FIFA's winter World Cup U-turn shames us all
Sepp Blatter and his FIFA cronies once titillated with their cartoonish displays of grotesque wealth and power. They were a guilty pleasure, a bit like watching Scarface. We pictured them with a funny accent, talking about how first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the World Cup moved to November.
They were doddery old fools, celluloid villains to boo and hiss. Their dastardly schemes were so despicable, so maniacally deranged that they had to fall. Even the biggest Bond loonies were taken out in the end. Operation Qatar 2022 had to fail. The scheme was too reprehensible to succeed. Covert operations were no longer even possible in the social media age. Everyone is an investigative reporter now. Anyone with an Instagram account can play Jimmy Olsen.
The breathtakingly arrogant Qatari campaign had to fall, not because of some nonsense about established powers not being happy to see the World Cup go to a Middle Eastern football backwater, but because it was just wrong.
During the original bidding process, FIFA’s technical teams visited the bidding countries and concluded that Qatar’s summer heat and lack of infrastructure crossed too many boxes. They were ignored. When the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, FIFA insisted the tournament would be played in the summer. They lied.
When allegations of corruption surfaced, they fudged. When internal investigators made further damning claims, they were suppressed or sanitized. They cherry-picked their facts and scribbled black lines through the rest. It is often said that you can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts. FIFA can. FIFA does whatever it likes. FIFA rides roughshod over all opposition not because money talks. That’s far too facile an analysis. Money silences. Money doesn’t need to buy support, only acquiescence. Those with vested interests are not required to endorse Qatar 2022, but hold their tongues.
A fortnight ago, FIFA’s reliable fixer Jérôme Valcke, very much Luca Brasi to Blatter’s Vito Corleone, quietly acquired the right signatures to ensure that Fox and Telemundo were handed the US broadcasting rights to the 2026 World Cup without a tender. This was FIFA at its Machiavellian best (or worst, depending on your point of view when it comes to corporate monsters holding their paws across the mouths of green-eyed conspirators to stop them from screaming).
Of all the dissenting voices regarding a winter World Cup in 2022, Fox threatened to shout loudest. Having bought the English-language broadcast rights for the next two World Cups for $425 million, Fox didn’t fancy the prospect of trying to recoup its investment in the Qatar tournament during a packed December schedule. Even the World Cup doesn’t compete with the beers and burgers of domestic sports over Christmas.
So they got the rights for a 2026 tournament without a tender. FIFA made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nothing was going to stop FIFA’s Qatari coup d’état. The groundwork was laid long before the first shovel went into the desert sand. A winter World Cup was openly discussed by Valcke and Blatter in 2013, if not before privately.
And nothing stopped them. Nothing. That’s the extraordinary part. Social media proved powerless. Newspaper exposes on the death toll of foreign workers and accusations of slavery were speeding tickets, minor diversions as the gravy train thundered on.
Suddenly, FIFA’s bloated body of money-crazed capitalists ceased to be cartoonish villains. They became genuinely repugnant. They didn’t care. They just didn’t care. Using wads of petrodollars, they battered the human rights activists and bleeding hearts into submission. Morality belonged in fairy tales. The World Cup was all about the money.
When they announced this week that Qatar 2022 was likely to finish a couple of days before Christmas, FIFA had actually won. This wasn’t a cartoon. There was no Scooby Doo, no meddling kids to save the day. The bad guys had gotten away with it.
And then there was anger. Never mind the fact that the Qatar Government admitted that almost 1,000 foreign migrants died in 2012 and 2013, the World Cup was potentially messing with the biggest cash cow of them all. The Premier League was being compromised.
FIFA had broken every other promise since Blatter opened that envelope and shouted “Qatar” with all the sincerity of Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris in his Y-fronts. But the thought of our beloved Boxing Day fixtures being sacrificed was a broken promise too far.
What does that say about us? FIFA is conforming to type. The winter World Cup U-turn is only the latest distasteful attempt to piece back together a discredited tournament. There will be other farcical about-turns and autocratic decisions taken to preserve what’s left of FIFA’s dying reputation; or, more specifically, to hang on to the moneybag.
Only now we’re fuming. Now we’re seething. Everyone from Singapore to Sydney may miss the festive fix of EPL. Singaporeans can expect to see their cable TV subscriptions double at least from November 2022 to essentially pay for two competitions. Oh, the horror.
Perhaps FIFA anticipated this backlash all along. Blatter’s boys had survived the human rights violations, the deaths of migrant workers, the bribery claims, the censored internal investigation and the startling allegations that Qatari cash is being wired to Isis. But take away the EPL Christmas crackers and they’ll be hell to pay.
So FIFA left that revelation until the very end, when it was too late to turn the ship around, too late to miss the iceberg. We’re all on a collision course with Qatar now because none of us bailed or boycotted. We must all go down with the ship.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. He has also penned recent bestseller Marina Bay Sins. You can find his website right here.