The 2010 World Cup was an anti-climactic and a worrying spectacle. Reactionary tactics reigned, too many poor teams played too many poor matches, while many supposedly good teams (Italy, France and Cameroon come to mind) were dreadful, a rogue team reached the final and, in terms of the performances, you would not have recognised many of the top players on the pitches in South-Africa unless their faces hadn’t been plastered on building walls, magazine covers, soda cans, the sides of buses etc. the world over. Something clearly needs to be done to revitalize the greatest show on earth before it becomes a footnote in a footballing reality dominated by club football. This may have been in the minds of many who voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup since the resolution will not only take the tournament to a new geographic zone but also, knowing the bottomless pockets of Qatar, provide a chance for the tournament, on the surface at least, to look like a billion dollars. However, instead of reinventing the World Cup anew, the decision might prove out to be a nightmare in many ways.
After the historical decision, there has been heated discussion on a variety of subjects of which perhaps the most controversial is whether the tournament should be played in the winter for the first time in World Cup history. After giving the green light, now it seems Fifa will not go forward with the plan to move the schedule to January, but given the indecisiveness of the world footballing governing body in general and its president Sepp Blatter in particular, who knows what the final ruling will be. Should the plan go ahead, there would probably be some pretty big consequences, for good or for worse, regarding the prestige of the World Cup and the quality of football on show.
First, let’s look at the tactical implications a winter World Cup might have. In his article in the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson analyses the reactive football widely on show last summer that has come to dominate the World Cup during the last two tournaments. There are of course numerous reasons for this negative development but one of the most important, Wilson points out, is simply that teams have so little time to prepare for the tournament and because of this coaches easily resort to negatively defensive (i.e. reactive) tactics in order to instil defensive cohesion, not proactivity, as the basis of their tactical plan. Of course, even if teams had more time to prepare, they still might concentrate more on stifling the opposition’s game rather than making their own flourish. Nevertheless, Wilson’s argument goes a long way not only explaining why so many teams dragged as many players behind the ball as possible (even when they themselves had the ball) but also why so many top players flopped last summer (Wayne Rooney (who could have been tripping on his shoelaces for ninety minutes each match and still ending up looking no less of a player), Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Kaka…the list goes on).
So how is this tactical negativity relevant to the subject of a possible winter World Cup? The Helsingin Sanomat football reporter Tommi Hannula (HS January 6 2011) argues that a winter World Cup might be the solution to this problem. He points out that because the best players would be in top condition in mid-season, a winter tournament would actually improve the standard of the football played. Hannula has a point with regards to the individual players but this is to put the individual before the team. To take Wilson’s argument about reactionary tactics into account, in order to get the best out of top individuals, one needs to create a strategy that maximises the potential of each player in a way that the whole become more than the sum of the parts (like Spain, Germany and Uruguay did in 2010). So it is always the team that provides good football, the individual might only offer unforgettable moments. It is debatable whether in the pressure of the domestic leagues and the Champions League teams would have more time to prepare before a winter World Cup. They might even have less time since the leagues and European cup tournaments most likely will not want to have a two month break in the middle of the season (which would basically mean that instead of a one whole season there would be two) and stretch their fixture schedule to July. And since preparation time is a key issue in how teams set to play, a winter tournament might only result in increasingly reactionary tactics and, therefore, even more cautious and defensive football. Furthermore, if the World Cup would be played in the winter this might lead to a situation where the tournament would lose its prestige and become a distraction from club football for clubs, players and fans.
But the fact remains that the 2022 tournament will be played in Qatar. In their campaign Qatar promised air-conditioned, eco-friendly stadiums, which is all very well, but if it is 50 degrees Celsius outside in the summer there, the whole country should be air-conditioned to keep conditions bearable for the players, tournament staff and fans alike. Therefore, looking at it from the perspective of meteorology alone, a winter tournament seems like the only smart solution. However, all this begs the question why was the tournament given to Qatar in the first place? The World Cup should be handed out, not to the highest bidder, but equally (as long as it is economically and socially viable and sustainable) among continents/geographical zones, but the fact that the World Cup is going to be played in a tiny desert nation the size of a medium-sized European city makes the resolution smack of another bad decision made by Fifa.
The resolution is a big victory for Qatar but most likely a defeat to football. For the average spectator, it is always the actual game that comes first when decisions of host nations are made (i.e. which would be the best place to play the tournament and so on and so forth). But in the risk of sounding too naive, I’m well aware of the fact that in the greater scheme of things the World Cup is as much (if not more) about politics, money, diplomacy and (hopefully) solidarity as it is about football.
The Middle East should get a World Cup tournament at some point, no doubt about that, but the selection of Qatar to host the 2022 tournament might not turn out to be a blessing but a severe blow to the World Cup institution.