- Part One: A crisis of FIFA's own making
The World Cup has adopted eight different formats already, and seen the number of teams taking part in it increase from the 13 which had been invited to the inaugural 1930 tournament in Uruguay to the 32 which contested France 1998 and will play in Brazil next year.
One thing has remained unchanged throughout, however: the timing of the competition, which has never started earlier than May 27 – Italy 1934 – and finished later than July 30 – Uruguay 1930. As time has gone by, the window set aside for the World Cup has shrunk. From Italy 1990 onwards, all tournaments, which now last precisely one month, have taken place between May 31 and July 17, regardless of the continents on which they were organised. During that period, no less than four continents have hosted the competition: Europe three times and North America, Asia and Africa one time each.
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The principle of holding the tournament in June and July has become enshrined in FIFA’s regulations as well as in tradition, and for good reason. Given the football calendar in place for domestic and international club competitions in Europe (and elsewhere) as well as the average weather conditions on the planet, the early part of the summer was and remains the most practical and least disruptive option. It may not be perfect, far from it, but it works.
This has not prevented the idea of switching the 2022 tournament to winter to gain ground since Michel Platini suggested it immediately after Qatar was chosen to be its host. Other voices, not least those of the 'ambassadors' recruited by the Qataris to promote their bid, have joined his recently, encouraging the UEFA president to become ever more forthright in the way in which he’s presented his argument - for which he shouldn’t be condemned out of hand.
He at least hasn’t wavered in his convictions. The problem is that he has also taken liberties with a number of facts as he’s become more confident of seeing these convictions prevail. It’s just as well that he’s known as a man of broad ideas rather than a micro-manager obsessed with detail and minutiae, given the inaccuracies that peppered his rhetoric.
"I will say something to the English," he said at the end of August, as if 'the English' were the only ones who have grave reservations (and worse) about the consequences of a switch to winter, and about the way in which it is peremptorily presented as 'the solution' to a self-created problem. But 'the English' are not alone.
The Association of European Football Leagues made a formal representation to FIFA on that subject earlier in August, which was copied to Platini in person. Joseph Blatter was reminded, quite tersely, that changing the dates of the World Cup was not FIFA’s prerogative, but should be the subject of a lengthy consultation process involving all of football’s major stakeholders.
Jeffrey Webb, the charismatic president of CONCACAF and newly-elected member of FIFA’s ExCo, has also publicly stated his opposition to a change of date which would contradict the terms of the 'confidential' 2022 WC tender documents. These, by the way, do specify June and July, unambiguously.
“We respect your calendar for 150 years," Platini went on. “For one month in 150 years you can change. I played in winter all my life, in the snow, in the rain, because of your calendar. You can change it for one month - I don't ask any more."
Let’s pass over the bizarre claim that non-English leagues were forced to adopt the FA’s calendar when no one ever asked them to. Let’s consider one of the fundamental tenets of Platini's position: that holding the 2022 World Cup in winter – January being his favoured option – would only affect "one month" of the existing football calendar. He should know that this isn’t the case, by a long way.
In 2012, FIFA asked its experts to come up with a reasoned schedule of the 2014 World Cup. The Executive Committee – of which Platini was and remains a member – decreed that clubs should release their players no later than May 19 2014, the final being played in Rio on 13 July. That’s already close to two months, not one, and far more than the average winter break in European leagues, to which must be added a period of rest for those players who will have taken part in the latter stages of the tournament.
The UEFA president would argue, with justification, that old Europe has no absolute, transcendent right to determine when the World Cup finals should be played, despite its economic pre-eminence in global football – and despite the fact that 69% of the players who took part in the 2010 South Africa tournament were employed by European clubs.
But it is not just the former colonial Western powers which consider football to be a winter sport. Give or take the odd brief break, the Australian league runs from October to April, the Argentinian torneo inicial and torneo final from August to June, the Mexican Liga MX and the Iran Pro League from August to May, whilst the Moroccan Botola Pro is competed from September to June.
To present the winter-summer debate as a confrontation between a Europe jealous of its powers and emerging countries which aren’t given their fair due would be twisting the truth. The only argument which stands to reason when the winter switch is discussed is that everyone bar the Qataris – at least in public - agrees that kicking a football on a pitch when you can fry an egg on the roof of a Bentley is not the brightest of ideas. But what is the alternative? Is there one?
The impact of a switch to Qatar’s clement winter would not be felt over a single year, contrary to what some of its proponents have said. It is now accepted that a trouble-free transition would require a minimum of three calendar years, as changes would have to be reversed when FIFA reverted to a summer format for the 2026 World Cup.
Think of the legal implications for players’ contracts, broadcasting and sponsorship agreements and the like that would accompany a re-definition of what constitutes a football season. Think of these countries where training and playing at the height of the summer is impossible – all those of the Mediterranean basin to start with – countries which would have no choice but to soldier on in unbearable heat to accommodate a winter World Cup.
This logistical nightmare would also be a costly operation for all of FIFA’s 209 affiliated associations, humble as they may be. Because of the quasi-universal pyramidal structure of the game, lower divisions and amateur football too would have to re-think their modus operandi. When a rock of that size is dropped in a pond, the ripples reach the furthest shores.
All leagues and all nations are ultimately interconnected; through the ebb and flow of promotion and relegation; through continental competitions and transfers. What we are talking about is a radical transformation of football as we know it, not a temporary variation which its adversaries could easily live with if only they showed a little more good will.
No provisions have been made for this transformation yet. No one knows for sure whom the responsibility for this colossal upheaval lies with. No feasibility study has been commissioned – none that has been made public, at least. All we know is that the FIFA ExCo will listen to what Blatter has to say on the subject at its next Congress on October 3 and 4 and will in all likelihood follow his recommendation – that is, that the 2022 World Cup cannot and will not be played in the summer in Qatar.
Beyond that? The unknown.
Philippe Auclair, biographer of Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King, winner of the Football Book Of The Year Award in 2010) and Thierry Henry, England and international affairs correspondent for France Football magazine and RMC radio station, contributor to The Blizzard.
On Twitter: @PhilippeAuclair
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