In a move that will likely not surprise many who follow the life and acts of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Blatter reiterated last week that he did not believe that the 2022 FIFA World Cup could take place during host nation Qatar’s brutal summer months. The alternative, a winter World Cup, is now being publicly opposed by the Barclays Premier League.
The belief that Qatar’s summer months would not be conducive to accommodating one of the most important sporting events in the world is not contentious. A quick look at the weather forecast for July 22, 2013 shows that temperatures will reach 106 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and will drop to a still-oppressive 88 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. Humidity compounds the heat problem in the Arabian peninsula, with 90% humidity a common condition from May to September. Neither 100 degree Fahrenheit nor 90% humidity (let alone both) are ideal playing conditions for soccer’s premier event.
It was therefore an interesting turn of events to learn on December 2, 2010 that the FIFA Executive Committee had appointed Qatar host of the traditional summer tournament for 2022 by a vote of 14 to 8, soundly defeating the United States’ bid for the same tournament. The FIFA evaluation of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid noted that
Qatar mainly consists of a low, barren plain with mild winters and very hot, sunny and humid summers. It has a desert climate with long summers, and precipitation is scarce. Qatar would present very hot weather conditions during the tournament period with average temperatures falling below [98.6 degrees Fahrenheit] during the afternoon and seldom below [87.8 degrees Fahrenheit] during the evening.
Although the bid evaluation recognized the inherent obstacles posed by the weather, Qatar’s bid was bolstered by (perhaps among other incentives) the Qatar bid committee’s proposition that “[a]ll of the stadiums would be equipped with cooling systems. Clean, renewable energy resources would be used to achieve the first completely carbon-neutral FIFA World Cup.” The Qatar bid committee further noted that “Qatar is developing hi-tech, carbon-neutral cooling systems for the tournament stadiums [and] training sites . . . with renowned international partners and sustainability advisers.” In other words, Qatar proposed building outdoor, air-conditioned stadiums to combat temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Faehrenheit.
In its evaluation of the Qatar bid, FIFA questioned whether the infrastructure and small-area hosting logistics were sound, but curiously neglected to mention the feasibility of the innovative cooling system proposal or identify alternative timing for the tournament during the winter months.
Opponents of the Qatar bid pointed out on the safety issues posed by holding the 2022 World Cup in the country’s long, hot summer. FIFA’s response was, while not unequivocal, dismissive. In January 2011, just a month after Qatar was appointed host of the 2022 tournament, FIFA issued the following statement: “Any potential move of the 2022 FIFA World Cup from a summer to a winter period would have to be initiated by the football association of Qatar and would have to be presented to the FIFA Executive Committee.” The then-president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammed bin Hammam, voiced opposition to the notion that Qatar would reschedule the tournament for the winter months, stating: “We submitted a bid suggesting we are going to be ready in June and July. And we said we are going to face all the challenges and we are going to meet all the requirements[.] Our focus is June, July. It is never our interest to change one week beyond June and July.”
Blatter, however, restated last week his previous position that the 2022 World Cup should be held during Qatar’s milder winter months, arguing that although air conditioned stadiums solved issues for players and fans in stadiums, “We have to protect our partners, our commercial partners, our TV partners. We have to be tough on this. . . . If this World Cup is to become a party for the people, you can’t play football in the summer. You can cool down the stadiums, but you can’t cool down the whole country.” A FIFA spokesman noted: “As mentioned by the Fifa president . . ., he will bring forward the matter of playing the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar in winter to the Fifa executive committee on the occasion of their next meeting scheduled for [October[ 3 and 4, 2013. This matter will now be with the executive committee and we can therefore not comment further before the meeting has taken place.”
Setting aside that Qatar has not initiated a request for a winter tournament and that the Qatari weather was noted but not addressed in the FIFA bid evaluation report, the current head of the local Qatari organizing committee stated that “If there is a wish from the football community to move the World Cup to the winter, we are open for it.”
While the collegial and almost deferential interactions between Blatter, FIFA and the Qatari organizing committee are admirable, they have neglected to consider other interested parties, including the professional leagues whose seasons would be interrupted by the month-long World Cup and pre-tournament preparations during the prime of many league seasons. A Premier League spokesman was clear about the Premier League’s position on a winter World Cup: “The Premier League position remains unchanged. The prospect of a winter World Cup is neither workable nor desirable for European domestic football.”
Practically, a winter World Cup would mean a significant winter break for the top European leagues of two or more months to accommodate the training and preparation lead-up to the tournament and the actual tournament itself. Thus, professional league seasons would have to be shortened (which seems unlikely given the importance of television contracts and other revenue interests) or adjusted to start earlier and end later, which would have a significant effect on the length of the summer breaks for players in 2021 and 2022, before and after the World Cup. More generally, the trend toward a winter World Cup in Qatar is peculiar given that the FIFA evaluation report for Qatar’s bid made no mention of potential issues with holding the tournament in the summer, nothwithstanding the fact that the issues now posed by Blatter were present at the time of the 2010 vote appointing Qatar as the host country. Whether the October FIFA executive committee meetings provide resolutions to either point is doubtful, but the tension in the relationship between FIFA and the European leagues, in particular, seems likely to grow.