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FIFA chief Sepp Blatter says Qatar World Cup in summer a ‘mistake’

Soccer body quick to clarify that Blatter’s use of word was reference to weather, not host nation

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has described the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar as a “mistake” because of its sweltering weather conditions in June and July, when the international soccer tournament is traditionally played. 

In an interview with the Swiss television station RTS, Blatter said of the decision: "Of course it was a mistake. One comes across a lot of mistakes in life." 

The central issue surrounds the blazing weather in the Gulf country during the summer months, when average high temperatures consistently rise above 106 F. Health and safety concerns for players and fans are at issue in addition to environmental concerns about Qatar’s ambitious stadium-cooling plans, which are said to involve solar-panel technology. 

"The Qatar technical report indicated clearly that it is too hot in summer, but the executive committee with quite a big majority decided all the same that the tournament would be in Qatar," Blatter said in the interview, referring to a FIFA assessment before the event was awarded. 

FIFA was quick to limit any damage resulting from the comments, saying that Blatter’s use of “mistake” was in reference to the weather conditions and not host country Qatar itself. The Gulf nation has also come under international pressure to address working conditions and labor rights amid reports that hundreds of immigrant employees had died on construction projects.  

“The President reiterated that the decision to organize the World Cup in summer was an ‘error’ based on the technical assessment report of the bid, which had highlighted the extremely hot temperatures in summer in Qatar. At no stage he questioned Qatar as hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” FIFA said in a statement provided to Al Jazeera. 

Will Blatter get his way?

Qatar’s being awarded the event was not without controversy, with some critics going as far as to say the World Cup should be played elsewhere. 

“I think there are lots of people around the world who would be looking for an excuse to take it away from Qatar,” Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book “Soccernomics,” told Al Jazeera on Friday. “I think on balance, it’s still far more likely that it goes ahead in Qatar, but I don’t think anybody in Qatar should be complacent about this and assume it couldn’t happen.”

Talk has also repeatedly circulated about moving the Middle East's first World Cup to the European winter, between November and January. Blatter has consistently floated the idea and said Thursday during the RTS interview that “it’s more than probable” that the event would be held during those months.

"He’s been saying this for a while, and this is part of a campaign to persuade all of the national associations to agree to moving the World Cup to midwinter," Szymanski said. 

"I think that’s going to be a difficult battle for him to win that, but I guess if I was a betting man I’d say I think he’ll probably get his way in the end," he added.

In January, FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke told a French radio station, "Frankly, I think it will happen between the 15th of November and Jan. 15 at the latest," in what was an apparent unauthorized remark. FIFA responded to that comment by saying no decision would be taken up before the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

League pushback

But moving the dates further back could complicate matters for some European soccer leagues. A World Cup in November and December would force changes in the schedule of domestic leagues and the pan-European Champions League, in which the majority of the world's top players play professional soccer.

Despite pushback from some leagues, some don't believe the task of moving the World Cup back is impossible. 

"I think the issue is, there are relatively a small number of leagues for which this matters in a big way. Probably the most significant is the Premier League in England," Szymanski said.

He referred to the contentious issue as "a matter of politics," saying of Blatter: "He probably needs to make concessions and promises to their particular interests, but that’s not impossible to imagine,” referring to leagues whose schedules would be affected by a move. 

“My guess is that in the end, he probably gets his way even if there be some big standouts objecting to this,” he said. 

Szymanski explained that Blatter may be able to organize a majority of the smaller federations in Africa and Asia to get behind the idea of moving the World Cup dates — a move he said would be subject to approval by a vote of federations — by "promising them a disproportionate share of the benefits that arrive from the revenues that FIFA generates." 

And while there has been opposition to disrupting the current World Cup calendar by some of the larger federations in Europe, the options of retribution on their part appear too unsavory to implement. 

"What can they do if they’re outvoted?" Szymanski said. "They can threaten to break away, they can threaten to not allow their players to play, but that’s a pretty nuclear option to go for and probably one which most of the federations would seek to avoid."

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