Qatar’s vanquished 2022 rivals  — the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia — if either Qatar or Fifa ends up sanctioning a switch. This, Insideworldfootball has been told by various insiders, would present a perfect opportunity for countries who were shocked to lose to Qatar to kick off the mother of a legal fuss, arguing that they had based their campaigns on a traditional June/July event and not a winter tournament.

“Historically, the World Cup is always played in June and I would definitely like the World Cup to be played in June, we accepted it,”  Webb told reporters in the fringes of last weekend’s IFAB meeting.  “We went through a long process regarding that. “For me it is over with and the World Cup has been decided.”

Webb wasn’t referring per se to any legal challenge, rather that unlike Platini, his group of nations were only interested in a summer tournament. But his remarks could be interpreted either way. Valcke, for his part, is convinced that moving the tournament would not open up FIFA to an expensive legal fight. “Would you think we would open a discussion if we are not sure there would be no legal challenge to do so?” he asked.

Answers on a postcard.

Andrew Warshaw, former sports editor of the European newspaper, is Chief Correspondent of insideworldfootball and a seasoned observer of the international football business and its politics.