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International football is facing a major challenge, as plans for the 2022 FIFA World Cup reveal tensions between club and national level football. The Wonderful Game may be heading for a global watershed.

AGI Magazine

Football is so overwhelmingly the world’s No 1 game that that nothing it seems can shake its status. However the first signs have emerged that the world game may be heading for a crisis which could see a major split between club and national football.

The likely causes of this split are the dates being proposed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Michel Platini, President of UEFA, the European governing body for the sport, has made it very clear that he wants 2002 staged not in the heat of the summer but in a Middle Eastern winter. This would amount to the biggest change in world football, as all previous World Cups have been staged in a European summer, irrespective of where they were held. But as Platini made crystal clear to me in a recent conversation, “I hope it will be held in winter. We have to go to Qatar when it is good for everybody to participate. What is better for the fans?”

In theory there can be no argument. Qatar in its bid may have said it could stage the World Cup in air conditioned stadiums but can you imagine what it would be like for fans to watch a match in that sort of  Arabian heat in June-July 2022?

Platini, of course, is an old supporter of Qatar. In the wake of the FIFA corruption scandal, there has been talk that the World Cup bids might be rerun but Platini told me, “To revoke World Cup decisions will be difficult. And, if there is another vote, I will vote the same way: Russia (for 2018) and Qatar. I voted for Qatar because it was time to go to a country in that part of the world. They bid five times.”

There has been talk he voted for Qatar under orders from the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But when this point was put to him he said, “No, no, no, I tell you one thing immediately. One day I was invited to dinner by Sarkozy where there was the prime minister of Qatar. Mr Sarkozy never asked me during the dinner to vote for Qatar. They invited me to the dinner but they know I will be independent, that I will vote for who I want.”

According to Platini before the vote the Emir of Qatar promised to hold the World Cup in winter, “Before the vote, I told him, ‘I vote for Qatar but I want the World Cup in winter.’ He wanted my vote he said, ‘Of course yes.’ Now he has changed.”

And with the Emir having changed his mind Platini wants to change world football, confident it can be done. “In 10 years we can manage to decide how we can postpone the season for one month. January is difficult for the World Cup because you have the Winter Olympic Games. If we stop [the European season] from 2 November to 20 December, it means, instead of finishing in May, we stop in June. It is not a big problem. It is for the good of the World Cup.”

It is Platini’s desire to change the international calendar that puts him at logger head with club football. In England it would mean a winter break, an idea which appals the Premier League. But even in the rest of Europe which has long had a winter break the Platini plan has already generated fierce criticism.

If Platini persists then it is hard to see how we can avoid a ‘world cup versus club football’ contest. ‘Club vs. country’ tensions are part of football but this will add a new dimension. And it will come against a background where in recent decades club football has grown very strong and the appeal of the world cup diminished. Platini may say it is the most important competition in the world but in fact the growth of club football means you no longer have to wait every four years to see the world’s best players. Now you can see them every week in the Premier League,  La Liga, Serie A, other domestic European leagues and in the Champions League. This, in essence, is a midweek European league.

True, Platini’s UEFA runs the Champion League but should clubs feel threatened they could damage the Champions League by fielding weakened sides or even having their own breakaway league. This has often been discussed but Platini may actually push clubs towards it. And with clubs teams now global brands exercising greater power than national teams clubs could win this contest. It is this that could tear the game apart and threaten football’s No 1 status.

      

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