SBJ/Aug. 12-18, 2013/Opinion

Turning up the heat in Qatar: Can FIFA, Blatter overcome?

The fact that FIFA finds itself embroiled in controversy because of which country was selected to host a World Cup is nothing new. Allegations of political misdeed accompanied the 1986, 2002 and 2006 votes. But the selection of Qatar in 2022 has backed FIFA into a corner without an escape route.

There seems to be a consensus that this tournament cannot be staged in the summer because temperatures in Qatar can rise to 120 degrees. There was talk of air-conditioned outdoor stadiums and air-conditioned outdoor places where fans could congregate, but as FIFA President Sepp Blatter conceded, you “can’t cool down the whole country.” So now the executive committee will meet in October with the apparent aim of moving the World Cup to winter.

Sounds simple, but the problem with moving it to January or November, the two alternatives that have been floated, is that doing so would wreak havoc on the European soccer calendar. Roughly speaking, European leagues, such as the English Premier League, run from August into May. That leaves about three or four weeks for countries to prepare their teams between the end of the season and the start of a World Cup and about four or five weeks between the end of a World Cup and the beginning of the next domestic season.

Will choosing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup prove to be a critical misstep for FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter?
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
If FIFA opts for the middle of January, leagues would stop play a week before Christmas and resume mid-March. Players in most leagues break for Christmas and there is going to be a lot of very public complaining if they can’t go home to their families. This may be the reason that November is now being trial ballooned. This would mean that the domestic leagues would come to a halt in mid-to-late October and resume in late January.

There are a number of problems that apply to both proposed calendars. With either, there is going to be a 12-week gap, which would have to be made up for by starting the season at the beginning of July and ending it late the following June. That would also force adjustments in both the previous and the following season’s calendars before scheduling normalcy was restored. The lower-tier domestic leagues, which often struggle to remain solvent, would be reluctant to make similar adjustments, but World Cup TV ratings would be hurt if their domestic governing bodies allowed them to continue to operate as normal.

The weather in Qatar is a lot milder in the winter, but would fans be willing or able to travel there that time of year? The pre-Christmas period seems out of the question for most North Americans, Europeans and South Americans. The January dates look a lot more promising, but most Europeans and North Americans are used to taking their vacations in the summer and family commitments would make it difficult for many people to travel during the school year.

This brings us to the last constituents that will struggle to get their heads around this proposed change: the TV networks, especially in the U.S. Fox Sports cannot be terribly pleased about the prospect of showing World Cup matches during the middle of football season or, even worse, the NFL playoffs. One suspects that Rupert Murdoch would ask to renegotiate. The prospect of airing World Cup matches during the winter, especially January, might be appealing to the European rights holders, but the leagues are likely to be worried about how much their ratings will decline because more matches would have to be aired during summertime when people are able to go outdoors a lot more.

In sum, the only thing worse than moving a World Cup to winter is choosing to hold it in Qatar in the first place. FIFA should apologize and revote. But that would require them to admit that they got it badly wrong, and, even worse, explain how they got it badly wrong. In a 2011 private email, FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke said that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup. He later explained he meant Qatar was using its “financial strength” to lobby for backing, not unethical practices, but his clarification begs the question: How exactly did Qatar use its financial strength? Despite all the scandals, FIFA has never been known for expressing sincere regret or publicly exposing its decision-making process, so it probably won’t do that even though it is facing a crisis.

And by crisis, I mean a showdown for control of soccer. FIFA has all the procedural power. It can force this calendar change, which appears to be its intention. But the European leagues and the TV networks, who ultimately have the financial power, as well as the players and the fans, who figure to be overwhelmingly against this, might very well seek to abolish the organization, or at least topple the leadership.

It has famously been alleged that Blatter “has 50 ideas a day, 51 of them bad.” However, even his harshest critics concede that he is politically astute. He has always managed to appease or vanquish his foes while, if anything, increasing his power. But in this case, it is very hard to see how he can accommodate, or ignore, the key stakeholders. Awarding a World Cup to Qatar may prove to be one bad idea too many for him and his embattled governing body.

Ken Pendleton (kpendleton@sportconflict.org) is a senior researcher and project designer of the Sports Conflict Institute in Eugene, Ore. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and, even though he should know better, he has misspent his adulthood studying the major American sports and international soccer.

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