What once may have seemed impossible become inevitable this week, when world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, signaled its intention to hold the 2022 World Cup in November and December — massively disrupting the season of the European professional leagues that are at the global game’s financial core. FIFA’s task force examining the issue proposed Tuesday that the tournament be moved from its traditional June and July slot, when temperatures in Qatar often soar to about 100 degrees. And indications are that a move that would once have been fiercely opposed by the most powerful stakeholders in global professional soccer is now likely to pass with minimal protest.
Once Qatar's original claim that a World Cup could be played in air-conditioned stadiums and public spaces in the blistering heat of the Persian Gulf summer became unsustainable, the most plausible alternative was always going to be a winter World Cup.
The more radical option still preferred by some disgruntled football associations was to simply take the tournament away from Qatar, on grounds of inconvenience or the probity of the bid. FIFA’s ethics commission report into the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has not, thus far, provided sufficient evidence to prompt the body to rescind either Russia’s or Qatar’s hosting rights.
Others canvassed for scheduling the event, which takes players away from their league clubs for at least six weeks, in January and February of 2022. Many European leagues take a midwinter break, making that option less disruptive, but it would clash with the NFL playoffs and the 2022 Winter Olympics — a disaster for U.S. broadcasters who pay the biggest share of fees for Olympic broadcast rights.
The November and December option — with the final played just two days before Christmas — implies a major disruption of European leagues and a clash in the U.S. with the later stages of the NFL season. FIFA seems to have lined up its troops carefully here. U.S. broadcasters Fox and Telemundo have been compensated by the extension of their World Cup rights to 2026 and can now live with a winter tournament. The UEFA, whose Champions League will require minor rearrangements, is also now happy, and without the UEFA as an alternative power broker in global soccer politics, European professional clubs have little leverage in the game’s decision-making structures if they try to fight the issue on the basis of disruption of their home leagues.
The decision has to be ratified by FIFA’s executive committee next month, but nobody’s expecting a change of heart. Similarly, while the May election for the FIFA presidency is being hotly contested by incumbent Sepp Blatter and three challengers (Prince Ali of Jordan; Michael van Praag, president of the Dutch Football Association; and former Portugal star player Luis Figo) none of the contenders are proposing anything different.
Former Germany star Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, speaking as chairman of the European club association, noted that the proposed winter tournament would require a worldwide change to league calendars for the 2022–23 season. “European clubs and leagues cannot be expected to bear the costs for such rescheduling,” he said. “We expect the clubs to be compensated for the damage that a final decision would cause.”
Winning the argument for compensation for the midseason disruption may be the best the European clubs can hope for. And the amounts in question might be small change compared with the more than $200 billion that the accounting firm Deloitte says Qatar will spend on hosting the tournament.
Any debate in FIFA over whether the World Cup will be held in Qatar is now over, and the conversation will turn to the question of how it will be organized and prepared. The dire conditions in which many of the mostly migrant workers building the infrastructure of tournament have labored has been a source of international concern, and despite declarations of intent by the Qatari authorities to implement reforms, pressure is likely to grow for tougher action on the pay rates, safety standards and living conditions of those literally paving the way for the 2022 World Cup.
And then there are the challenges of hosting the traditionally bawdy, carnivalesque and spontaneous global event in the socially conservative country, which has proposed forbiddingly policed urban spaces to host the tens of thousands of fans who will flock to Qatar for the tournament. One example came in 2010, when Blatter was asked what about hosting the tournament in a country where homosexuality is illegal and he responded flippantly that gay fans and players should simply refrain from sexual activity while in Qatar.
That comment drew storm of criticism, and Blatter insisted the following year that “homophobia, sexism, sectarianism and ethnic discrimination cannot be tolerated.”
But that may prove to be just one item on a menu of complex challenges that will present themselves now that the venue and date of the 2022 World Cup appear to have been settled.