As events go, committee meetings usually engender the same level of excitement as that felt by Willy Wonka on hearing his dentist appointment has been brought forward.
“A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour,” was the assessment of American writer Elbert Hubbard. And if the judgement of Mr Hubbard is to be valued nearly one hundred years after his unfortunate death at the hands of a German U-Boat then it’s probably fair to assume such a gathering of bureaucrats won’t make for a great spectator occasion either.
However, even if you’re a sport hack more used to the drama-drenched fare of World Cup football, the deliberations of soccer’s biggest suits at the 28th executive committee (ExCo) on Thursday and Friday just might be different.
That’s because agenda point 25.2 will see a discussion on the future of the controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar, an important bone of contention for a number of reasons:
1) FIFA’s credibility is on the line …
Ok, so maybe it’s a little like closing the gate after the horse has bolted on this one, but as the governing body for the planet’s most popular game, a sport that has a unique ability to enthral, unite and inspire people around the globe, is it too much to ask that those in power govern its future responsibly? FIFA’s recent effort to end racism in the game was admirable and in stark contrast to the farcical situation of recent years in which FIFA ExCo member Mohamed bin Hammam was banned for life, while fellow executives Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii were fined and suspended, on the grounds of corruption and bribery. Their involvement in the voting systems that delivered Sepp Blatter’s fourth presidency and Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup stained the results in many people’s eyes. The decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar - a desert nation whose July temperatures often reach 50 degress Celsius (122 degress Fahrenheit) and a location that even the chairman of FIFA’s medical committee (another one!) Michel D’Hooghe advised might not be the most hospitable climate for thousands of football fans to mill around in – has prompted a barrage of criticism. Much of that criticism has come from Europe, unhappy over the gathering momentum to stage the 2022 World Cup in the Qatar winter rather the summer. It is now FIFA’s task to show leadership and find a solution that will placate the dissenters. If discussions in Switzerland lead to the 2022 World Cup being moved elsewhere - given the billions of dollars (the New York Times valued the Qatar bid at $50bn) that has been spent on the bid process, where does that leave FIFA’s already shaky credibility?
2) Sepp Blatter’s legacy …
The curious shelving of the agenda point to limit the length and age limit of a FIFA president from May’s Exco could suggest Sepp Blatter feels he has much work left to do as head of the global game. The multilingual 77-year-old has his critics, not least for his questionable off-the-cuff comments. His previous suggestion that women players could wear ‘tighter shorts’ to enhance the appeal of their game, that homosexuals should ‘refrain from sexual activities’ if travelling to Qatar for the World Cup and that the adultery of former England captain John Terry would be ‘applauded’ in Latin countries, have done nothing to enhance his reputation. The fining and suspension or banning of corrupt FIFA officials - many of whom worked closely with Blatter - and his loose tongue arguably have come to define the Swiss administrator over what he would see as his major achievements. “The public perception of FIFA and FIFA’s view of itself don’t seem to connect in any way,” Alexandra Wrage, who resigned from FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee this year, recently told the New York Times. “The disconnect is pretty alarming.” Despite the disconnect, it was through Blatter’s drive that FIFA became one of the only major international organisations to recognize Palestine as nation and as his recent work to ease travel restrictions through Israel of Palestinian players shows, his commitment to this sensitive cause remains. It is also under his tenure that Asia and Africa hosted the World Cup for the first time and with Russia staging the 2018 tournament he has also delivered its debut in the former Communist bloc. Blatter feels that a World Cup in the Middle East would be his crowning glory, despite voting for the U.S. to host in 2022, and consequently it would be a big personal defeat if this opportunity slipped from his grasp.
3) Money matters …
The plan that many feel is the best way forward would be to reschedule the Qatar World Cup to a more hospitable time of year, around the month of November or January for example when temperatures average around 20C. This is a challenging idea to deliver because it would mean disrupting the league schedules and 100-year traditions of some of the world’s most lucrative sport franchises - including the European Champions League, the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A - for upto six weeks. Moving matches means shifting many of the events that broadcasters have paid multi-millions for and, importantly, would be wanting to tie up in contracts for the future. European football administrators have recently warmed to the idea of a winter move in principle but this could merely be their starting position for complex negotiations that may ultimately require compensation payments. On top of this, Fox Sports and Telemundo paid $1 billion for the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in America on the basis the event would take place in June. The legal intricacies of any switch could be complex and time-consuming which plays into the theory that at most the ExCo this week will announce a task force to investigate potential solutions rather than rush the decision.
4) Cutural catalyst for Qatar ...
If FIFA were to take the nuclear option of moving the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar altogether, what impact does that have on the Gulf state? The accusations that Qatar supports a form of slavery for foreign workers and has ‘questionable’ prohibitive laws banning homosexual activity are just two areas that have come under scrutiny by primarily Western-based media recently. Whether the hosting of international sporting events really do act as a catalyst for the improvement of human rights is questionable but undoubtedly the exposure of the Qatari culture to the world, and vice versa, is an unavoidable result of staging one of the most televised events in human history. Advocates like Blatter would argue the potential for a greater understanding between differing cultures would be lost.
To add to the intrigue of the build up, former New York attorney Michael Garcia - head of the investigative arm of FIFA's ethics committee (that's three and counting) - announced earlier this week that he would be visiting all nations who bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to assess their bidding process.
A sign of concern that Mark Pieth, chairman of the Independent Governance Committee (four!), added to when he told CNN he had "very serious doubts" over the procedure that delivered the awarding of the tournament to Qatar.
The pressure is mounting for FIFA to act and to show that committees, despite their poor reputation, can deliver.