Sunday, 6 October 2013

The King of Winter

FIFA, having concluded that air-conditioned stadia might not be entirely feasible (something to do with being open to the elements, apparently), has now decided that the vexed issue of the 2022 Qatar World Cup might be best addressed by Project Winter Wonderland. I guess it was either that or advocating localised climate change, which might be an insensitivity too far even for Sepp Blatter.

It is easy to assume, as Marina Hyde does, that the "weather thing" has been foregrounded in order to distract from Qatar's reliance on indentured servitude, but this ignores the fact that FIFA started musing on the advisability of shifting the tournament to the winter within days of the decision, in December 2010, to award the shindig to the baking-hot Gulf emirate. In other words, this was always on the cards. Say what you like about Sepp Blatter, but he always plays a long game (I suspect a Genevan bank vault holds contingency plans for geo-engineering).

The abuse of workers will be toned down, as this would otherwise be bad PR for both FIFA and the Qataris. Reducing the rate of building site deaths to an "acceptable" norm can be achieved at relatively little cost (and quietly reversed in 2023), and incidentally provides plenty of scope for the photoshoots of paternalistic concern that absolute monarchs and FIFA executives specialise in. Reforms to the kafala system will be discussed, and then sidelined. I wouldn't be surprised if Blatter has the chutzpah to claim that the light shone on this regrettable practice shows the progressive role of FIFA in advancing human rights globally.

The no-doubt sincere concerns expressed by Michel Platini of UEFA about the abuse of migrant workers is serving to subordinate the question of when the World Cup should take place, which actually makes a calendar change more likely. This from David Bond of the BBC is telling: "For once, Fifa president Sepp Blatter seems to agree with him. On the eve of Friday's talks on Qatar, Fifa officials were briefing that the 'slave labour' scandal had eclipsed the row over scheduling". The thought that Blatter was happy to authorise the use of such a term simply to shift focus is depressing.

Much of the debate about 2022 assumes that FIFA are prepared to monkey with the traditional calendar simply because Qatar has made it worth their while, but I suspect Blatter & co have larger ambitions than just another fat envelope. The last few decades have seen the proliferation of international tournaments in the (northern hemisphere) summer, with the Confederations Cup, the Women's World Cup, the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, and even the Futsal World Cup, augmenting the expanded regional tournaments of the European Championships and the African Cup of Nations. The next step is surely to advance from the beach-head of the interlull and fully colonise the winter.

The shifting of the World Cup to January/February would obviously require adjustment by the European leagues, but on the continent this would only mean extending an existing winter break by a few weeks. The big change would be in England (and to a lesser extent Scotland) where carving out two months might mean reducing the Premier League to 18 teams. This opens up the thought that we may be moving towards a common global calendar in which the northern hemisphere winter is reserved for international tournaments, played mid-season rather than in the summer close-season, or perhaps the year will be divided into unequal quarters, with internationals confined to June/July and January/February, and World Cups alternating between northern and southern hemispheres.

The Premier League is opposing the shift for 2022, warning that this will lead to chaos and affect the domestic seasons either side of the Qatar tournament, but this is based on the assumption that the event will be shoe-horned into the existing calendar and that future World Cups will revert to the summer. I suspect the real concern is that the normalisation of winter tournaments in addition to summer ones will inevitably lead to the permanent reduction in size of the Premier League, not to mention finally killing-off the 39th game, and thus a step down in potential revenues. While other domestic leagues might not be affected as much, I doubt the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would be happy if lucrative close-season tours were curtailed. This, rather than labour solidarity, is what will ultimately determine UEFA's stance.

I think there is a very real chance of the Qatar award being subsequently rescinded if FIFA insist on a shift to the winter and UEFA dig in their heels, despite the assurances of Blatter that the choice is irreversible. This is not a battle over a point in space, i.e. Qatar, but a bid for the ownership of time.

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