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The Federation of International Football Association broke its tradition of staging the World Cup in summer in its desperate bid to ensure its controversial award of hosting rights for 2022 Mundial to Qatar stands, at a costly price, writes Olisemeka Obeche.
Amidst global umbrage over the Qatar hosting debacle, the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) held its first Executive Committee meeting of 2015 on March 20 and endorsed the controversial proposal from its Task Force for the International Match Calendar 2018-24 that the 22nd edition of the Mundial be played in winter instead of the traditional summer schedule. The world football governing body sanctioned the proposal to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup between November 20 and December 18, 2022.
Since 1930, FIFA World Cup has been played during the summer months of June and July, with occasional early schedule starting in May. The idea of a winter World Cup seemed inconceivable until late last year when it became an open secret that the only way to proceed with the staging of the 2022 World Cup in the gulf country was to shift the schedule to winter.
The questionable deal
When Qatar launched its bid to host the World Cup in 2009, an evaluation report expressed concerns about the health and safety of players and spectators in the heat—daytime temperatures reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
Despite the warnings, in December 2010 the FIFA executive committee selected the country as its World Cup host. Allegations of vote-buying and bribery, as well as human-rights abuses have rocked FIFA’s decision to grant Qatar the hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup. In 2012, when allegations of wrongdoing in the World Cup bid process surfaced, FIFA appointed Michael J. Garcia, the former US attorney for New York’s southern district, as the chief investigator for its ethics committee and tasked him with looking into the bid process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The Garcia-led panel went to work and subsequently submitted a 350-page report last year. But, in a curious twist, the chairman of the judicial branch of the ethics committee, Hans-Joachim Eckert refused to make it public, instead issuing a 42-page summary which Garcia promptly dismissed as “incomplete and erroneous.”
Last December, Garcia made an appeal to have the report released in full, but his attempt failed and he resigned in protest. In his parting statement, Garcia had declared that: “No independent governance committee, investigator, or arbitration panel can change the culture of an organization.”
A costly sacrifice
Besides the eye-brows raised by the ‘behind-scene’ deals that delivered the 2022 World Cup hosting rights to the oil-rich gulf state, there are equally growing concerns that moving the tournament from summer to the winter will come at a huge cost to FIFA. Pundits say the shift would knock off substantial revenue from the Zurich based institution’s lucrative deals.
For instance, when FIFA accepted bids for American broadcasting rights to the 2022 World Cup from Telemundo and Fox in 2011, it was done in anticipation that the tournament would be staged in the summer and not prior to Christmas. With the Mundial now shifted to winter, it has come into clash of schedule with some more popular games like the American Football League with equally lucrative broadcasts value for Fox and co. To appease the networks, FIFA recently accepted uncontested bids from both for rights to the 2026 tournament, at prices that were arguably far lower than what the organization could have made in an open bidding process that included rival networks such as NBC and ESPN.
The discounted fees, analysts say, will likely set a lower benchmark for future World Cup television-rights bids in the US, potentially costing FIFA millions of dollars in future revenue. FIFA’s budget relies heavily on TV broadcasts: a 2014 financial report reveals that 43 per cent of its revenues (nearly $2.5 billion) from 2011-14 came from the sale of television rights.
“With a potential shortfall in this revenue stream, the Sepp Blatter-led body is losing much more than it might have gained from the deals that sold the rights to Qatar instead of other eminently qualified bidders like Japan, US and UK”, says Mr. Kayode Idowu, a football analyst.
Equally costly is the mounting challenge by European league authorities over the disruption of the busy European domestic club and continental football fixtures to accommodate the winter World Cup. With most national leagues across Europe usually in full swing in the final two months of the year plus the UEFA Champions League fixtures, FIFA has forced the league bodies into tweaking the entire 2022-2023 season schedules to free up space for the World Cup. That may equally be a costly project for FIFA as European league body and clubs are refusing to bear the cost of the reschedule. “The European clubs and leagues cannot be expected to bear the costs for such rescheduling. We expect the clubs to be compensated for the damage that a final decision would cause,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the head of the European Club Association, threatened last February when the matter took a serious twist.
FIFA already pays clubs to release their players for the World Cup under what it called ‘Clubs Protection Programme’. In the 2014 World Cup, for example, it forked out $70 million for this purpose. On March 20, FIFA announced that it had agreed to a compensation deal with the European Club Association (ECA) worth $209 million each for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The football governing body may have got its wish to have Qatar host the 2022 World Cup at its most convenient winter season despite the controversies it has generated, the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars might prove to the organization that change is not only the right thing to do but also the most lucrative.
Will Blatter get a fifthterm?
With FIFA election scheduled for next year and Blatter gunning for a fifth term, accounts of his stewardship and the direction the institution has taken under his command has come under spotlight. Expectedly, most aspirants seeking to succeed Blatter have latched onto the rising wave of uncleared corruption allegations trailing FIFA dealings in recent times.
Michael van Praag, president of the Dutch (Netherlands) FA and one of the vocal aspirants to the FIFA presidency declared on March 24 that time has come for another person to clean the mess created by Blatter leadership.
“I simply cannot accept that we leave FIFA in its current shape for the next generation,” Praag declared as he launched a scathing attack on Blatter during UEFA congress.
“The beautiful heritage of international football has been tarnished by ever-continuing accusations of corruption, bribery, nepotism and waste of money. The current state of disarray asks for a change in leadership. I cannot look away. It is the responsibility of our generation to clean the mess,” he added.
Praag delivered a clincher: “Effective change is simply impossible under the leadership of the same person who is responsible for the state FIFA is in”.
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, chairman of Jordanian FA and a FIFA vice president, who is also bidding to unseat Blatter, agrees that FIFA needs leadership change. “FIFA, from a commercial perspective, has in many ways been riding the wave of European football’s success which has also helped directly the success of the FIFA World Cup. While the popularity of the World Cup has soared, the image of the organisation has sadly declined,” he said.
But the 79-year-old Swiss, whose reign at the helm of FIFA since 1998 has been widely classified as the most corruption-ridden in the football governing body’s history, remains non-pluss. Blatter insists he has taken the game of football to a lofty height. “FIFA is more influential than any country in the world and every religion due to the positive emotions it releases,” he said.
“We move masses. We want to use this to create more peace, justice and health in the world,” he added.
Though, it’s quite unlikely that Blatter will lose his fifth re-election bid given the peculiar FIFA politics and voting system, the controversies and cost implications of delivering the World Cup hosting rights to Qatar would surely mark a significant turning point for the global football ruling body.