Fresh off a summer of protests about Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter is now facing even bigger problems about a tournament still two-and-a-half tournament cycles away. Blatter would have been a fool, perhaps, to think awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, as his organization did a year ago, was going to go off without a hitch, but those hitches have come more quickly and powerfully than he could have anticipated: first allegations of corruption and vote-buying that sparked an ongoing FIFA investigation, then questions about whether playing the World Cup in its traditional summer months was even possible, given Qatar’s scorching summer temperatures, and now a groundbreaking investigation from The Guardian into the slave-like working conditions more than a million migrant workers, the people who will built Blatter’s World Cup stadiums, face each day in Qatar, where more than 4,000 of those workers will die on the job before the tournament even begins, according to one estimate.
One British member of Parliament, doubting FIFA’s commitment to forcing Qatar to host the World Cup when it said it would or to helping fix the country’s human rights abuses, thinks Qatar should lose its World Cup amid all these problems. And if it doesn’t, conservative MP Damian Collins wrote in the Huffington Post, England’s Football Association and other powerful soccer federations “should be prepared to boycott” the 2022 World Cup.
“Well, if we are not happy with the way the questions of human rights are being dealt with, nor the consequences of playing the World Cup in the winter, the FA should consider boycotting the tournament,” Collins wrote. “If the major footballing nations took a similar stand, Fifa would back down. I believe there should now be a serious, open debate about such a move.”
Could Qatar lose its World Cup? It’s happened once before, when Colombia surrendered its rights to host the 1986 tournament because of financial troubles, but it’s never happened involuntarily. FIFA isn’t likely to entertain the idea this time either, at least not at this early a juncture. Expanding the reach of soccer to new countries is important to FIFA for reasons both selfish and altruistic, and it will do its best to see those through as the deliberations over moving it to winter prove. Sepp Blatter might bend, but he isn’t going to break until he has to.
Who can make Blatter break? The easiest answer is Fox, the television station that spent $465 million to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups on American television. Fox has already announced its opposition to a winter World Cup, given its NFL and college football schedules, and in recent meetings with FIFA, Fox apparently reiterated that it bid on a summer World Cup. Moving the event to winter could cost FIFA tens of millions in broadcast fees from Fox and other media partners, and that doesn’t even take into account the protests they may receive from networks if top European leagues refuse to cooperate and don’t release their best players. That again seems like a distant possibility at least right now, though leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga, the top two in Europe, have threatened potential legal action of their own if the World Cup moves to winter.
It wouldn’t be hard to move this World Cup, not with countries who don’t need eight years of advance construction time to hold the World Cup abound. The United States finished second to Qatar in 2022 bidding, while England lost out on the 2018 World Cup at the same time. Neither country needs to build stadiums or infrastructure to host the tournament, and South Korea and Japan, which co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, submitted separate bids for the 2022 World Cup as well. That gives FIFA another potential outlet.
Still, it’s going to take a concerted effort to force FIFA’s hand. The organization will meet this week for a two-day debate about how to proceed on Qatar, and for now, Blatter and FIFA seem committed to making the 2022 World Cup work in Qatar somehow, even if Blatter has admitted that awarding it in the first place was a mistake. Whether it ultimately works out will likely depend on what FIFA decides at that meeting, where it is likely to approve a move to winter, and how TV networks like Fox and the major European leagues elect to proceed thereafter. FIFA isn’t going to make the decision to leave Qatar on its own, but every day that passes without action will only make the voices against the country’s World Cup louder, and if TV networks, leagues, fans, and political leaders come together as Collins wants them to, there could eventually be enough financial pressure to give FIFA no choice. Whatever happens, it’s clearer every day that Blatter’s Qatari problems have only just begun.