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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Controversy about Qatar World Cup fuels calls for European summer soccer


Qatar's stadium cooling technology is as yet unproven

By James M. Dorsey

Controversy about the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is fuelling suggestions to radically alter the calendar of European soccer to make it a summer instead of a winter game.

The debate threatens to open another rift in already scandal ridden world soccer body FIFA with the German football association calling for an investigation into the awarding, major European clubs mulling the possibility of establishing a breakaway league and the head of the European Club Association (ECA) as well as of Bayern Muenchen, Karl Heinze Rummenigge, publicly questioning whether FIFA president Sepp Blatter is fit for his job.

Adding fuel to the fire, disgraced Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, is questioning FIFA’s integrity on the basis that it has yet to provide him with the justification for its decision to ban him for life from the sport on charges of bribery two weeks after the organization’s ethics committee pronounced him guilty.

At the core of the debate over changing the calendar of European soccer is the fallout that a decision to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter because of Qatar’s scorching heat. Qatar’s promise to reduce temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius to 27 degrees in the stadiums with an innovative cooling technology will only be proven feasible in 2015 when the energy-rich Gulf state delivers its first of nine new arenas.

Mr. Blatter earlier this week re-opened the discussion about moving the 2022 tournament to the winter months when temperatures in Qatar drop to the 20 degree Celsius range by saying the decision was up to the Gulf state.

Moving the tournament to the winter would force European soccer leagues to change their schedules starting three years in advance of the World Cup.

The proposals to make soccer a European summer game would mean that European seasons would run from February to November.

The proposals under discussions within FIFA are increasing friction with European soccer with the continent’s top leagues, including those of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, opposed to the idea. A summer schedule would have less impact on leagues in Russia and Scandinavia where soccer is already played in the summer. The revised scheduled would involve reserving November and December for international qualifiers and tournaments and January as a global month of rest.

Michel Platini, the president of European soccer body UEFA, is believed to favour changing his continent’s schedule. Mr. Platini is widely tipped as Mr. Blatter’s successor when the FIFA president steps down in 2015.

“Playing football through the summer makes a lot of sense. It is an idea that has to be sensibly discussed, with all parties in the game. Of course, we are aware of the opposition and that is something we cannot ignore. But the idea is something that must be taken seriously and it is not something that can be dismissed out of hand,” Britain’s The Daily Mirror quoted an anonymous source close to Mr. Blatter as saying.

The newspaper quoted an English Premier League source as rejecting the proposal out of hand. “If that ever actually came on the table, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge would burst a blood vessel - and he would not be the only one. It is a completely ridiculous idea. Why would you want to trample on our traditions and history, as well as all the other sports that already play in the summer? We are not going to let the tail wag the dog. No way,” the source said.

In an interview with Sky Sports News, Mr. Rummenigge suggested that Mr. Blatter was no longer fit to run FIFA. Mr. Rummenigge’s remarks were the latest burst in a war of words with Mr. Blatter over the FIFA president’s failure to give clubs a greater say in deciding their players' participation in international fixtures.

"The President of FIFA has to be a fair, a serious and a very democratic gentleman. Mr Blatter is now re-elected for the next four years and I'm very curious: is he fit for all these requests? I am not convinced that is true. There is no sign. He has been running in this position since 1998 - so 13 years in a row - and I would say it's normal that you're not convinced by his last period as president, that he is fit for all these requests” Mr. Rummenigge said.

Mr. Blatter was re-elected unchallenged for a fourth term as FIFA president in early June after Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy because of the bribery charges. FIFA’s ethics committee banned Mr. Bin Hammam on July 23, saying its investigation had produced sufficient evidence that the AFC president had bribed members of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to secure their support for his FIFA presidential campaign.

Mr. Bin Hammam has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to appeal the ban. To do so, FIFA has to provide him with the justification of its decision, but has so far failed to do so.

"This delay is suspicious in that it gives FIFA the time to devise a justification for a decision that it was always going to make anyway. This is also outrageous as FIFA has been quick to publicise my guilt while holding up my opportunity to appeal. FIFA is therefore violating its own rules by seeking to enforce an order before issuing a decision explaining its grounds. I therefore call on FIFA to produce its reasoned decision and I also renew the request that was made on 23 July to release a full transcript of the hearing to the media,” Mr. Bin Hammam said in a statement on his website.

Mr. Rummenigge charged that Mr. Blatter had been re-elected with the support of Europe’s national football federations because the FIFA president had ensured that they had "everything done in their favour." He demanded that the  ECA and its members be granted a greater say in governing the game.

"First of all my request is not just focussed alone on clubs and it is not just to get more power. My request is not getting more power, it's about having more democracy and more governance and I believe it's a quite normal request. I would like to request that not just clubs, but leagues, referees and women players have to be included in the decision-making. If Mr Blatter and his colleagues are ready to do that, then fine. If not, we will have to see what we can do to convince him,” Mr Rumenigge said.

He downplayed reports that Europe’s top clubs may join to create a breakaway league because that would likely lead to their being banned by FIFA and UEFA.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rummenige’s position was echoed last week by AC Milan Organizing Director and ECA Board member Uberto Gandini who was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that players may have to choose between club and country. "We are the ones who invest the money, we are the ones who develop the players, we are the ones who give the players a reason to play. Without the clubs, what do you think they are going to do?” Mr. Gandini said.

UEFA’s Mr. Platini dismissed the talk of a breakaway league as a ploy to pressure the soccer governing bodies. "Why are the clubs always blaming national teams? What have Bayern Munich and some of the others been doing recently? Going on pre-season tours to earn money. They can't have it both ways," insideworldfootball.com quoted Mr. Platini as saying.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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