It’s difficult to see what’s wrong with soccer at the moment. Attendances are at an all-time high and TV audiences are growing with an estimated 160 million tuning in to watch the 2013 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. With Bayern Munich and Barcelona fielding two of history’s finest teams and Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi showing the amazing lengths of their talent, this era will be remembered as one of soccer’s finest and most exciting. Despite the occasional high-profile refereeing mistake or racism row, the sport is living up to its billing as the world’s number one sport. The sport is also exploiting new markets and expanding in new regions and it’s precisely the way FIFA-world soccer’s governing body- has tried to conquer a new part of the world that’s threatening to drive the sport into a big mess.
On December 2nd 2010, FIFA president Sepp Blatter revealed that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar for the first time ever. Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to hold the event, had plans to introduce high-tech environmentally friendly air-cooling systems to fight off the rising temperature levels and create an environment suitable to play soccer. However, Blatter has since admitted that the only way the World Cup will be played in Qatar is if it’s played during winter, thus ignoring the World Cup calendar that’s been set since the thirties. Apparently, new medical evidence found by FIFA has ruled out the option of playing in summer. According to those studies, playing in the over 40 degree environment will undoubtedly affect the player’s safety and physical well-being. The question remains, how can FIFA accept a bid organizing the tournament in summer without sufficient analysis and expert medical views?
The mess that a winter World Cup tournament would create may not be totally clear yet. Such a change would have dramatic effects on the game from the top level, to its grassroots and amateur levels. The typical European season goes on from August to May with clubs releasing their players at the end of May for international duty in a World Cup year. Euopean leagues as well as leagues in countries such as Mexico, Australia and Iran use this format. Nearly 70% of the players who were on show in the 2010 event were playing in Europe. To change the timing of the World cup would hinder all the European clubs and most of the participating players. It’s believed that it would take 3 years to adjust the calendar with the possibility of seriously damaging at least one European season. The problem is much deeper than that. Big clubs with money could possibly afford such a change and provide players with necessary physical training to adapt to a shortened or lengthened season, but with the promotion and relegation system in place all over the world, small clubs down at the bottom of the game’s echelons would have to adapt too. Does FIFA really want to disrupt a well-functioning system?
In the weeks leading up to the voting event, allegations of corruption and money transfers between voting members were constantly reported. In the week leading up to that fateful 2nd of December 2010, the BBC had broadcast a documentary exposing bribery between FIFA committee members on the famous investigation show “Panorama.” This would ultimately seal the fate of the English bid headed by Prince William, David Beckham and Lord Sebastien Coe. When the change to a winter tournament was first discussed, Michel Platini, head of the European Soccer Association, staunchly attacked the English stating that, while playing, he had to endure cold and snowy European winters without complaining during his playing career. With the wrongful accusations, Platini failed to recognize that the schedule wasn’t created by the English. Moreoever, some European associations take a three week break around the turn of the year to avoid the snow. With these public attacks, Platini is trying to create an “Us against the English” mentality by capitalizing on the public tensions between the English soccer association and FIFA to justify changing the calendar.
Ever since it gave South Africa the right to host the 2010 edition of the tournament, FIFA’s strategy has become clear. FIFA is trying to expand to new markets. However, South Africa had a strong humanitarian aspect to their bid. Their edition of the competition would be a message against racism in a country decimated by multi-cultural differences and the Apartheid. The 2010 competition had a father figure in Nelson Mandela but with Qatar, this seems much more motivated by money. Qatar has invested a lot in soccer recently. The Qatari royal family bought Paris Saint Germain, a famous French club, and has been splashing the cash to get the world’s best players. In addition, the world’s biggest broadcaster of soccer games, Al Jazeera, is Doha based. There were also rumors that Platini had voted for Qatar after talks with French President at the time Nicolas Sarkozy who was in extensive trade talks with Qatar. The Middle East seems to be one of FIFA’s big targets and Blatter has said that getting the World Cup in Qatar would benefit soccer and show that it is not solely European based anymore. Blatter failed to recognize that what attracted Middle Easterns to soccer, and I can speak from experience, was watching the world’s best players performing in the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s elite competition as well as watching the English, Spanish, Italian, German and French national leagues.
FIFA is driving itself into one big mess. FOX Sports, winner of the North America broadcasting rights for the 2022 Qatar tournament, are threatening to sue FIFA if the World Cup clashes with North American sports seasons, their other main source of income. Frank Lowry, renowned businessman and head of the Australian soccer association which lost out on the organization of the 2022 World Cup, is threatening to demand a refund from FIFA because his country had paid 40 million US dollars to fund a submission for a competition designed to choose a summer World Cup host. His association is scheduled to lose much more money from disrupted seasons leading to the potential 2022 winter event. He discussed what he might lose from a winter tournament and called for an ”in-principle decision that just and fair compensation should be paid to those nations that invested many millions, and national prestige, in bidding for a summer event.” If FIFA go ahead with the plan in a meeting scheduled for the coming weeks, Lowry may not be the only one demanding compensation and Australian soccer won’t be the only loser. Soccer worldwide would be changed and the repercussions would have a damaging long lasting effect on the world’s number one game.