KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Even before FIFA’s executive committee has discussed the Qatar issues, president Sepp Blatter had picked out one of its newest members to lead the task force on a timing switch.
He is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain who was elected only at the start of May as both president of the tormented Asian Football Confederation and as one its FIFA exco delegates.
Sheikh Salman won the presidency decisively after shrugging off challenges over Bahrain’s human rights record. Intriguingly he was supported powerfully by Asian Olympic leader Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah – who also played a key role in the recent accession of Germany’s Thomas Bach as new president of the International Olympic Committee.
The AFC’s new leader celebrated a double success after he defeated Hassan Al-Thawadi of Qatar by 28 votes to 18 for a seat on the FIFA executive committee. Al-Thawadi has also been in Zurich this week in his role as head of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee entrusted with organising the World Cup in the Gulf state.
Blatter has become a late convert to the idea of shifting the 2022 World Cup away from the searing summer temperatures in the Gulf.
Now he is believed to favour Sheikh Salman for the task force challenge of assessing not only the pros and cons of a switch but consulting the various medical experts, national associations, leagues and clubs.
Sheikh Salman’s AFC election followed a smear-laden campaign in which his role as of the Bahrain FA was questioned in relation to allegations of national team players having been arrested and tortured by national security forces during free expression protests.
In fact though Blatter has prepared the direction of the exco discussion, yesterday’s first day of the meeting did not reach as far down the agenda as Qatar (both timing and workers’ conditions) which is item 25.2 out of 27 – and No27 is the date of the next meeting.
The desert storm over the timing of the 2022 finals was kicked off by UEFA president Michel Platini within a few weeks of his voting for Qatar in the contentious vote in December 2010.
Platini’s initial salvo over Qatar was followed up this past spring by FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke going public with a helpful suggestion that medical analysis could support a date switch.
Then Blatter jumped on board. First he said the issue would go on the agenda in October then he firmed that up to predicting that the exco would approve a switch.
This took CONCACAF, in particular, by surprise. The United States lost out to Qatar in the final round of voting for 2022. CONCACAF president Jeff Webb and USSF leader Sunil Gulati remain puzzled by Blatter’s sudden haste.
They are not alone in believing that to take a decision and then study the reasons would be putting a Qatari cart before the camel, so to speak.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, in his role as chairman of the European Club Association, is similarly suspicious (though the Bayern Munich ceo has been shuffling sideways towards a date change for some time: this may yet prompt a schism within ECA).
Rummenigge has issued a polite but firm request for a football-wide consultation before FIFA reaches any decision. He says: “We would like to be involved in the decision-making process on a serious and high level because this is something which will impact on our business so we want a guarantee of involvement.”
So, the questions which concerned the FIFA exco were :
1, is it necessary to switch at all?
Answer: either ‘No’ because all the key sectors will be air-cooled and most matches can be played at night or ‘Yes’ for concern over the health of fans (who can afford Qatari prices);
2, does that affect the Qataris?
Answer: Not one iota.
3, does that compromise the original bidding contest?
Answer: No, because the summer date was only assumed and never entered in contractual writing.
4, how would switching affect the world sporting calendar?
Answer: Platini’s preference for January/February 2022 would cut across the Winter Olympics date (suggesting November/December is the more likely).
5, how would switching affect the football calendar?
Answer: Most of the world’s nation run their seasons spring to autumn so western Europe is on its own on this one.
6, who is for, who is against and who may not care either way?
Answer: Michel Platini is in favour, so are lower division western European clubs who want to cash in on the TV and sponsor exposure granted by the mid-season absence of the Premier, Serie A, Liga, Bundesliga competition; CONCACAF will be opposed to any hasty decision because of American irritation; and most of the FIFA exco will not care one way or the other (many of them will not be there by 2022, after all).
Finding a compromise will be a challenge indeed for one of the FIFA exco’s newest members.