Matt Scott: FIFA plan to move World Cup to winter is playing with fire

The FIFA ethics-committee investigation into alleged corruption in the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has created a general-media storm seldom experienced before for any sports-politics story. It has generated headlines on the front pages, back pages and many pages between for newspapers across the readership spectrum and in many nations around the world.

But lost in all this understandable brouhaha has been what will happen if nothing comes of it all. What will happen if, by some strange accident of fate, the Qatar 2022 World Cup does go ahead as scheduled? This is a question that, off-stage, has been occupying some of football’s brightest minds this month, with a meeting of the FIFA task force for the 2018-2024 international calendar taking place. The meeting went almost unreported and yet what it has been talking about could have a truly seismic effect on football’s tectonic plates.

Throughout football history it has been a metronomic certainty that the FIFA World Cup would be scheduled in the northern-hemisphere summer. From the time when the France, Belgium and Romania teams embarked on the SS Conte Verde for their two-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Uruguay in June and July 1930 (Yugoslavia came on the MS Florida), it has always been held in a nine-week window between 27 May and 30 July. All 20 times this has happened – without fail.

The purpose of this scheduling has always been to dovetail with the club seasons in the vast majority of countries worldwide. Even if they do not have to board an ocean liner to get there, the disruption to domestic league fixtures that would be wrought by a 32-team tournament taking place outside of that period is obvious.

Yet although this tradition is generations old and built on a sound economic foundation, football’s international administrators now seem forcibly to be changing tack. On November 5, two days after the FIFA task force met in Zurich, (and on what the English call Bonfire Night after the Gunpowder Plot in which terrorists tried to blow up parliament 400 years ago) Michel Platini gave an interview to the BBC that must have set off an incendiary reaction at England’s Premier League.

Platini was asked when the 2022 World Cup should be held. His reply: “In winter. As president of UEFA I have no problem. [Whether] it is in November, December or January or February, I have no problem. Your league (in England) have a problem. I have no problem.

“We have to find a compromise: every [one] has to lose something. But at the end, OK, it will be not in April, it will be not in May, it will be not in June, July or September.”

This sends up in smoke the Premier League’s hugely important Christmas-holiday programme. It will also cause disruption across fully three seasons due to the domino effect of trying to squeeze a 64-match World Cup into an already congested football calendar. Even so, the proposal is backed by everyone at FIFA from the president, Sepp Blatter, down. Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s general secretary, has also raised the idea of a November/December or January/February World Cup.

And it is not just the Premier League’s plans this will explode either, as the former chairman of FIFA’s technical committee, Harold Mayne-Nicholls, points out. “November-December will create a complete mess for almost all the leagues in the world, not just for Europe,” Mayne-Nicholls said in an interview with Insideworldfootball [see first related article below].

“I have not been able to come up with a single way to avoid the trouble that November-December would bring. How are you going to have two weeks to prepare, and then play the tournament before Christmas? You’d have to stop everything by the 22nd at the absolute latest, and probably earlier. There would simply not be time.”

So why do this at all? Ostensibly it is because of the weather. FIFA’s chief medical officer, Jiri Dvorak, last week explained what holding a summer World Cup in the desert plains of Qatar means: “The months June till August are highly critical in terms of risk, due to the climatic conditions in Qatar.”

Yet this is hardly new. Qatar was always prepared to host the event in the summer and bid on that basis. This is why it has been prepared to spend billions on solar-powered air-conditioning in stadiums.

In his Bid Evaluation Report for FIFA from 2010 Mayne-Nicholls said: “Qatar mainly consists of a low, barren plain with mild winters and very hot, sunny and humid summers. It has a desert climate with long summers, and precipitation is scarce. Qatar would present very hot weather conditions during the tournament period with average temperatures seldom falling below 37°C (98.6°F) during the afternoon and seldom below 31°C (81.8°F) during the evening.”

OK, so that’s hot. But it can also get pretty hot in Pasadena in July and they held a World Cup match there at USA ’94. There will be air con in all the stadiums at Qatar ’22 but the Rose Bowl didn’t even have a roof. And what about Mexico? They’ve held two World Cups there. Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium hosted the World Cup finals in 1970 and 1986 and that’s nowhere for redheads to be stuck outside without their sunblock.

Humidity in Mexico City can reach 90% in late June and Professor Dvorak’s predecessors do not seem to have been too worried about the Azteca’s altitude – at fully 7,200 feet (raising player heart rates through hypoxia). Or the smog for that matter. Qatar does not have these problems at least. Since it cools down in the desert after dark, why not play World Cup matches there in the evenings and after midnight? It would even be better timing for TV audiences in Europe, Africa and the Americas.

FIFPro, a players union, would urge players to boycott a summer World Cup. One of its worries is about the players who might be training in Qatar without the benefit of air con. But who is to say they have to do that? The flight time to Doha from Cyprus is only a little over three hours. Add another hour and you could be in Italy. Heck, you can be in Germany in less than five hours.

If teams want to base themselves in cooler climes in Europe and travel in to Qatar for the matches then there is nothing to stop them. England, when travelling to their World Cup opening match in Brazil’s Manaus from their training camp in Rio de Janeiro this summer, had a four-hour flight time. And having handed over the World Cup there for 2018, has anyone at FIFA thought how big Russia is?

Lots of people are concerned about the effect the conditions will have on offficials, media and fans. But many of the football media’s more courageous cousins operate in war zones – having to hole up in air-conditioned hotels, vehicles and stadiums for a few weeks seems a small sacrifice for attending another World Cup. The same applies for fans, and no one obliges them to travel in the first place. If the fear is empty stadiums then perhaps giving away tickets to the migrant workers who built them might be an idea. At the Beijing Olympic Games I attended in 2008 most of the “fans” in the stands were military personnel bussed in from around China to make the place look full.

And as for the other alternative as proposed by the European Clubs Association – holding the event during Ramadan – that is simply a non-starter.

The thing is, everyone but me seems convinced the World Cup has to move outside the traditional nine-week window and no one in power seems to be thinking of the consequences. FIFA would be creating a commercial catastrophe to shift this World Cup to the proposed winter dates.

Think about what is at stake for the broadcasters. Fox and Telemundo are set to pay a combined $1 billion for the rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to the United States. They did so on the basis the tournaments would be held in summer. How would Fox feel about the World Cup going head-to-head with the Superbowl in February 2022? And with the winter Olympic Games? Or the NFL regular season in November and December? Or the NBA season in either of the proposed winter slots? The value of a World Cup to Fox lies in the fact that it is in an otherwise dead zone for US sports. (Sure, Major League Baseball takes place then but it is hardly crunch time. When the 2014 World Cup final was played most teams had 70 regular-season games still to play.)

If Fox has the slightest gripe there will be a legion of attorneys willing to take up its case. Indeed if it were to go for legal action, Fox would also perhaps have willing partners in the litigation in the shape of many of the major European clubs and leagues. From what Mayne-Nicholls says, perhaps there will be contributions from South America too.

Yet what should be even more alarming to FIFA is the prospect that UEFA might simply supplant it as the organiser of the preeminent international football competition, as detailed in this column last week [see second related article below]. The prior obligation for top European clubs to release their players for participation in national-team matches in FIFA competitions expired in August, per a clause in their memorandum of understanding [MoU] with UEFA. As of August 31, the MoU states: “Member clubs will not be bound to comply with the FIFA Regulations on players release with regard to the release of players for non-European National Associations.”

FIFA makes by far the bulk of its revenue from its World Cup. If it picks a fight with those clubs over the 2022 World Cup schedule, it is the kind of thing that could send the entire FIFA edifice crashing to the ground, with the clubs simply refusing to release their employees to play football for FIFA’s national teams. As it plans to break with a near century-old tradition, can FIFA really take that risk?

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Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1702078044labto1702078044ofdlr1702078044owedi1702078044sni@t1702078044tocs.1702078044ttam1702078044.