The prospect of a winter World Cup being staged in Qatar in 2022 moved a significant step closer on Thursday when Uefa’s 54-member countries gave their overall backing to the controversial switch which would result in a radical overhaul of the football calendar.
According to Jim Boyce, Britain’s Fifa vice-president, Uefa members consider it “impossible” to play in the searing heat of a Qatari summer. Fifa is expected to agree in principle next month that the tournament will not be held in its regular summer slot and the decision of Uefa – the Europeans are the strongest of the global confederations – makes a change ever more likely, even if the continent’s major clubs and leagues remain opposed.
“They [Uefa members] all agree that to play the World Cup, to take thousands of fans to the biggest sporting event in the middle of summer would be impossible,” said Boyce.
Any switch will heighten calls for compensation from those Qatar beat to win the hosting rights for the 2022 finals, notably Australia. That is a path European leagues may look to follow. Fifa is also likely to face demands from broadcasters to renegotiate lucrative deals, with US network Fox in particular set against any move that might clash with the NFL season.
The Premier League has always opposed a move, arguing that the bids were for a summer tournament so that is when it should be played. The European Professional Football Leagues association, of which the Premier League is a member, has called on Fifa to undergo an “appropriate consultation period” before making a decision. The EPFL believes next month is too early to decide.
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar has been controversial ever since the 2010 vote. With temperatures in the summer reaching the high 30s, Fifa’s own medical guidelines categorize the risk of playing at that temperature as “extreme”. Switching the tournament to either January/February or November/December has long been regarded as the probable outcome.
Uefa’s meeting in Dubrovnik concludes today and Michel Platini, the Uefa president and a long-time supporter of Qatar 2022, is expected to clarify its stance in favour of a switch and stress the need for Fifa to consult with all interested parties before settling on the dates for the tournament.
“What has come out of this meeting, and what I think is sensible, is an agreement by the Uefa countries that the World Cup cannot be played in Qatar in the summer,” said Boyce, the Northern Irishman who attended the Uefa meeting. “Everyone was certainly in agreement about that. But what the 54 countries do not want Fifa to do is to make a decision yet on exactly when in the year it is going to be played.
“There is still nine years to go and people feel Fifa should sit down with all the major stakeholders and come up with a solution that would cause the minimum disruption to football.”
European football is though divided on when the tournament should be played. The British associations have been assured by Fifa that the traditional Christmas schedule will not be affected. Uefa favour a January start to minimise the impact on the Champions League, while Fifa are believed to want it to begin in November to avoid upsetting the International Olympic Committee by clashing with the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Platini also met with Uefa’s Professional Football Strategy Council, which includes representatives of the continent’s major leagues and player unions. That body wants detailed talks with Fifa before giving its backing to any major alterations to the calendar.
Bobby Barnes, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association and in Croatia as a delegate for FIFPro, the international players’ union, said the possibility that the finals may still be switched to another country remains an issue. “People are unified that a summer World Cup is increasingly unlikely — whether that means a change in venue or a change in scheduling is still to be discussed,” said Barnes.
But Fifa maintain that there is no prospect of the tournament being taken away from Qatar. Earlier this year it set up what is claimed to be an independent commission investigating the awarding of the finals to Qatar amid allegations of impropriety and vote swapping – the 2018 and 2022 hosts were chosen at the same time. But a change of venue remains off the agenda.
“We are not talking about removing we are talking about moving, that’s key,” said Jerome Valcke, Fifa’s general secretary, last week. “We are talking about moving [the tournament] in the year 2022 in the country which has been awarded the World Cup.”
At the Uefa meeting members were divided into four groups to explore options. The Scottish Football Association was among the group that proposed a start date of 22 January.
“The mood of the meeting was very much supportive of pulling it forward to the beginning of 2022," said Stewart Regan, the SFA’s chief executive. He added that member countries would “have discussions with their respective league bodies.”