In less than four years time the focus of the international game will settle on Qatar and the 32 hopefuls at the 2022 World Cup finals. Yet the debate among the cognoscenti still fails to focus on pragmatic issues.
For example, signals have yet to emerge from international federations and hundreds of leagues about how they propose to manage the switch to November and December – not in terms of the superstars, but the professional mainstream who keep competitive football turning over and are so beloved of the TV cameras.
Firstly, though, to deal with the staging issues...
When the Gulf state won the bid to host the World Cup the possibility remained open that, for diplomatic reasons, some matches might be shared with neighbouring states. But such talk is now barely audible. In the eight years since the infamous FIFA ExCo vote, the political balance in the Gulf has shifted dramatically.
Qatar remains a subject at issue over the conditions of immigrant construction workers, but critical fervour is fading and FIFA has sidestepped the issue by virtue of the addition of human rights to the list of demands for the future. For 2010 read the bad old days; for Blatter read Infantino. And so on.
More significantly, Qatar is now isolated diplomatically by a coalition led from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. But the Qataris’ negative publicity is as nothing compared with the hostile perception attracted by the Saudis over the past year. The bombing of Yemen on the one hand and the Istanbul Embassy murder of Jamal Khashoggi have far outweighed Qatar’s affairs in the balance of international opprobrium.
Hence Qatar is more than ever determined to maintain its sole command of the 2022 finals, and sharing is off the agenda at such comparatively short notice.
As for the numbers, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has kept many of those potential re-election voters firmly onside by hinting at a possible early upgrade to 48 teams, rather than in 2026. But Qatar is preparing stadia, transport and accommodation for 32 teams and their fans. Also, the contracts have long since been signed, sealed and the tenders awarded.
So far, so clear. But that is not all. Not by a long way.
The World Cup is such a massive event that comparatively little competitive football takes place simultaneously and there are no other international competitions competing for attention. The focus of fans, sponsors and television is all about the four-yearly extravaganza.
But what will happen around the world in November and December 2022? It’s impossible to believe that, for example, the three English lower leagues will clear the decks and slumber away for two months.
It’s impossible to believe that Sky, BT Sport and other broadcasters will be content with two footballfree months in the middle of the traditional season schedule. No one is talking about it, but there are other sports which may see an opportunity to strike back.
Talk about tournament balance in the UK has been more about the unknown effects of Brexit. But football does know an issue is looming in November and December 2022, and the need to shuffle preceding seasons means such talk should start sooner rather than later.
It’s impossible to believe that Sky, BT Sport and other broadcasters will be content with two football-free months in the middle of the traditional season schedule
Work in progress...FIFA president Gianni Infantino (left) inspects the Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar
Shut down...Leeds United (in white) and Bristol City in the Championship