KEIR RANEDGE COMMENTARY —– Imagine a football crowd: jostling, pushing, running, walking, talking, shouting, singing. No masks. No social distancing. This is the mirage in the desert which should be the 2022 FIFA World Cup: a world, and a World Cup, without any Covid.
As the countdown hastens on toward the finals in November and December of 2022 that mirage risks becoming ever more of a social and sporting optical illusion.
A year ago politicians and sports leaders spoke with reassuring expectation that, by now, the pandemic would already be history. Instead even nations which once prided themselves in cuffing an early grip on contagion are doubled down in lockdown once again.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, talks confidently of the Tokyo Games going ahead. But the lesson of the past 12 months is that nothing is guaranteed in a world flailing against this unseen killer.
FIFA and its president Gianni Infantino hope that the worst will be over when 32 national teams fly to Qatar. Once upon a time their Qatari World Cup appeared as distant as a footballing moon; now it is ‘only’ in November and December next year.
No time at all. The sporting days, weeks and months are spinning by ever more rapidly. In terms of elite competition late 2022 is the equivalent of just around the corner.
Qualifying among FIFA’s 211 member associations began in June 2019 but has been squeezed tight by last spring’s pandemic-enforced four-month interruption.
Cornerstone broadcasting deals and sponsorship contracts have long since been signed and sealed. This week the high-end hospitality packages have gone on sale with a $260m revenue target.
So, just as FIFA is planning for a ‘normal’ World Cup – who thought of applying such a term to a unique winter staging in the Middle East? – both host nation and governing body and their health experts have been forced to draw up strategic plans for a worst-case scenario.
This is the scenario in which coronavirus and a multiplicity of variants continue to stalk public spaces. At least Qatar now boasts unrivalled experience of the challenge after its highly-praised centralised hosting of various Asian tournaments.
A real-time guide to the ultimate eventuality is the health protocol blueprint being activated this week for the Club World Cup.
Only Qatari residents, Gulf Cooperation Council citizens and those with exceptional entry permits can enter the country. International fans from abroad are barred and restrictions on home fans are almost prohibitively tight.
They must have been infected with Covid–19 no more than four months before the tournament; or received the full Covid-19 vaccination at least one week before the event or have had a negative Rapid Antigen test or PCR test no more than 72 hours before the intended match.
Even then stadia can operate only at a maximum 30pc capacity of fans who must take a temperature check on arrival, provide track and trace status, wear a mask and undertake physical distancing. Similarly, all journalists need proof of a negative Covid-19 test.
All the teams are sealed in their own bubble between leaving home and, eventually, leaving Qatar. Tournament venues will be subject to regular disinfection and an army of trained medical staff will be in attendance, operating out of dedicated on-site clinics.
A full FIFA World Cup under such controls would once have been unimaginable. Not any more.
In the past such warm-up tournaments as the Club World Cup and now-defunct Confederations Cup were all about security, logistics, ticketing provision, airport and accommodation upgrades. That was a mammoth, million-dollar task as it was. Now an anti-Covid blanket must be thrown over all of that with the associated extra staffing, training and expenditure.
FIFA is fortunate, if that is the word, that its flagship event is still 20 months away.
This year the IOC with its Olympic Games, UEFA with its European Championship and CONMEBOL with its Copa America do not have that comparative luxury. FIFA will study the pandemic-controlled staging of those events while hoping the world turns a pandemic corner for the better.
After all, the Covid World Cup is only next year.
Club World Cup schedule
Feb 1 – 1st rnd: Al-Duhail (Qtr) 3-0 walkover v Auckland City (NZ).
Feb 4 – 2nd rnd: Al-Duhail v Al Ahly (Egy); UANL (Mex) v Ulsan Hyundai (SK).
Feb 7 – semi-final: Palmeiras (Brz) v UANL or Ulsan.
Feb 8 – semi-final: Al-Duhail or Al Ahly v Bayern Munich (Ger).
Feb 11 – third place play-off & final.