Decision to change date of Qatari World Cup risks political, legal rows
JAMES M. DORSEY
Frank Lowy, head of the Australian Football Federation, one of bidders defeated by Qatar, warned that a shift from summer to winter would be ‘tantamount to changing the rules after the contest is over.’ AP PhotoA pending decision in early October by world soccer body FIFA on whether to move the Qatar 2022 World Cup from summer to winter is threatening to open a debate on whether to deprive the Gulf state of its right to host one of the world’s two largest sporting events, and could spark allegations of an anti-Arabism.
The debate about the Qatari World Cup also focuses the spotlight on the incestuous relationship between politics and sports, a relationship that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in a rare acknowledgement, confirmed when he charged that politics had prompted the eight European members of his 24-member executive committee to deliver eight of the 14 votes cast in favor of Qatar.
This acknowledgement highlights the need to end the denial of a fact of life, and move to some form of governance of the relationship between sports and politics.
The debates have intensified as the FIFA executive committee prepares to discuss on Oct. 3 and 4 shifting the Qatari World Cup to winter because of searing summer temperatures in the Gulf state, which exceed 40 degrees Celsius and could affect the health and performance of players. Arsene Wenger, the storied manager of British Premier League club Arsenal, in a reflection of opposition by European clubs to a change of date, urged FIFA to stand by its original decision, expressing concern about the impact of extreme heat on fans rather than players.
The debate about the timing of the tournament preempts a litmus test of the cooling technology that Qatar, the first Middle Eastern and Muslim state to be awarded the World Cup hosting rights, says would make holding the tournament in summer feasible, despite the heat. The technology, which has been applied in small spaces, is expected to be tested when Qatar completes the first of up to nine stadia in 2015/6.
Potential legal challenges to any change of debate, as well as a row between Blatter and the head of European soccer body UEFA, Michel Platini - a potential challenger to Blatter’s presidency in FIFA’s next presidential election scheduled for 2015 - risk strengthening calls for a change of venue. Platini has backed calls for a shift from summer to winter.
Frank Lowy, head of the Australian Football Federation, one of several bidders defeated by Qatar, warned that a shift from summer to winter would be “tantamount to changing the rules after the contest is over.” Mr. Lowy vowed to take legal action to reclaim taxpayers’ money spent on the failed Australian bid, saying this money would have been wasted if the federation had been campaigning under false pretenses.
FIFA’s corporate sponsors, as well as broadcasters who bought rights for billions of dollars, could potentially also seek legal redress. Fox TV, together with Spanish language broadcaster Telemundo, paid $1 billion for U.S. television rights, a sum far higher than what they would have paid the United States’ National Football League. The two tournaments could overlap if the timing of the World Cup is changed.
Votes in favor of Qatar
Complicating the controversy over Qatar’s is Blatter’s assertion that European members of the FIFA executive committee voted in favor of Qatar as a result of political pressure. In response, Platini, whose son is legal counsel for state-owned Qatar Sports Investments, became the first member to disclose that he had voted in favor of the Gulf state. Platini denied that his decision had been politically motivated.
Platini’s denial rang hollow given that his vote is widely believed to have been part of a three-way deal with Nicolas Sarkozy when he was president of France and former Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
As part of the deal QSI acquired Paris St. Germain (PSG), Sarkozy’s favorite team, and pledged to step up already substantial investments in France. Qatar’s state-owned al-Jazeera television network would gain rights to France’s Ligue 1, in another element of the deal that was forged over lunch at the Elysée Palace.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Qatar’s ambassador to France, Mohamed al-Kuwari, explained at the time Qatar’s interest in France by saying, “you invest in France, you build partnerships and you go elsewhere, to Africa, to Asia. We are looking for strong partners like Total, Vinci, Veolia.” Moreover, he said, France, like Qatar charts its own course internationally. It “has an independent policy, plays an important role in the world, diplomatically and politically,” he said.
The World Cup has so far failed to pay Qatar the reputational dividend it had expected. Legal challenges and calls for depriving it of its hosting right could cause it further damage, at a time when international trade unions and human rights groups are exploiting the tournament to pressure the Gulf state to substantially alter a migrant labor system they denounce as “modern slavery.” Foreign labor constitutes 94 percent of the Qatari labor force and a majority of the population.
The risk of reputational damage and a rift over perceived anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias is magnified in Qatar’s case by the fact that its sports investment strategy is key to its defense and security policy.
Qatar, no matter how many sophisticated weapons it purchases, will never be able to defend itself. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait taught it lessons. For one, big brother Saudi Arabia, unable to ensure its own defense, was an unreliable guarantor that depends on a U.S. defense umbrella.