The cries of foul may have receded slightly since football’s most open secret – a winter World Cup for Qatar in 2022 – was all but confirmed, pending being rubber-stamped by FIFA’s executive committee. But the resentment in some quarters will linger for weeks and months to come.
Having digested reaction, much of it strongly-worded, to the pros and cons over the past few days, it’s clear that amidst all the hot air there are strong arguments on both sides.
Without returning to the ins and outs of the debate, Europe’s clubs and leagues understandably feel hard done by at having their proposal for a May and early June tournament rejected out of hand. Painstakingly put together, it seemed like a reasonably sensible solution but ended up being kicked into touch by the Task Force that was set up 18 months ago with one purpose in mind – to give all the various stakeholders an equal voice.
In a separate column, my colleague Lee Wellings takes the Premier League to task for attempting to impose its self-interest on the rest. He has an extremely valid point. But by the same token, it would appear that the Premier League and its friends around Europe had November-December imposed virtually on them during what was apparently no more than a 90-minute discussion in Doha. It was as if the Task Force had already made up its mind. A fait accompli, if you like. Indeed one official told me privately after the meeting that he and his colleagues may as well not have bothered to turn up, for all the good it did.
But let’s not blame Qatar as some commentators have done. No sooner did the news break that 2022 would almost certainly be in winter than those who have long waged an agenda against the Gulf state hosting the tournament were back on the attack. Another opportunity to beat the Qataris over the head.
That’s not what Monday was all about. It was about timing and it’s simply unfair to point the finger of blame at Qatar for the four and bit years it has taken to get to where we are now.
Those in favour of winter have made equally strong points as those against. There is a powerful case for arguing that football’s flagship tournament should always be held in the best possible climatic conditions, wherever it takes place. Especially when it goes to new territories. The World Cup, don’t forget, is just that. A global jamboree. Not the European leagues, not the European clubs. If they are happy to take Middle East money to further their own financial ambitions, they risk hypocrisy by then complaining when the World Cup takes place in the Middle East – winter or summer.
But there is a counter-argument. One that says to keep everyone guessing for this long is ludicrous. Qatar, remember, won the right to stage the World Cup back in December 2010. Most would agree it should not have taken until February 2015 to determine the best period of the year to put the tournament on.
Qatar’s organisers have always stated they originally bid for a summer tournament – hence their revolutionary stadium cooling techniques. But they are a canny bunch and deliberately left the door open to stage the World Cup at any time of year, mindful perhaps of how Doha’s attempt to snare the Olympics had failed for exactly the same reason: moving the multi-sport event from its traditional summer slot to avoid the searing heat of the Middle East summer.
FIFA, rightly or wrongly, have gone down a different path to the International Olympic Committee but that’s not Qatar’s fault. They got what they secretly probably preferred. All this prevarication doesn’t help their cause, from a public relations standpoint, of trying to promote the first ever World Cup in the Middle East. But the reality is that not much really changes from an organisational standpoint because once FIFA gives the green light next month for November-December, all Qatar will have to do is tweak some of its detailed infrastructure plans, change a few contracts and prepare for an influx of fans at a different time. Not too onerous a task.
But there is still an uncomfortable feeling about it all, one that suggests FIFA has been making it up as it went along. November-December was the preferred choice of FIFA president Sepp Blatter once he realised that playing in the middle of the Gulf summer was hardly ideal for players, fans and the so-called “FIFA family” alike.
Blatter will now be asking his executive committee next month to end almost a century of tradition but why did it come to this? FIFA’s technical inspection team, don’t forget, flagged up several flaws about holding the World Cup in Qatar in the first place, a message which was ultimately ignored by the majority of the voting members in that notorious, allegation-plagued double secret ballot.
Whatever you believe, upsets do happen albeit perhaps not on as great a scale as this. But having won the vote, a decision should have been taken there and then about exactly when the World Cup would take place instead of dragging out the whole process. In fact, even before exco voted, they should have been made aware there was at least a possibility the tournament would be switched to winter if Qatar won.
So what will be the repercussions now? Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean who led FIFA’s technical inspection team, believes that around 50 leagues worldwide will have to be halted. It’s a sobering thought.
Whether it really ends up being that bad is questionable. After all, many leagues across the world play their football from spring to autumn. Perhaps the disruption will not be as acute as some would have us believe. Perhaps all the bluster and rhetoric about chaos and confusion should not be taken quite so seriously.
One worry is that those who lose out most, if football is to be halted across the globe for the best part of seven weeks to accommodate Nov/Dec, could be the lower leagues who provide no players to the World Cup but who could suddenly find themselves losing crucial revenue, potential losses that could prove life-threatening to those clubs. That’s another sobering thought.
So is the fact that the World Cup could end two days before Christmas, an unprecedented culture change for fans. Just as an April-May tournament was rightly ruled out because it clashed with Ramadan, so some will argue that all other faiths should be treated the same when it comes to traditional behavioural patterns.
UEFA, for one, seem to be comfortable with a December 23 finish. It fits in apparently with their timetable but it may not fit in with the timetable of millions of fans. We should know the exact dates next month unless FIFA puts that off too (general secretary Jerome Valcke has already implied it might not be until later this year). Agreeing on the date of the final, arguably the most iconic and important day in the sporting calendar, must surely be the number one priority now.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org