FIFA agrees to change World Cup start date

In a flashy ceremony on November 21 last year, some of Qatar’s top officials, including the prime minister of the Gulf state, joined FIFA president Gianni Infantino, top football executives and invited guests for a celebration. They gathered on Doha’s corniche, the sprawling promenade along the city’s glittering waterfront, to unveil an ornate countdown clock and mark a milestone: the day they celebrated was exactly one year before the opening of the 2022 World Cup. .

Infantino, who now lives in Qatar, praised his hosts effusively. He said their preparations for the event – about $200 billion in investment since Qatar got the tournament in 2010 – were incomparable: so good, in fact, that Infantino, a veteran football manager, stated he had “never seen anything like what happens here. ”

Infantino’s optimistic language could now better describe something few in football have seen before: the state of uncertainty and growing concern around various elements of the tournament that affect fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Not the least of them? That the organizers have agreed this week to change the day on which the World Cup actually starts.

The World Cup organizers made the unprecedented and astonishing request to move the start of the tournament to November 20, from the long-scheduled date of November 21, in order to give Qatar, as host, a place of honor in the opening match. The request was unanimously approved by top FIFA officials on Thursday, just months before the tournament kicks off and just hours before a series of events marking 100 days before kick-off was set to begin.

Moving the opening game date and shifting the kick-off time of another game the next day will disrupt the plans of teams, fans, sponsors and broadcasters, and even the tournament’s marketing staff, who have spent millions of dollars buying from advertising space around the world to mark the 100-day countdown to the World Cup – a milestone now shifted to Friday – in signage on buses and taxis in major capital cities around the world. All those campaigns suddenly announced the wrong date for the opening game from Thursday.

“The change ensures the continuity of a long tradition of marking the start of the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony to mark the first game with either the hosts or the defending champions,” FIFA said in a statement explaining the change to the schedule was announced. It didn’t elaborate on why it hadn’t planned for the opportunity during any of the 12 years since Qatar first got hosting rights in a controversial vote in 2010.

However, the last-minute schedule change is just the latest high-profile question adding to a growing atmosphere of uncertainty, inside and outside the Qatar World Cup organization, over the small golf nation’s ability – the smallest ever to organize the world Cup – to win a tournament.

For example, three months before the tournament, Qatar has not yet revealed any concrete plans about the kind of experience fans can expect during their visits, including what they need to get into the country; where they will stay when they arrive; how the police will deal with violations of Qatari laws on public conduct; and where and how fans can consume alcoholic beverages in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country where the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled and where its public consumption is almost non-existent.

It is also still unclear how the tournament – which is expected to attract more than a million visitors – will be secured. Qatar has signed police agreements with several countries, most notably Turkey, which in January said it would provide more than 3,000 security personnel, including riot police, for a tournament in which fans of the 32 competing countries – some of them bitter rivals – will rub shoulders for weeks. in an area smaller than the state of Connecticut.

Unofficially, Qatari officials have said the imported security officers will not have direct contact with fans. But so far – and unlike previous World Cups – there are few details on that matter, and on several others, that are publicly available.

There are also accommodations concerns, with delays in releasing rooms to the public and fans reporting a lack of availability on a portal reserved for cardholders, who are expected to be the only foreigners to visit Qatar during the month-long World Cup. .

Those who have managed to find accommodations, which can only be booked after fans pay for tickets, have complained about high prices, even in the rare instances where they have found availability.

Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization of fan groups, said the number of official fan groups traveling to Qatar to support European teams will likely be significantly lower than during the last World Cup, which was held in Russia. . The defending champion France, in one example, expects just 100 fans to attend as part of his official supporter group.

Other fan groups, Evain said, are considering flying in and out of Qatar for matches as they have concluded it would be cheaper and easier than staying in Qatar. The German fan club has already said it will commute to matches from Dubai. “I don’t think they realize how problematic their housing situation is,” Evain said. “The whole system of booking accommodation is so unclear that ticket holders are reluctant to book.”

Qatar officials acknowledged fan concerns about accommodation and would continue dialogue with supporter groups to resolve them.

At the same time, representatives of some participating teams are discovering that finding space for players to socialize outside of their hotels in such a small geographic area is a problem. “I don’t know if they will come out of the hotel, they will be surrounded by thousands of fans,” said Croatia’s team manager Iva Olivari.

“I can’t tell you exactly what we’re dealing with,” she added. “We’ll have to fix it when we get there.”

For FIFA partners, the ongoing uncertainty has been a relentless challenge. The latest change to the tournament’s start date is expected to wreak havoc on plans made months in advance by sponsors, according to Ricardo Fort, the former head of sports marketing at Coca-Cola.

“They invited and confirmed hospitality guests, booked flights and hotels, and contracted all the necessary logistics,” Fort wrote in a Twitter message. “Imagine changing everything!”

Officials on Qatar’s organizing committee have grown accustomed to such last-minute and sometimes inexplicable revisions to plans months in the making. In 2019, for example, employees who prepared a detailed marketing and communications plan to announce the opening of what would become the al-Wakrah stadium were stunned to discover – just minutes before the emir of the country arrived to identify the location. opening — that he had taken to social media to say it would be called the al-Janoub stadium instead.

At other times, Qatar and its ambassadors were their own worst enemies. Asked during a conversation with reporters last year about how many migrant workers have died on construction projects, a question organizers have been facing since work began on World Cup projects nearly a decade ago, said Nasser al-Khater, the organizing committee director. seemed to guess the number before it was corrected by a staff member. In April, World Cup officials were ordered to clarify after a senior security official told a reporter that rainbow flags, a symbol of gay rights, could be confiscated for their own protection from fans.

To help tell its story, Qatar also enlisted – at great expense – a group of former footballers, including the most prominent David Beckham, the former England captain. But despite receiving millions of dollars to bless Qatar’s World Cup project with his fame, Beckham has proven to be an unwilling advocate, preferring to attend events only when the news media is not present. Beckham has never said publicly why he signed up to support the tournament, and his spokeswoman has not responded to a request for comment.

This week brought another crisis over the tournament start date. FIFA’s secretary general said in a letter to top football leaders to persuade them to agree to the date change that FIFA had assessed the commercial and legal ramifications of moving Qatar’s opening game against Ecuador one day and ” determined that any risk is adequately offset by the value and benefits of the proposal.”

However, some fans will be disappointed. In addition to shifting Qatar’s match, FIFA also moved the time of a match between the Netherlands and Senegal for the original opening day, November 21, to an evening kick-off from the original afternoon start.

Martín Bauzá, a New Yorker, said he will no longer be able to use the tickets he bought for the Netherlands match, as he also has tickets for the United States-Wales match which starts an hour after the game. And he probably won’t be the only one grumbling.

“I can imagine it would be a bit of a headache for broadcasters,” said Graham Fry, president of IMG’s production unit, a veteran of major event coverage.

“They would have already planned the programming for that day, planned previews for the World Cup,” he added, noting that such decisions often have to be made months in advance.

Qatari officials said they would work with FIFA “to ensure a smooth tournament for the supporters affected by the change.”

Another issue of immediate interest to many fans – the plan to serve alcohol at the World Cup – has still not been finalized despite months of discussions and while Budweiser is one of FIFA’s biggest partners, expecting its products to be available for supporters around the world. World Cup sites.

The most recent proposal, which has not yet been made public, is to sell beer outside the stadiums after security, but not within the stadiums themselves. Fans will also be able to drink at fan parks, but at the moment that privilege is only available at certain times of the day. What times? The organizers of the World Cup have not said anything yet.

As months shrink to weeks and then days, insiders know, Qatar’s control will only increase. But for now they have a more immediate problem: they need to find someone to change all the clocks.

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