By Tariq Panja
Qatar has had 12 years to plan for the World Cup. Now, with the first games of the tournament just over 100 days away and the intricate match schedule announced months ago, organizers have requested changes that would make the event start a day earlier so the host nation can have a featured place in the opening game.
In recent years, the World Cup host nation has appeared in the tournament’s first match, as the headliner in the monthlong event’s elaborate opening ceremony. But this year, in a break with that tradition, organizers took the unusual step of scheduling Qatar’s first game as the third of four matches on a busy first day of competition on Nov. 21.
Now a proposal to move Qatar’s Nov. 30 game with Ecuador has been sent to the most senior officials of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the World Cup. Those officials, a group that includes the leaders of soccer’s six global confederations and the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, will decide whether to approve it.
It is unclear why organizers — and FIFA — had not originally planned for Qatar to play in the tournament’s opening game, a stage reserved for every tournament host since the World Cup was staged in Germany in 2006. Before then, the defending champion was customarily granted the honor of opening the tournament.
“It has been a longstanding tradition to mark the start of the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony on the occasion of the first match featuring either the hosts or the defending champions, a factor that is considered to have significant value from a ceremonial, cultural and commercial point of view,” FIFA wrote in a letter to members of the bureau that was reviewed by The New York Times.
In addition to changing the date of Qatar’s opening game against Ecuador, the proposed adjustment would affect another match set for the tournament’s opening day: Senegal’s game against the Netherlands, which would be moved out of its afternoon time slot into an evening window.
Planning for the Qatar World Cup has been bumpy. Granting the hosting rights to Qatar eventually required FIFA to move the event to the Northern Hemisphere’s winter because the searing summer temperatures in the Gulf were deemed to pose a potential health risk to players, officials and the hundreds of thousands of fans expected at the tournament.
The switch has upended the soccer calendar, leading to an unprecedented midseason interruption to the European league season and other competitions around the world. Negotiations with clubs — furious about the weekslong disruptions to their league schedules and television contracts — resulted in the tournament’s being played in fewer days (28) than any other event since it was expanded to 32 teams in 1998.
“As the tournament approaches, the FIFA administration is now fully aware of the various sporting, operational, commercial and legal implications of this uniquely compressed schedule,” FIFA wrote in its letter.
FIFA told officials that it would like them to approve the change by Thursday evening European time.
The sudden push to change the date of the opening game has only added to concerns about Qatar’s readiness to stage the World Cup. Already fans are complaining about a shortage of accommodations and a lack of clarity over the consumption of alcohol during the tournament.
Should the switch of the opening match be approved, overseas ticket-holders who had planned to attend would face the potential challenge of changing their travel plans and rebooking hotel rooms, and any players competing in European leagues — Ecuador at times has more than a dozen — would have one fewer day to travel and prepare.
The plan has already caused disquiet among ticket holders, with the proposed changes making some combinations of games all but impossible for visitors to attend. New York-based Martín Bauzá told The Times he had secured tickets for the game between Senegal and the Netherlands and the United States opener with Wales later that day. FIFA switching Senegal’s game to the later slot means he would not be able to attend both games, with the second game starting an hour after the first ends.
“I did purchase Senegal/Netherlands specifically because of the time difference between matches and in accordance with the FIFA ticket rules that require 4 hours between matches (i.e., cannot purchase tickets to back to back matches) which is now the scenario I will have to deal with,” Bauzá said in a message.
World Cup organizers said they had consulted with Qatar and the soccer associations of the two affected teams before proposing the change. Its letter suggested neither national team objected to the change.
Credit: The New York Times