By Paul Gardner
We can now take it as official that FIFA screwed up when it awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. We’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. Sepp Blatter himself has neighed in with the admission that it "may well be that we made a mistake" in naming Qatar.
A reminder: the vote was made in December 2010. Five countries were bidding for the 2022 World Cup. South Korea, Japan and Australia were eliminated in the first rounds; it came down to a Qatar vs. USA final vote, which went decisively in favor of Qatar by 14 votes to 8.
So, it’s taken nearly three years for Blatter’s grudging admission to be made. This is not an apology, let it be noted. There are no words of regret from Blatter, no attempt to mollify the feelings of the USA, the country that lost out to Qatar.
We made a mistake, says Blatter, but there’s nothing we can do about it now, we’ll just have to make the best of it. The problem that has finally been recognized is that it’s too darn hot to play the World Cup in Qatar during the traditional summer months. That it gets hot in Qatar is hardly news. This was known to the people who voted in 2010. If they did not know that, then it seems to me there’s a good case for annulling the vote on the grounds of mental incompetence among the voters.
So they knew it was a problem, but they voted for Qatar anyway. Good, said Blatter at the time, “we go to new lands.” True enough -- a new land but one with some medieval attitudes. It is to be presumed that the voters, once again, knew that they were voting for a country with a law that makes homosexual activity between consenting make adults a crime punishable by up to 5 years in jail. According to Wikipedia, as recently as 1995 “an American citizen visiting Qatar was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes for homosexual activity.” Very nice. But that is not what has FIFA worrying about Qatar. Nor is FIFA worried about the treatment of female fans or journalists. It’s just the heat.
Not to belittle the matter -- the heat is a huge problem, quite possibly one that endangers the lives of players. FIFA’s solution -- Blatter’s solution -- is pretty straightforward: move the World Cup to a cooler month -- say May, or later to November. That has, naturally, aroused opposition from the major Europan leagues, because it encroaches seriously on their season. Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the English Premier League has vowed resistance: “Our view is that if that [i.e. a summer World Cup in Qatar] is deemed not possible by FIFA, they need to move the location. We can't just, on a whim, decide to move to the winter. It's extremely difficult, nigh-on impossible in our view.”
By “nigh-on impossible,” Scudamore means that rearranging things to accommodate a winter World Cup would be a damn nuisance. No doubt he’s right, but he may be on a loser here. Not only FIFA, but also UEFA, headed by Michel Platini (who openly backed Qatar’s bid), is in favor of a winter World Cup.
So FIFA’s mistake will be corrected by causing considerable inconvenience in Europe. Blatter has a reply to European objections: “Who are we, the Europeans, to demand that this event has to cater to the needs of 800 million Europeans above all? I think it is high time that Europe starts to understand that we do not rule the world any more, and that some former European imperial powers can no longer impress their will on to others in far away places.”
For “some former European imperial powers”, read “England.” So take that, Mr. Scudamore. This sudden awareness, on Blatter’s part, that Europe is not the be all and end all of soccer importance comes a bit late in the day. FIFA’s policies and actions have always reflected a bias towards Europe. He mentions that soccer is no longer the plaything of just Europe and South America. One wonders about his mention of South America, which has never ranked high among FIFA’s concerns. The vitally important matter of television kick off times for the World Cup, for instance, has always been decided strictly on what’s convenient for Europe, and Europe alone.
Possibly that is correct, given that Europe is where the money is, and where a huge percentage of the world’s top players make a living.
The biggest problem that I find in this mess is not so much the award of the World Cup to Qatar. They got the votes, after all. It is the totally unsatisfactory nature of the voting procedure that worries. Did the delegates who voted for Qatar know that they were likely voting for a winter World Cup? Indeed, was anyone even thinking that such a thing was possible? We are told that it’s OK to switch the tournament because the World Cup bid agreements do not mention that it has to be played in the (European) summer.
But it always has been played in the summer -- since 1930, nineteen tournaments have been played, always at that same time of the year. To my knowledge there was never any discussion, before the 2010 vote, of a change in that arrangement. It is safe to say that all the bids were prepared and submitted on the justified assumption of a summer World Cup.
The dangers of playing games in high temperatures have been well known to FIFA for decades: “Teams should not be asked to play, for any reason, at the hottest time of the day in parts of the world where day temperatures are unduly high.” That sounds pretty clear -- and all the more authoritative because it comes from FIFA itself, from its own Technical Study of the 1970 World Cup, played in Mexico. The problem arose because FIFA allowed mid-day kickoff times -- to satisfy the requirements of European television.
That warning, taken seriously, would have ruled out Qatar’s bid before it even started ... unless the bid was made with the clear proviso that a Qatar World Cup would need to be a winter event, and that such an arrangement was agreeable to FIFA. But no such condition was put before the voters in 2010. Now FIFA, having failed to spell things out properly, feels it’s OK to shift the goalposts.
FIFA has already gotten away with similar goalpost manipulation once before. In 1974, FIFA awarded the 1986 World Cup to Colombia. The Colombians started their planning on the basis of what was then standard: a 16-team tournament. But in 1982, FIFA increased the number of teams to 24 (no doubt there was nothing that said they could not do that). Tough luck, Colombia, which decided it was unable to cope with the extra reams, and withdrew. Mexico got the tournament instead.
In the current imbroglio, no blame attaches to Qatar. They are not the ones demanding that the date be switched. Blatter will presumably get the approval he seeks from the FIFA executive committee next month to make the switch, and the (formerly imperialist) English Premier League will have to lump it. The mighty TV companies won’t be too pleased either.
A precedent will be set, and not a bad one at that -- when India gets around to staging the World Cup it will be, no doubt, a winter event. But what a shame that a worthy move by FIFA will have come reluctantly and as the result of a flawed vote -- a “mistake” to use Blatter’s word.