A winter World Cup in Qatar – will it happen?
With Northern Ireland set to face Russia this afternoon on the road to Brazil 2014, off the field it is another World Cup which has been occupying the thoughts of football's powerbrokers.
The 2022 contest remains nine years away, but its spectre looms over the game like a gathering sandstorm.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that an idea which once seemed a joke, that of staging football's biggest event on an egg-shaped slab of desert nosing into the Persian Gulf, has the potential to wreak havoc on the sporting landscape, especially in England.
More than two years after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, it is still unclear whether it will be played in summer, in winter, or in another country entirely. Only yesterday Qatar made a subtle shift in position with a carefully worded statement, part of which read: "Various figures from the world of football have raised preferences for hosting in winter. We are ready to host the World Cup in summer or winter."
Q. What's wrong with a summer World Cup?
A. Leaving aside the fact Qatar is smaller than Yorkshire, lacks any football heritage, has extremely conservative attitudes to women, alcohol and homosexuality, and very limited hotel accommodation, the main problem is the climate. As was highlighted by Fifa's technical study group before the vote, it is extremely hot in summer with average daily highs exceeding 40C.
Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean who led the technical study group, recently suggested a solution would be to play the matches at night when it is cooler – though the average low in June is still 27C. But midnight kick-offs in Qatar would mean 10pm starts in England, 11pm in Berlin and Madrid, 5am in Bejing, 6am in Tokyo. In short, no good for spectators or sponsors in the World Cup's main TV markets. It would also play havoc with the body clocks of players and spectators.
Qatar say that they will have air-conditioned stadia backed by air-conditioned hotels, transit systems, fan zones and training grounds. The oil- and gas-rich state has boundless wealth but many remain unconvinced this is practical, or even desirable, and that the only solution is a winter World Cup.
Q. What's wrong with a winter World Cup?
A. Winter is when the European leagues, who supply most of the players, operate. A World Cup only lasts four weeks but preparation and recovery time extends that footprint to two months. As a result, a World Cup played in the winter would affect three conventional European seasons, not one.
Were the 2022 World Cup staged from mid-November to mid-December (avoiding Christmas and the Winter Olympics) the 2022-23 season in Europe would need to begin and end a month early, having a knock-on effect on the seasons preceding and following.
There are complications with players' contracts, TV and sponsorship deals and season-ticket holders. Then there is the impact it would have on other tournaments. Qualifying for Euro 2024, for instance, would usually be well under way by December 2022.
Despite this, the hints continue with the latest being an own-goal by Sir Dave Richards, the loose-lipped chairman of the Premier League. This week, Sir Dave said that leagues like the one he represents would be "up in arms" at a winter tournament. Then he added: "It can't be summer. Where are the fans going to go? They can't lie on the beach because they will all get scorched. I think common sense will prevail over time."
The Premier League was quick to shoot down its off-message chairman with chief executive Richard Scudamore promising "huge resistance" from European leagues.
But is that wishful thinking? Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chief executive of Bayern Munich and chairman of the European Club Association (whose last conference was hosted by Doha), told France Football last month: "The best part of the year is the summer and that's exactly the time when we don't play. I believe that we are moving rapidly in the direction [of summer football]." Uefa president Michel Platini, according to the magazine, is of the same view.
Q. No more shivering in the stands. What's wrong with summer football?
A. Watching football in winter can be a miserable experience in many parts of Europe, as can playing it.
At a professional level, summer football would have a devastating impact on rugby league and cricket, especially on television income, as one of their prime attractions to Sky Sports is they help fill the empty hours between football seasons.
While there would be public and commercial resistance in England, that may not be the case elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, the absence of sport in non-football tournament years is described as the Sommerloch (summer hole). In Mediterranean areas, however, it is often ferociously hot; matches would have to be played late at night, damaging attendances and TV audiences.
Q. Why does Michel Platini support summer football and a winter World Cup?
A. Platini's support for summer football may be a genuine belief, but it is also in his interests. Platini is one of the few to admit openly he voted for Qatar, and did so on the premise that the tournament would be moved to winter, a change he said he suggested to the emir of Qatar before the vote.
Platini insists his vote was in no way influenced by the knowledge that then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy backed Qatar, having negotiated huge contracts that benefited French companies, nor by a dinner with the president and the emir at the Elysée Palace nine days before the vote. There have been many subsequent Franco-Qatari business deals, often relating to 2022 construction projects.
However, Platini's support is a double-edged sword. For a long time it seemed he was a shoo-in to replace Sepp Blatter as Fifa president in 2015, but now Blatter has not just begun to criticise Platini, his protégé for two decades, but is hinting at running for a fifth term himself.
Blatter was 77 this month, but his mentor, Joao Havelange, was 82 when he stepped down as Fifa president after 24 years in power.
Q. Sepp Blatter? Is he not the FA's bête-noire?
A. Blatter would make a strange white knight for the English game, having spent most of his 21 years in power at odds with the FA.
But he is the arch-dealmaker and will seek support wherever he can find it. He has generally opposed moving the World Cup to winter and this week hinted that any such request from Qatar could prompt demands for a fresh vote from the defeated bidders – Australia, South Korea, Japan and runners-up the United States, for whom Blatter is believed to have voted.
Current Fifa statutes state the World Cup must take place in June or July and that, they can argue, was the bid brief. This is why there is a Mexican stand-off. Fifa insists it is up to Qatar to ask for a seasonal move, Qatar insist they have no intention of doing so, thus yesterday's carefully worded statement.
Q. So what will happen?
A. Seasoned Fifa observers expect Qatar, having lobbied for support, to suggest a winter move in 2015. They will probably cite the medical grounds mentioned last month by Jérôme Valcke, Fifa's secretary-general, who said a switch may be required if players' health was at risk.
The question then will be whether the defeated bidders raise a legal challenge. If they do, Qatar would doubtless unleash their own lawyers.
About the only certainty in this saga is that moving the tournament will be a logistical nightmare affecting several years of fixture scheduling. There is thus widespread agreement that a decision must be made by 2016 at the latest.
If the 2022 World Cup is not moved by then, it will be time to look at investing in companies making air-conditioning and selling high-factor sun block.
Belfast Telegraph Digital