Has FIFA created a World Cup problem that teams have to pay for?

February 26, 2015, 7:10 PM UTC
2014 FIFA World Cup Legacy Project - Sao Paulo
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JANUARY 20: FIFA Secretary General, Jerome Valcke arrived for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Football Legacy Project media briefing at Arena Corinthians on January 20, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Photograph by Friedemann Vogel — FIFA via Getty Images

The outrage that European soccer teams are expressing over FIFA’s latest decision is just further evidence that awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar may have been a mistake.

First, back in July, allegations emerged that Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari and former president of the Asian Football Confederation, had paid bribes to ensure Qatar would win its bid. An official investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee cleared Qatar of those corruption claims in November. Then came concerns over the extreme heat in Qatar in the summer months when the World Cup is always played: temperatures as high as 107 degrees. Qatari officials insisted that thanks to advances in outdoor cooling technologies, the stadiums wouldn’t get too hot. These claims were met with much skepticism, and may not have convinced FIFA, either: rather than pull the Cup from Qatar due to the heat, FIFA has announced it will move the World Cup to the winter months, potentially to conclude just days before Christmas.

Clubs are outraged by this move, and here’s why: it wreaks havoc on their traditional schedules, and they argue it could cost them millions. Yesterday, FIFA announced it will not compensate clubs in any additional amount for costs incurred by moving the Cup to winter.

“It’s not perfect, we know that, but why are we talking about compensation? It’s happening once, we’re not destroying football,” said Jerome Valcke, FIFA secretary general. “Why should we apologize to the clubs? I definitely don’t feel I have to apologize for the decision made yesterday.”

Unlike the NFL, MLB, or NBA in the U.S., European soccer goes for nearly the entire year. (The current English Premier League season started this past August, and will run through the end of May.) With the World Cup going on in November and December, under FIFA’s new proposed timeline (it has not set exact dates yet), half of the teams will get their players back by end of November, while players on national teams that make it to the knockout rounds will remain gone for up to another month, which does mean problems for rosters, issues with player contracts, and, perhaps, if big stars are unavailable, lost income from ticket sales. To make up for the gap, seasons will likely start earlier, which will condense the important “transfer window” when teams are able to trade stars.

Clubs are also concerned about player injuries, as their stars will now play in the World Cup and then have to return to the regular season. At the 2010 World Cup, Bayern Munich star Arjen Robben was injured and missed the next six months of the club’s season, costing them millions in wasted salary. FIFA does have an official insurance fund for this reason — $40 million in 2010, $75 million in 2014 — but divides this sum up among teams that have a player in the World Cup, and once divided, it doesn’t amount to very much. (FIFA reportedly made around $4 billion in revenue from the 2014 World Cup, $1 billion of it from sponsors and advertisers.) The English Premier League alone will reportedly need to reschedule 100 games.

The English Premier League is “extremely disappointed” with the move to winter, and its chief executive Richard Scudamore went on to say: “It’s clear that the views of the European leagues, along with the numerous other competitions globally that will be negatively affected, have not been given serious consideration throughout this process.” He added that the move to winter “disproportionately impacts the sporting integrity of our competitions.”

But arguments about the integrity of the game are a distraction. (The U.K.’s Daily Mail wrote hyperbolically that it will “ruin a great English football tradition.” Other European publications yesterday ran photos of FIFA president Sepp Blatter wearing a Santa hat.) The news that FIFA will not compensate clubs further, beyond the usual player insurance fund, is not surprising. FIFA’s Valcke pointed out that, after all, “there are seven years to reorganize.” In fact, moving the Cup to winter, as long as it has to be in Qatar, was the only logical move.

For once, FIFA may have done the right thing, in that specific regard. Rather, the better complaint and argument is the same as it’s been all along: that the World Cup should not have been in Qatar in the first place. As our sister publication Sports Illustrated reported in August, the city of Doha, in the areas where the stadiums are being built, is still “a patch of bare desert sand.” From 2012 to 2014, an independent study suggested, there were nearly 1,000 worker deaths in Qatar on World Cup construction sites. The city isn’t ready, critics say, to host the Cup. (A Toronto Star column declares, “everybody knew Qatar would be too hot, and too corrupt, and too ridiculous.”) To be fair, the same concerns existed around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and, in the end, albeit with some hiccups, it worked out.

But all things considered at the moment — from the working conditions in Qatar, to the rapid infrastructure progress it has to make in a short time, to the displaced schedules resulting from the move to the winter months — FIFA has handed, this week, additional fuel to the fire of criticism around its 2022 World Cup plans.

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