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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FIFA plays God with winter World Cup talk

By John Leicester
Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 2:08 AM EST
PARIS (AP) — FIFA talk of possibly switching the summer World Cup of 2022 to winter is scandalous on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

For starters, what arrogance. The World Cup takes a full month. Add to that pre-tournament training camps (essential for teams to gel) plus warm-up matches (equally essential) and at least one week of post-tournament recuperation for the players (they earn it, no?) and you’re talking six to seven weeks.

So what about the rest of Planet Football? Would it simply be expected to stop and twiddle its thumbs while FIFA holds its party in Qatar, the Gulf emirate that roasts in summer?

If the World Cup is moved to January, when Qatar is cooler, then the tournament and its build-up would fall slap-bang in the thick of the football season in Europe. England’s Premier League, depending on the timing, might have to drop its traditional feast of matches over Christmas and New Year. Even for Germany’s Bundesliga, which takes winter weeks off, accommodating the whim of FIFA boss Sepp Blatter could require severe kneading of its schedule, easier said than done.

To quote Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, it “would demand a complete reorganization of the whole world’s fixtures.”

Or, less diplomatically, it’s folly. Much disruption for many people other than FIFA. For that reason alone, it is difficult to see FIFA ramming this through, despite the when-we-say-jump, you-ask-how-high power it wields as the world governing body of the No.1 sport. Persisting could trigger an ugly tug-of-war among the competing interests in football, pitting clubs and leagues against national teams. The sport and its fans could do without that.

Just the suggestion from Blatter of a switch is provoking scorn. For a foretaste of the full-blown row that would erupt, consider this dripping sarcasm from Ian Holloway, manager of Premier League side Blackpool, before Christmas.

“You wait until I get home. I’m going to tell my turkeys: ‘Don’t worry, it ain’t Christmas, we’re moving it. It’s alright, you’ve got some respite,” he seethed. “’I’ve had a word with FIFA and we’re going to move Christmas! It’s no problem! Fantastic!”’

Oh, by the way, there will also be that hardly trifling event called the Winter Olympics in 2022 — unless Blatter gets the International Olympic Committee to shift that, too. It would be stupid for two of sports’ biggest events to compete for attention or, heavens forbid, overlap. Someone may have to bend so they don’t steal each other’s thunder. At the IOC, the man who might be its boss in 2022 — current vice president Thomas Bach — suggests FIFA may have to blink first.

“You have raised very interesting questions indeed,” Bach said in an email to The Associated Press. “I guess that FIFA would consider “Winter-World-Cup” rather in the end of 2022 than at the beginning. In this case there would be no reason at all to be concerned.”

Reading between the lines, a World Cup around the time of a Winter Olympics at the start of 2022 would be a worry. Nor is the international head of skiing, Gian Franco Kasper, thrilled about sharing his sport’s limelight with football. A winter World Cup “would cause quite a disruption” to skiing’s race schedule and “the same applies to other winter sports,” Kasper says.

Then there’s trampling on the principles of honesty and transparency which would result from shifting the World Cup.

Having pulled Qatar’s name from the envelope with fanfare in December, Blatter is now letting on that the fine print of FIFA regulations entitles its executive committee which picked the 2022 host to alter a World Cup bid as it sees fit. Apparently, that includes Godlike powers to make summer into winter.

But the 22 FIFA executive committee voters, who included Blatter, knew the risks when they chose Qatar over competing bids from Australia, Japan, the United States and South Korea. In black and white on page 5 of their detailed report to help committee members make their choice, FIFA’s bid evaluators warned: “The fact that the competition is planned in June/July, the two hottest months of the year in this region, has to be considered as a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators.”

Get that? “June/July.” No hint of winter.

If Blatter now truly believes that summer heat should be avoided, then FIFA should hold its vote again — with all the facts on the table this time.

To allay concerns, Qatar had promised to air-condition stadiums to a pleasant 27 degrees (81 degrees F) and share its solar-powered and “100-percent carbon neutral” cooling technology with the world, “ensuring football becomes a game to be played 365 days a year, no matter what the climate.”

“This means that heat is not and will not be an issue,” the chief executive of Qatar’s bid, Hassan al-Thawadi, told FIFA’s executives before they voted. “We want this to be a lasting global legacy.”

FIFA must not let those promises become mere hot air. Its executive committee should lie in the bed it made and live with the consequences of its vote — or step down if it now feels that a summer World Cup in Qatar isn’t a very good idea.

Blatter says any request for a winter switch must first come from Qatar for FIFA’s executive committee to consider.

Qatar should stick to its plans. With a successful summer World Cup, it will reap positive press as the little nation that could, which beat Mother Nature to prove that the Middle East and other hot regions can host sports year-round.

But it would be just one of the losers of a winter World Cup.