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FIFA must act to save World Cup

FOX Soccer Daily: Should the World Cup in Qatar be moved to the winter?
FOX Soccer Daily: Should the World Cup in Qatar be moved to the winter?
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The 2022 World Cup has become an unqualified disaster. There are stronger and perhaps more accurate descriptors for it, but given that they all include expletives, we’ll leave it at this: FIFA’s bigwigs saw fit to pawn it off to the highest bidder -- a country with little sporting culture -- Qatar.

Almost three years on from this misappropriation of soccer’s most valuable resource, the reasons underpinning an awkward decision remain as mystifying as ever. This may sound like sour grapes, since the United States’ bid for the 22nd edition of soccer’s big dance came second to Qatar’s, losing 14-8 in the final run-off vote. But the assertion that the winning bid probably was not the most logical and certainly was the riskiest would seem unimpeachable. For Qatar’s mooted tournament was problematic from the very start.

There was, first and foremost, the heat, which runs well into three digits during the summer. But Qatar promised to air-condition its stadiums, and somehow do it without harming the environment -- a tenuous promise. Alcohol isn’t permissible in Qatar -- they promised an exception -- and neither is homosexuality -- no word on that bit. Qatar doesn’t recognize Israel as a sovereign nation and could be faced with a conundrum if it qualifies.

Then there’s the flagrant and widely-documented abuse of migrant workers, dozens of whom die annually from the inhumane conditions in Qatari construction work, the same sector which will be responsible for building all those new stadiums, transportation and infrastructure that were promised. Finally, there’s the obscene price tag of more than $200 billion to dream up a World Cup host-country from scratch -- the last World Cup in South Africa cost some $3.5 billion -- but then that’s really up to Qatar.

But set moral, legal, financial and political reservations about this bid aside, argue if you insist that they have no place in sport, and the crux of it remains the heat. That scorching, unforgiving and unrelenting heat that will make playing half-decent soccer nigh on impossible -- air conditioning or not -- if not plain dangerous.

And so FIFA -- and, at length, UEFA -- arrived at the long-overdue conclusion that the tournament it had commissioned was logistically impossible. The Executive Committee is expected to take a vote on moving the tournament to winter soon. But that poses its own challenges.

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For one, nobody involved in the process bid on a winter World Cup. Other bidders might have emerged had they known winter was on the table. And there are a lot of conflicts. Whereas the summer offers up only the Tour de France and Wimbledon as major global events, the sporting calendar is considerably more congested in winter, whether this 2022 becomes a November or a January/February affair. This is true for every country, presenting problems for broadcasters (FOX is one of the rightsholders for the 2022 tournament). Contracts were drawn up for a summer tournament. Sponsors and partners alike have branded their association with a summer tournament.

But the biggest collateral damage of all will be incurred by the clubs. Most all leagues -- and certainly the biggest and richest -- play throughout the winter, with a month-long break at most. Plopping a World Cup smack in the middle of that morass of league and continental and cup games puts the clubs -- not to mention the leagues’ own sponsors and partners and broadcasters -- into an impossible position. They’ll have to suspend operations for at least six weeks -- which would still give the national teams little time to prepare, mind you -- dealing a savage blow to their own interests.

Qatar supplied impressive stadium designs during their World Cup bid. Will they live to see the light of day?  (Image: Qatar 2022 via Getty Images).

This, of course, further agitates an already testy relationship between clubs and world governing body, which borrows their well-compensated and injury-prone players at no charge throughout the year and now expects them to absorb a serious hindrance to their cash flow.

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But the temerity of respective FIFA and UEFA poobahs Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini scarcely knows bounds. FIFA is the “owner of the FIFA World Cup,” claims Blatter. “We respect your calendar for 150 years -- for one month in 150 years you can change,” Platini sniped at the dissenting Premier League.

Sports history, it should be noted here, is littered with outfits that thought they owned something, only to be taken down or taken over or forced to open its doors by new rivals when they grew too brazen in their protectionism. A revolt from Europe’s clubs isn’t unthinkable. And with the right players and countries, a rival World Cup would do at least as well as the one FIFA purports to “own.” But that isn’t the point here.

The point is that it isn’t yet too late to fix this mess. There are plenty of countries that could host a shimmering 2022 World Cup with just nine years’ notice and little work to do. England, Germany and France spring to mind. Or, if you think those options too colonial: the USA, Japan, Australia or South Africa.

There’s a precedent there. In 1983, Colombia told FIFA that it wouldn’t be able to afford hosting the 1986 World Cup after all, and it was handed back to the 1970 hosts Mexico. Certainly, that was a voluntary move -- or so we’re told -- but it was for the good of the tournament, too.

Some egos will be dented, and some hubris exposed, but after a series of questionable World Cup assignments -- because there’s ample fodder to question the wisdom of South Africa ’10, Brazil ’14 and Russia ’18, too -- it’s time for FIFA to acknowledge that it made a mistake and set about righting its wrong.

(Note: Leander Schaerlaeckens' views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of FOX Sports.)

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