FIFA Agrees to Change World Cup Start Date – The New York Times

FIFA Agrees to Change World Cup Start Date - The New York Times

In a flashy ceremony on November 21 last year, some of Qatar’s most senior officials, including the Gulf nation’s prime minister, joined FIFA president Gianni Infantino, top footballers and invited guests for a celebration. They gathered on Doha’s Corniche, the vast promenade that hugs the city’s sparkling waterfront, to unveil an ornate countdown clock and to mark a milestone: the day they celebrated it was exactly one year before the opening of the 2022 World Cup.

Infantino, who now lives in Qatar, offered glowing praise for her hosts. He said their preparations for the event — some $200 billion in investments since Qatar received the tournament in 2010 — were unmatched: So good, in fact, that Infantino, a veteran soccer administrator, declared he had “never witnessed anything like it. happening here.”

Infantino’s bullish language could now better describe something that few in soccer have seen before: the state of uncertainty and growing concern that surrounds several elements of the tournament, affecting fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Not the least of them? That organizers just this week agreed to change the day the World Cup will actually start.

World Cup organizers have made the unprecedented and astonishing request to delay the start of the tournament – until November 20, from the long-planned date of November 21 – to give Qatar, as the host, pride in the open match . The request was approved unanimously by top FIFA officials on Thursday, just months before the tournament begins and just hours before a series of events marking 100 days to kick-off was set to begin.

Moving the date of the opening game, and changing the start time of another game the following day, will disrupt plans made by teams, fans, sponsors and broadcasters and even the tournament’s marketing staff, which has spent millions of dollars buying advertising space around the tournament. world to mark the 100-day countdown to the World Cup – a milestone now pushed forward to Friday – in signs wrapping buses and taxis in major capitals around the world. All those campaigns, starting Thursday, suddenly proclaimed the wrong date for the opening game.

“The change ensures the continuity of a long-standing tradition of marking the start of the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony on the occasion of the first match with either the hosts or the defending champions,” FIFA said in a statement announcing the schedule change. It did not explain why it had not planned for the eventuality for some of the 12 years since Qatar was first awarded hosting rights in a contested vote in 2010.

The last-minute schedule change, however, is just the latest high-profile question to add to growing uncertainty, inside and outside Qatar’s World Cup organisation, about the ability of the tiny Gulf nation – the smallest ever to host the World Cup. Cup – to make a tournament.

Three months before the tournament, for example, Qatar has yet to reveal concrete plans for the kind of experience fans can expect during their visits, including what they will need to get into the country; where they will stay when they arrive; how the police will handle violations of Qatari laws on public conduct; and where and how fans will be able to consume alcoholic beverages in Qatar, a conservative Islamic country where the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled and where public consumption of it is almost non-existent.

How the tournament – with more than one million visitors expected – will be secured has also not yet been articulated. Qatar has signed police deals with several nations, 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 from the 32 competing nations – some of them bitter rivals – will rub shoulders. shoulders for weeks in an area smaller than the state of Connecticut.

Unofficially, Qatari officials said the imported security officers would not be in direct contact with fans. But until now – and unlike previous World Cups – few details about that issue, and several others, have been publicly available.

There were also concerns about accommodation, with delays in the release of rooms to the public and fans reporting a lack of availability in a portal reserved for ticket holders, who are expected to be the only foreigners who will be allowed to enter Qatar during. the month-long World Cup.

Those who managed to find accommodation, which can only be reserved after fans have paid for tickets, complained of high prices even in the rare cases where they found availability.

Ronan Evain, the executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization of fans’ groups, said the number of official fan groups traveling to Qatar to support European teams is likely to be significantly lower than for the last World Cup, which was held in Russia. . Defending World Cup champion France, in one example, expects just 100 fans to participate as part of its official support group.

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

Qatari officials acknowledged there were 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 a space for players to socialize outside of their hotels in such a small geographic area has been a problem. “I don’t know if they will come out of the hotel, they will be surrounded by thousands of fans,” said Iva Olivari, Croatia’s team manager.

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

For FIFA’s partners, the ongoing uncertainty has been a constant challenge. The latest change to the start date of the tournament is expected to create chaos for the plans worked out months in advance by sponsors, according to Ricardo Fort, the former long-time sports marketer at Coca-Cola.

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

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

At other times, Qatar and its ambassadors were their own worst enemies. Asked on a call with reporters last year how many migrant workers have died on construction projects, a question organizers have faced since work first began on World Cup projects nearly a decade ago, Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of the organizing committee. , appeared to guess the number before being corrected by a staff member. In April, World Cup officials had to issue clarifications after a senior security official told a reporter that rainbow flags, a symbol of gay rights, could be grabbed by fans. for his own protection.

To help tell its story, Qatar has also enlisted – at great expense – a group of former footballers, foremost among them David Beckham, the ex-England captain. But despite receiving millions of dollars to bless Qatar’s World Cup project with his fame, Beckham proved to be reluctant lawyer, 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 spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

This week brought a new crisis regarding the start date of the tournament. FIFA’s general secretary, in the letter sent to top football executives to convince them to agree to the date change, said FIFA had assessed the commercial and legal effects of bringing forward Qatar’s opening match against Ecuador by one day and “determined that any risk is quite outweighed by the value and benefits of the proposition.”

Some fans, however, will be disappointed. In addition to changing the Qatar game, FIFA also moved the time of a game between the Netherlands and Senegal set for the original opening day, November 21, to an evening kick-off from its original afternoon start.

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

“I would imagine it would cause some headaches for broadcasters,” said Graham Fry, president of IMG’s production unit, a veteran of major event coverage.

“They would have already planned 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 topic of direct interest to many fans – the plan to serve alcohol at the World Cup – has not yet been tabled, despite months of discussions and although one of FIFA’s biggest partners is Budweiser, which expects its products to be available to supporters through the whole world World Cup websites.

The most recent proposal, which has not yet been published, is for beer to be sold after the security check outside stadiums but not inside the stadiums themselves. Fans will also be able to drink at fan parks, but for now that privilege will only be available at certain times of the day. what times The organizers of the World Cup have not yet said.

As months dwindle to weeks and then days, insiders know, the scrutiny of Qatar 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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