Andrew Warshaw: Forget the legals, it’s staying put, but May change?

Ever since FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s exclusive interview with this website explaining his preference for switching the 2022 Qatar World Cup to winter, time has hardly stopped still over the issue.

Everyone, it seems, is having their say and whilst many stakeholders have expressed intelligent, sensible, well-argued points, many other so-called experts have been jumping on the bandwagon for no other reason than to cynically question Qatar’s right to host the event.

Let’s make a few things clear, shall we? Yes, it was a surprise to most people – not least Blatter himself and perhaps even the less confident among the Qatari delegation – that the tiny Gulf state gained such a landslide victory in December, 2010. Yes, all five 2022 candidates went into the ballot on the basis of a summer tournament and therefore may justifiably cry foul at what they now perceive as a flawed premise. Yes, FIFA’s inspection team flagged up a variety of potential pitfalls over Qatar’s credentials. And yes, many of the FIFA exco members who voted at the time have since being kicked out for a variety of misdemeanours.

All strong and important factors. But none of them justify the call in some quarters to overturn the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. Did they break any bidding rules? Not as far as we know despite all the rumours. Only if FIFA’s leading corruption buster, Michael Garcia, comes up with clear, fresh, evidence of wrongdoing would Qatar’s dream be crushed.

Does the country, however small for a tournament of such magnitude, lack the organisational ability? Certainly not. Are there any economic circumstances under which they could not host? Far from it.

So in other words, unlike when Colombia pulled out in 1986 and was replaced by Mexico, there are no legitimate circumstances under which Qatar should have to hand back the World Cup.

The point I’m trying to make is that a clear distinction has to be made between being rightful hosts and whether to stage the tournament in winter or summer. Qatar is NOT under threat of being stripped, whatever sections of the media might say. There is simply no basis for this. Perhaps, if they really DO want to make it a Middle East World Cup, as organising committee ceo Hassan Al-Thawadi has stated on numerous occasions, they should consider sharing it with their immediate neighbours. But being forced to give it up entirely? Forget it.

The canny legally-trained Al-Thawadi was his usual convincing, articulate self as he banged the drum in a wide-ranging interview with the BBC last week. He repeated many of the things he had said before, defending Qatar’s human rights record and pledging that his country is committed to hosting any time of the year, cleverly placing the ball – not for the first time – in FIFA’s court in order to save face.

And it is FIFA’s court that will now decide – on October 3 and 4 to be precise. Not, perhaps, on an exact replacement date but on the principle of a one-off switch.

In the buildup to this landmark decision, the lobbying on both sides of the winter-summer argument – rather like a hosting ballot itself – is in full swing, with clubs and leagues wading into the debate by urging caution and demanding to be heard.

Even the exco members themselves appear to be lining up on both sides. Sunil Gulati, recently elected as the United States’ FIFA exco representative, has made it clear he is opposed to any immediate decision to switch until more information is received. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce takes the opposite view, as does UEFA president Michel Platini (who claims, albeit somewhat spuriously, that he voted for Qatar on condition the World Cup was in winter) and Michel d’Hooghe, FIFA’s leading medical man.

D’Hooghe, chairman of FIFA’s medical committee, knows a thing or two about players’ health. Of all those trying to muscle in on in the debate, his views are worth listening to.

“My position is very clear. From the medical point of view I think it will be better not to play during the hot summer months,” says d’Hooghe. “I am sure the Qataris could organise it (in summer) when they have such technical skill, and I know they could play and train in a stable, acceptable temperature. But the World Cup is more than about games and players – I have done eight World Cups so I know a bit about it.”

“A World Cup is about the 32 delegations, it’s about the whole FIFA family and the 12,000-15,000 media working very hard, and most importantly it’s about the fans. They will need to travel from venue to venue and I think it’s not a good idea for them to do that in temperatures of 47 degrees or more.”

It’s pretty obvious from these comments which way d’Hooghe will vote next month in Zurich, however chaotic a winter World Cup might prove for domestic leagues. “That’s a technical question but I am a medical man,” d’Hooghe counters. “I respect the difficulties but there are nine more years.”

Amidst all the too-ing and fro-ing, the arguments and counter-arguments, one idea that appears to be gathering momentum – originally flagged up by this website and mentioned by the BBC in its interview with Al-Thawadi – is a compromise solution of staging the World Cup in May.

That would surely appease the anti-winter brigade, not least the European leagues and global television networks, and cause minimum disruption. In May the temperature would be no hotter than at other World Cups including the United States and Mexico and it would make eminent sense for the idea to be on the FIFA exco table.

Much has already been made of the folly of FIFA holding the 2022 and 2018 World Cup ballots within a few minutes of each other and the unsavoury, but not unlawful, possibility that deals were done behind the scenes.

The more timely – some might say senseless – reality is that three years later, everyone is still arguing over winter or summer for Qatar. Proper, meaningful discussions should have started there and then. Instead, to paraphrase the legendary Oliver Hardy and directed at no-one specifically but the decision-makers in general, “that’s another fine mess you’ve got us into.”

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball