The battle to move the 2022 Qatar World Cup is developing into quite a classic. However, like many such football debates, it is being conducted on false premises.
The argument being presented is that it cannot be moved to winter because it would mean the original terms under which the bidding took place were wrong. It is assumed that when Qatar won the bid back in 2010 they and their rivals competed in a competition where they signed a document saying the tournament would be held in the summer. So if it is moved now, the terms of the contest have been violated and this would mean either FIFA pays compensation to the bidders that lost or it reopens the whole contest. This, argue critics, is only fair.
I would agree that the common assumption during the bid was that the World Cup would be held in the summer. Qatar in its bid said so, making extraordinary statements about how the stadiums would be air conditioned and the summer heat of the desert turned into a European spring.
However, the bidding countries did not sign up to date or a time of the year when the World Cup would be staged. The bidding document made it clear that this was at the discretion of FIFA. And here it is worth highlighting what has just happened with the Under 20 World Cup 2015 to be staged in New Zealand. When the Kiwis won the right to stage it the dates of the tournament were not agreed. The dates for this was agreed only in March this year, two years after the FIFA executive awarded the competition to New Zealand.
That decision was taken along with several other FIFA tournaments awarded to various countries round the world and included the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013, the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012, the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013, the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2014, the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015 and the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2014 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Here it is also worth noting that the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013 went to the United Arab Emirates
The 2011 announcement was little noticed at the time and many will argue that these are micky mouse tournaments which create no waves. They also make no money for FIFA, indeed lose money and reflect the legacy of Joao Havelange and his globalisation of football. Many critics, and they include some much respected ones, have always felt Havelange’s motives were political and part of his effort to use his non-European support to beat Europe. But the point remains that in all these bids the date was not specified and in the case of New Zealand it was only at the first meeting of the local organising committee in January 2013 that the provisional dates of June 19 to July 11 were given with the decision on stadiums and cities arrived at only last month.
But surely, runs the argument, this cannot apply to the World Cup, the premier international tournament in the world. And, in any case, we all know that ever since it began back in the 1930s it has always been held in the summer.
However the moment you say that you need to qualify the statement because summer, as we all know, is not at the same time all round the world. So when we talk of all World Cups having been in the summer we tend to forget the subtext that they have been held in the European summer. This has been true even when the World Cups have been staged in South America or South Africa. So next year’s World Cup in the European summer will be staged when it is winter in Brazil, since the Brazilian summer runs from December to February. Indeed the World Cup has a long tradition of being staged in the winter, beginning with the very first in Uruguay in 1930. Remarkably this will be the sixth winter World Cup, Brazil in 1950, Chile in 1962, Argentina in 1978 and South Africa in 2010 being the others.
Nobody who covered the World Cup in South Africa will be unaware that it was winter there and you only had to be at an evening match to appreciate how cold it could get. Indeed I would often return to the house I had rented and hurry to switch on the heaters. The house was built for summer not winter and it got so cold at times that it took me back to my days as a student in this country when I lived in bedsits and froze if I did not have the right money to feed the meter for heating.
It is also worth mentioning that during the final between Spain and Holland blankets were distributed to people in the FIFA box. This is exactly what happens in directors boxes up and down the country for much of the English season. However, being FIFA, the guests were allowed to take their blankets home with them as souvenirs of the final, not a luxury afforded to guests of club directors in England.
So, in that sense when Sepp Blatter talks of a Euro-centric view of World Cups he is right. This is not the first time Blatter has highlighted that Europe dominates world football but it is still amusing to read critics saying how dare Blatter, a Swiss, talk in such terms. For a start Blatter considers himself a citizen of the world and even if people can mock this as pretentious, it seems extraordinary to suggest that just because you are born a European you cannot point out the advantage Europe has over the rest of the world. Some of the greatest critics of the European domination of the world have been Europeans. Blatter joins august company when, as a European, he highlights the power Europe has exercised for many centuries over the rest of the world.
And this is where we come to the nub of the problem. It is this: can a competition that says it is worldwide really be one where Europe in reality dictates all the rules of the competition? Yes, say many in Europe who say they would like nothing more than that the World Cup should go round the world but the problem is that the world outside Europe, certainly the Muslim world, large parts of Africa and Asia are just not ready. It will happen someday but not quite now. This was just the argument we heard when South Africa bid for the 2006 World Cup. It was interesting to hear its opponents, including both England and Germany, declare how much they wanted South Africa to stage the World Cup but not just yet.
Listening to them I was reminded how for many decades European countries with vast colonial empires said yes one day their non-white colonies would be free but that date was not now, as these countries were not ready. Of course then the rulers of the European countries did not disguise their belief that the Europeans were the master race. Now that nobody subscribes to such racism the argument is presented in terms of whether these countries have the ability to stage the tournament.
But having said all this FIFA is hardly blameless. For a start they made the bidding process sound like companies seeking a business contract when it was actually member associations of a trade body seeking a tournament run by the very special rules of that trade association.
To complicate matters they made a shambles of the bidding process by having joint bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. If this was not the height of lunacy they made matters worse by saying countries could bid for both. As late as the World Cup in South Africa, barely months before the decision, countries like the USA were bidding for both 2018 and 2022.
Also the bidding process, despite all the claims that have been made, was not transparent. Michel Platini has recently made much of the fact that before the vote he told Qatar he would support them but it must be held in the winter. He also claims the moral high ground because he is the only FIFA executive member to disclose how he voted. But he has done so long after the vote. Why did he not disclose all this before the vote? That would have helped the bidding nations and the world to have a proper debate.
The FIFA executive is within its powers to decide when Qatar should stage the World Cup but in order to make its position more credible it should combine the announcement by a more broad based debate about the World Cup. This should include questions such as:
Is it really a World Cup if it is held only in Europe and South America, two of the smallest continents of the world in terms of both size and population?
Should it always be in a European summer?
Should countries that are also rans in terms of performance on the field of play aspire to stage the World Cup?
If so how can they achieve their ambition?
And as part of this debate FIFA should make the bidding process and, in particular, the voting transparent. FIFA should look at how the NFL do the bidding for the Superbowl and learn that allowing the world into the inner sanctums of FIFA will enhance, not damage, the World Cup.
But I realise that is asking too much. The FIFA executive will take its decision and then wonder why the world at large feels it is all a conspiracy cooked up a few old men in suits in FIFA House.