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FIFA weak-kneed in the presense of money and power

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FIFA’s damaging affair with Qatar strips bare the organisation’s fixation with petro-dollars and broadcast dollars: show me the money. It reveals FIFA’s self-image as a mighty sovereign nation, with Sepp Blatter a self-appointed global statesman sharing ideas and canapes with presidents, chancellors and prime ministers: show me the power.

That is what this Qatar controversy is all about: money and power. The sadness is that FIFA could be a force for good, spreading hope from Zurich. At the very least, the power brokers of the world’s most popular sport could have called the Qataris to proper account over labour conditions on their 2022 construction sites.

Blatter now conducts what he calls a “courtesy visit” to Qatar. Those with long familiarity of such FIFA missions will brace themselves wearily for the prospect of a photo opportunity involving a half-built ground and a hard-hatted Blatter smiling for the cameras and patting some exhausted Nepali bricklayer on his sweat-soaked head.

FIFA is involved in significant community projects at grass-roots level across the globe but it becomes all weak-kneed in the presence of real money and power. Blatter and his Zurich star chamber of executive committee members could have taken a strong stance, ordering a revote on 2022, saying they were not happy with a bidding process so discredited that even the president himself has now tasked future votes to the whole FIFA congress.

A revote on 2022 is the only honest, credible response to events staining the World Cup. It will not happen, of course, as Blatter blithely confirmed with his pronouncement on Friday that “the FIFA World Cup 2022 will be played in Qatar” and attendant flourish of “voila”. Money and power rule.

Qatar strenuously denies any wrongdoing in the bidding process but the departure of almost half the exco cadre who voted for 2022 (and Russia 2018), signalled concerns within FIFA amid external pressure. Even Blatter noted a “change of nine” from the original 22. Only one of them reportedly asked about the summer heat, the most obvious flaw in Qatar’s campaign.

The English Football Association’s then exco member, Geoff Thompson, an honourable man privately disgusted by some of the antics within FIFA, still failed to confront properly the perpetrators around the table. The FA has long been aware of the avaricious tendencies of certain individuals within FIFA. It is worth briefly rewinding to 5.15pm, March 17, 2000, when an outraged FA turned down an international fixer’s offer to guarantee one of the FIFA votes for the English 2006 bid in return for a substantial sweetener.

“England’s bid is a clean bid and will continue to be,” the then chief executive, Adam Crozier, told the caller. “In no circumstances would we ever contemplate a deal involving irregular payments.”

The indecent proposal was duly reported to FIFA. Nothing was done. What that call to the FA highlighted was the reality that the bidding process in 2000 and 2010 often contained all the morals of a mugging. Even accepting Qatar’s claim that no short cuts were taken in persuading exco members, the whole process lost authenticity with the planned switch from summer to winter. You cannot change parameters after the vote; you must have a revote.

In Zurich, Blatter seemed almost more preoccupied with the exco’s new female representatives, even making an archaic comment about their “sunshine” qualities that would have made Benny Hill blush. One minute Blatter was back in the 1970s, the next he travelled forward to the 2020s. FIFA’s president attempted to wriggle out of the 2022 timing problem by stating “there was not a binding text that binds us to June and July”, merely an expectation. Yet none of the bids indicated that. Qatar gushed about its air-conditioned arenas. As FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke remarked in 2010, the “invitation to tender was to play this World Cup in June and countries replied on this basis”. Voila.

Other associations might have bid if there was an understanding from FIFA that a winter tournament might be permissible. Qatar would also have lost any credibility if people knew the disruption for the domestic seasons. The vote was a sham on many levels.

Australia had the most genuine claim for 2022, talking of the boost it would give the A-League, the quality of stadiums and climate, even if “soccer” resides down the media pecking order. This off-season, two friendlies confirmed the potential pull of “soccer”. A crowd of 95,000 crammed into the MCG to watch Liverpool beat Melbourne Victory and sing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Manchester United attracted 83,000 to see them beat the A-League All-Stars at ANZ Stadium in Sydney. But, hey, “voila”, FIFA is not for turning. The possibility of a wonderful, historic, game-changing World Cup party in Australia was rejected by FIFA on grounds of power and money. Kick-off times might have been an issue for broadcasters, but Sydney and Perth are not too dissimilar time-wise to Seoul and Tokyo, popular hosts in 2002.

So the world is stuck with Qatar. There are never minor ripples emanating from FIFA decisions, only frothing waves. The fallout will be long and damaging. Blatter announced that the consultation into when – not where – the event will be held is being led by Valcke – and this is the funny part – with “slight supervision” from Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, a neighbour of Qatar. Blatter’s aside makes Valcke appear like a schoolboy needing extra tuition when he is actually one of the more credible characters within FIFA.

Similarly in danger of emasculation is Michael Garcia, the respected former US attorney looking into 2018 and 2022. His tour of the nine bidding nations has effectively been scuppered by Blatter’s “voila” verdict. Garcia has not even begun attempting to round up any suspects before they have all been cleared. And here come other waves, rolling across football’s foreshore, changing the landscape. By organising a long-running side-show with this consultation process, Blatter creates a distraction to the main show in Brazil next year. And, good luck, organisers of the January 2023 Africa Cup of Nations; do not get too settled.

And, watch out, officials of the February 2023 Winter Olympics; fight your corner, make sure the World Cup is in November and December. And heaven knows what will happen with the Confederations Cup scheduled for Qatar in June 2021.

A winter World Cup most troubles the European leagues and the Champions League. Tentative work on a possible 2022-23 calendar sees the Premier League season ending in May 2022 as usual, with an earlier restart. Players would then report to their national teams in early November for a possible November 18 start in Qatar. Even at the Premier League’s current rate of recruiting foreign talent, not all will be involved in the December 18 final, meaning that clubs can prepare for a Christmas Eve resumption, playing on until the middle of June. Potential positives do present themselves.

The FA should exploit this fluidity in the calendar to push for a permanent winter break. The timing would not be in December, though, but pausing the Premier League between the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup. This would afford a welcome showcase for the Football League and give a breather to the players (with clubs forbidden to play lucrative overseas friendlies).

There has also been much debate about how qualifiers for Euro 2024 would be accommodated; the sooner all qualifiers and friendlies are played in two annual three-week blocks the better. Some good could come out of Qatar 2022, but not much.

Show me the shame.

© 2013 The Telegraph | This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 6 October 2013.

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