When Fifa’s general secretary, Jerome Valcke, announced yesterday that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would not be held in summer but in winter – beginning, most probably, in the November – he was merely saying something that everybody else pretty much knew already.
His comments may have lacked the golden imprimatur of Fifa’s executive committee – the official line is that there is a consultation process going on – but the general consensus is that there is not a whole lot to consult about and that November it will be.
Valcke’s rationale was based on the fact that the traditional summer World Cup was always a non-runner given the monstrous Qatari heat and the danger the temperatures posed to players, officials and supporters. A date in January-February has also been mooted, but Fifa have already given the International Olympic Committee an assurance that they will not get in the way of the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled for February 2022. So that was two options down and only one viable alternative left standing. Fifa have already got international dates pencilled in for November. It is seen by Valcke as a pocket of the year that would cause least disruption to the world football calendar.
When Valcke said his piece on a French radio station he triggered an almighty panic at Fifa HQ. His quotes went around the football world, quickly followed by a statement from Fifa denying his words, followed soon after by comments from prominent Fifa people all of whom seem to be confused about what the hell was going on. It’s entirely fitting that farce is heaped upon farce in all of this. The Qatar World Cup continues to perplex, not just over the issue of when it will be but also on the wider issue of how on earth they ever got it in the first place.
The announcement of a date for the 2022 World Cup is politically and commercially loaded. The sensitivities are such that Fifa have knocked the final decision into the long grass until after the World Cup in Brazil. They have set up a consultation process that is, it would appear, a consultation in name only, as Valcke’s words suggest. The feeling is that the decision has already been made on the quiet, but it’s the politics of announcing the decision that require consultation.
Nowhere in the Fifa game plan was there a play involving its own general secretary making that announcement while it’s consultation group was still, theoretically, poring over the options. There’s really not a lot to pore over, apart from how to break the news to the football world without sparking mass litigation from commercial partners and outraged losing nations in the bidding process, America and Australia chief among them.
The sensitivities are vast. It’s a minefield out there. America and Australia were defeated in the bidding stage in December 2010 and Fifa have not heard the last of them. The Australians, in particular, have stated that if the always mooted move to a winter World Cup came to pass then they would look for full compensation on the money they spent in trying to win the right to host the tournament. And you could see their point if they tried. Fifa rules state all bidding nations had to agree to host the World Cup in June-July. If the rules are ripped up just to suit the winner, the beaten nations might well have a case in law – and Fifa know it. Hence the alarm when Valcke spoke out.
The Australians and the Americans are just one small facet of this, of course. The tentacles of this thing stretch far and wide, even all the way to Glasgow where the SPFL yesterday reacted to Valcke’s comments with a statement that more or less said, “Hold up a second here, we’re not having this...” That reaction would have been repeated in most of the major leagues in the European game – and beyond – particularly the English Premier League and the Bundesliga, whose key people have made no secret of their objection to the disruption a winter World Cup would bring to their domestic competition.
The Bundesliga say that a winter tournament would affect their domestic scene not just for one season but for three and claim that they have all the logistical evidence to prove it. The Germans make a strong case. Most club administrators who have tried to figure out the complexities of working around a winter World Cup reckon that at least two seasons – and possibly three – would be badly compromised. Valcke’s statements on French radio was their worst nightmare apparently come true.
No wonder Fifa went into fire-fighting mode. The last thing they need so close to next summer’s jamboree in Brazil is a war with some immensely powerful clubs and they also could do without having their media and commercial partners hitting the phone and threatening to go to war against them. The Fox Network in America have the rights to the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 and have made it clear they will sue Fifa if the 2022 tournament is moved to the winter, thereby clashing with the all-important NFL and college football season. Fox paid $450-$500m for the rights. You’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the network when Valcke’s comments went global. Equally, it would have been compelling to witness Sepp Blatter handling that phone call from America. It would have taken all of the old man’s chutzpah to get himself out of that one.
Qatar was a bad idea the moment Blatter opened the envelope and revealed their victory and its getting worse all the time. Horrendous stories about the treatment of workers, abuse and death on building projects, constant links to alleged corruption in the winning of the bid in the first place.
It has run the gamut of controversy. Allegations of suspicious payments to the Argentina Football Association, reports in the Sunday Times of Fifa executive committee members taking money in return for their support of Qatar, the controversy of France’s backing of Qatar involving a meeting in Paris of the former ruler of the emirate, Sheikh Tamim, and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. Michel Platini, president of Uefa, was also there. France sought Qatari investment. The feeling has always been that it was made clear to Platini that a vote for Qatar was a vote for France, though he says the meeting had nothing to do with his decision to come out publicly in support of the Qatar bid.
There is a weight of such stuff and as a body of evidence it casts one hell of a shadow over Fifa and Qatar and the reasons why. Valcke once said that Qatar “bought” the World Cup. He, and Fifa, later said that he didn’t mean it in the corrupt sense, rather he meant that their spending power was so vast that they blew everyone else out of the water. Whatever. Fifa also tried to contextualise Valcke’s comments of yesterday and good luck to you if you believe the line that the consultation group is more than a stalling exercise.
It’s going to be a winter World Cup. In Qatar. And there’s a mighty storm coming whenever they get around to formally announcing it.