October 2, 2022

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FIFA agrees to change the start date of the World Cup

FIFA agrees to change the start date of the World Cup

In a dazzling ceremony on November 21 last year, some senior Qatari officials, including the prime minister of the Gulf state, joined FIFA President Gianni Infantino and top football executives and invited guests to celebrate. Gather on the Doha Corniche, the all-encompassing promenade that hugs the city’s sparkling waterfront, to reveal an ornate countdown timer and to mark a milestone: The day they were celebrating It was exactly one year before the opening of the 2022 World Cup.

Infantino, who now resides in Qatar, gave praise to his hosts. He said their preparations for the event – nearly $200 billion in investment since Qatar won the tournament in 2010 – have been incomparable: So good, in fact, that Infantino, the veteran football manager, declared that he had “never seen anything like it happen.” over here “.

Infantino’s upbeat language might now best describe something that has never been seen in football: the growing uncertainty and anxiety that surrounds many of the elements of the tournament affecting fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Not the least of them? Just this week, organizers agreed to change the day the World Cup would actually start.

The World Cup organizers have made an unprecedented and astonishing request to reschedule the tournament’s kick-off – up to November 20, from the date planned since November 21 – in order to give Qatar, as the host nation, the lead in the opening match. . The request was approved unanimously by top FIFA officials on Thursday, just months before the tournament kicks off and just hours before a series of events to mark the tournament’s 100th day kick off.

Moving the kick-off time of the opening match, and shifting the timing of another match the next day, would disrupt plans made by teams, fans, sponsors, broadcasters and even the tournament’s marketing team, which has spent millions of dollars buying advertising space around the region. Celebrating the 100-day countdown to the World Cup – an event now relegated to Friday – with banners wrapping buses and taxis in major capitals around the world. All of those campaigns suddenly announced, as of Thursday, the wrong date for the opening match.

“The change ensures that the long-standing tradition of kicking off the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony for the first match involving hosts or title holders,” FIFA said in a statement announcing the schedule change. He did not explain why this possibility had not been planned in any of the twelve years since Qatar was first awarded hosting rights in a controversial vote in 2010.

Despite this, the last-minute schedule change is only the latest high-profile question adding to an air of growing uncertainty, both inside and outside the World Cup organization in Qatar, about the capacity of the tiny Gulf state – the smallest Gulf state ever to host the world. Cup – to finish the tournament.

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Three months before the tournament, for example, Qatar had yet to reveal concrete plans on what kind of experience fans could expect during their visits, including what they would need to enter the country; where they will remain when they arrive; How the police will deal with violations of Qatari laws relating to public conduct; Where and how will fans be able to drink alcohol in Qatar, a conservative Islamic country where the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled and public consumption is virtually non-existent.

It wasn’t made clear how to secure the tournament – which is expected to have more than a million visitors – either. Qatar has signed policing agreements with several countries, notably Turkey, which said in January it would provide more than 3,000 security personnel, including riot police, for a tournament in which fans of 32 competing nations — some of them arch-rivals — will take part. Shoulders for weeks in a smaller area of ​​Connecticut.

Unofficially, Qatari officials said the imported security officers would not have direct contact with the masses. But so far – and unlike in previous World Cups – there have been few details about this, and many others, available to the public.

There have also been concerns about accommodations, with delays in releasing rooms to the public and fans reporting the lack of a dedicated gate for ticket holders, who are expected to be the only foreigners who will be allowed into Qatar during the month-long World Cup.

Those who managed to find accommodations, which could only be booked after fans had paid for tickets, complained about high prices even in the rare cases where they found availability.

Ronan Evin, CEO of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization for fan groups, said the numbers of official fan groups traveling to Qatar to support European teams will likely be significantly lower than the last World Cup, which was held in Russia. . In one example, defending World Cup champion France expects only 100 fans to attend as part of the group of official supporters.

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Evin said other fan groups were considering traveling in and out of Qatar to attend matches because they concluded that doing so would be cheaper and easier than staying in Qatar. The German fan club has already said it will be moving to matches from Dubai. “I don’t think they realize how difficult their residency situation is,” Evin said. “The entire system for booking accommodation is so unclear that ticket holders are hesitant to book.”

Qatari officials have acknowledged fan concerns about the residency and will continue dialogue with groups supporting their resolution.

At the same time, representatives of some of the participating teams are finding that finding space for players to socialize outside 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 Croatia team manager Eva Olivary.

“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 partners, the continuing uncertainty presented an relentless challenge. The recent change to the tournament’s start date is expected to wreak havoc on plans that were laid out months in advance by sponsors, according to Ricardo Forte, former Coca-Cola head of sports marketing.

“They invited guests and assured hospitality, booked flights and hotels, and contracted all necessary logistics,” Fort wrote in her letter. Share on Twitter. “Imagine changing everything!”

Officials at Qatar’s organizing committee are now accustomed to such last-minute and sometimes inexplicable reviews of plans that have been months in the making. In 2019, for example, employees who had prepared a detailed marketing and communications plan to announce the opening of what was to be Al Wakrah Stadium were shocked when they discovered – just minutes before the emir was due to open the venue – that he was quoted by social media to say it would be called instead From that stadium south.

Other times, Qatar and its ambassadors were their own worst enemies. When asked on a call with reporters last year about the number of migrant workers who died on construction projects, a question organizers have faced since they began work on World Cup projects nearly a decade ago, Nasser Al-Khater, chief executive of the organizing committee, said. , seems to guess the number before a staff member corrects it. In April, World Cup officials had to provide clarification after a senior security official told a reporter that rainbow flags, a symbol of gay rights, could be confiscated from fans. to protect them.

To help tell its story, Qatar has also recruited – at great cost – a group of former footballers, most notably David Beckham, the former England captain. But despite receiving millions of dollars to bless Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup with his fame, Beckham proved it reluctant lawyerPreferring to attend events only in the absence of news media. Beckham has never publicly said why he signed up to endorse the tournament, and his spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

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This week brought a new crisis over when the tournament will start. In the letter he sent to senior football leaders to persuade them to agree to a date change, the FIFA Secretary General said that FIFA had assessed the commercial and legal implications of moving Qatar’s opening match against Ecuador forward one day and “decided that any risk is sufficiently outweighed by the through the value and benefits of the offer.”

However, some fans will be disappointed. In addition to changing the Qatar match, FIFA also moved the date of the match between the Netherlands and Senegal set for the original opening day, November 21, to an evening start from its original afternoon start.

This means he can no longer use the tickets he bought for the Netherlands match, Martin Bosa, of The New Yorker, said, because he also has tickets for the USA-Wales game that starts an hour later. And he probably won’t be the only one complaining.

“I imagine this would cause some trouble for broadcasters,” said Graham Fry, head of production at IMG, a veteran of major events.

He added, “They had already planned the programming of that day, and scheduled previews for the World Cup,” noting that such decisions often have to be taken months in advance.

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

Another issue of direct interest to many fans – the plan to introduce alcoholic drinks at the World Cup – has yet to be clarified, despite months of discussions and despite one of FIFA’s biggest partners being Budweiser, who expects its products to be available to fans around the world. around the world. World Cup sites.

The latest proposal, which has not yet been announced, is to sell beer after security screening outside the stadiums but not inside the stadiums themselves. Fans will also be able to drink at fan parks, but for now, this privilege will only be available at certain times of the day. What times? World Cup organizers still haven’t said.

As months shrink into weeks and then days, insiders know that scrutiny in Qatar will only increase. But right now they have a more pressing problem: they need to find someone to change all the hours.