Jamie Whitehead looks at the positives from a World Cup destination nobody but FIFA wants.
Thursday’s announcement from Nyon that UEFA were, in principal, prepared to see the 2022 World Cup moved from its traditional summer time slot to the winter came with an element of surprise and plenty of debate.
The Gulf State, with a population of just two million (roughly twice the size of Birmingham) was always going to be a controversial choice following a bidding process which also featured strong contenders from both the United States and Australia.
Problems which have already been bought up by those intending to travel to Qatar include strict laws preventing homosexuality and the consumption of alcohol (the latter of which may well be lifted for the duration of the tournament, presumably at the request of Budweiser, one of the World Cup’s major sponsors).
But the real issue of the 2022 World Cup has been that of the heat in Qatar during the months of June and July which can reach as high as 50 degrees. In a World Cup which has already been dogged with problems, despite still being nine years away, the timing of the competition has been the major talking point following, well basically any other problem you could come up with.
Qatar 2022 has an almost ‘Pop-up World Cup’ feel to it. Regeneration and development of both stadia and infrastructure are common place in the build up the the world’s largest sporting competition, but unlike Brazil’s preparations for 2014, Qatar are, in a very literal sense, building a World Cup from the ground up, which will be taken back down once the party ends. A co-hosting venture with the UAE wouldn’t alleviate the heat issue, but could solve a high number of administrative problems.
The concerns of the summer heat have been around since the decision was announced in December 2010. Public pressure to move the tournament for the sake of the players (despite air conditioned stadiums being built) has been rife, although no concerns for supporters wishing to travel have been raised.
Allegations of corruption and bribery have dogged Qatar 2022 for some time. In recent weeks, Sepp Blatter himself has even admitted awarding the competition to the Middle East could have been a mistake. Generally, there is support for a World Cup to be played at the start of the year.
In a way, this opportunity represents the chance for Blatter to cement his legacy has a forward thinking visionary in the world of football. Blatter’s vision when appointed as President in 1998 was to make football a truly global sport. Until 2002, the competition had been held only in Europe, South and North America. The World Cup’s World Tour has now visited both Asia and Africa and it’s visit to the Middle East sees almost every conceivable box ticked on where the circus can travel.
And here’s where FIFA and, to a lesser extent, UEFA’s problems lie. For football to truly be looked at as a global game (and one that finds itself in the unique position of having no other sport so universally loved) the power, influence and needs of the European game need to be put to one side.
Give or take a few weeks, the European football season traditionally runs from August to May, leaving a convenient time slot for a major international tournament every other summer. Until recently, the domestic calendar in Russia ran as a summer competition but was switched to a winter schedule in order to bring itself in line with the rest of Europe and ultimately, the Champions League.
Premier League Chairman Richard Scudamore has expressed concerns that a winter World Cup would affect English football’s traditional festive fixtures. Whereas the concerns from Nyon reflect the viewpoint that moving the competition could disrupt the Champions League. It’s clear to see why UEFA wouldn’t want the jewel in their crown disrupted, the Champions League carries arguably more prestige and sponsorship rights than the World Cup. UEFA’s advantage here is that the Champions League does take a break between December and February each season. The perfect stopping point to squeeze a World Cup into.
Concern is lesser from the other main nations in Europe due to the traditional practice of winter breaks occurring in La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and the Portugesa Liga. It’s not a surprise to see that the Premier League, an organisation with seemingly the interests of no one but themselves at heart, are the ones taking issue with the move.
By its very nature, football on the field works on an almost socialist model. The structure of the league system and semi-tradition of random draws offer the opportunity to those that participate to come from the very bottom to the very top should they so wish. Conversely, off the field the game is almost conservative in it’s attitudes to many things and it’s lack of willingness to embrace change.
Scudamore may feel he is well within rights to raise issue with the moving of the competition and how it may affect the Premier League. But what FIFA will need to factor into their discussions are if football is a global game, shouldn’t we start looking at it as such?
Brazil’s Série A, and in effect, a high proportion of southern hemisphere countries as well as 2022 bidders the USA, run their domestic competitions on the calendar year as oppose to the traditional European time slot. So these competitions find themselves faced with the problems the Premier League are creating for themselves. Obviously, the concerns will be that of a commercial nature, as on paper, the idea of attending domestic games in June and possibly into July actually seems quite appealing. The Premier League don’t want to see themselves playing second fiddle to a major international tournament that only started sixty-two years before they did. In terms of marketing and commercialisation, the Premier League agreeing to the winter move shows a sign of weakness if it concedes to FIFA and UEFA’s demands.
The world needs to step and consider that there is more to the world game than a few competitions in Europe and many other countries, including Brazil, the World Cup’s most successful entrant of all time with five wins (and another on home soil looking like a distinct possibility, laying the ghost of 1950 to rest) often having to restructure their domestic interests to accommodate global sport’s biggest show.
The ironic thing is, a mid-season World Cup when English players are more fresh than they would be in June could actually help the England team. But no one would want that, would they?
Jamie Whitehead is a Broadcast Journalist for the BBC World Service.