16 SEPTEMBER 2013

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Article from BTNews 16 SEPTEMBER 2013

COMMENT: “Over the line – The FIFA story”

The World Cup and business travel

The last week of international news has been dominated by two future sporting events.  One was the winning of the 2020 Olympic Games by Tokyo and the other was the controversy over the FIFA World Cup 2020. On the face of it these two major events have no interest to the business traveller. 

In a practical sense they very much do, as the infrastructure built around them will have a profound consequence on air travel prior, during and with an aftermath.  Tokyo 1964 introduced the Bullet train, Seoul 1988 opened up Korea to a new market, Barcelona 1992 reinvigorated an ancient port, and London 2012 saw a huge brown field site resurrected for an exciting future.

The summer Olympics are a very complex operation involving 204 nations, 10,000 competitors and 26 sports.  Add to that 12,000 official journalists and 15,000 of the Olympic ‘family’.  In its wisdom the International Olympic Committee gives the winning city seven years to sort out the event. 

Why should the FIFA World Cup require nine years lead time?  In fact Qatar was awarded the event in 2010.  It is vastly less complex involving 32 teams over one month.  Given two years most of the world’s leading soccer nations could easily put such a competition together.  And should the World Cup be in the summer, or, as has been highlighted last week, in the winter, upsetting the traditional world soccer timetable (not just Europe)?  At an early stage a bid by Doha for the 2020 Olympics was ruled out by the technical committee.  It just did not pass muster. 

It has been suggested that its incumbent FIFA President, the Swiss Sepp Blatter, would have had no influence on 2022 if the status quo had remained awarding the event eight years in advance.  As it was he seems to have had considerable influence.   

Traditionally the World Cup has been held in major countries where soccer is played by millions and where supporters can come in their droves and carry the flag for their team.  This will not happen in Qatar, a tiny kingdom with citizen population of something less than 250,000, or about the same size as the city of Norwich.  

Qatar runs a very fine airline but putting together an airport in the middle of the desert has proved to be a real problem.  How many of the travellers on the State carrier actually visit Doha.  Very few.  Less than 20%.  The same can be said for nearby Dubai.  Nothing wrong with that and it makes commercial sense.  But football is a team game with four sets of participants – the two protagonists, the fans, and the referee.  The choice of Doha means the fans are losing out.  It is hardly fair on the world’s airlines (bringing the fans in) either.  Currently 30 operate into Doha, 170 have Heathrow on their timetable. 

Qatar hosted the 2011 Asian Cup which had the lowest attendance in 11 years.  It could set a new 21st century record for the FIFA World Cup too.

Qatar has said that if Israel, a country it does not recognise, wins a place in the finals they will be allowed to compete.  What about the supporters?  Will El Al be able to fly in from Tel Aviv?  Qatar is a Moslem country which allows alcohol on its State airline, but does not permit normal shop sales.  Sponsors for 2022 include Budweiser.  How is lager to be sold?

It can be argued that Qatar is an autocracy, a generous one, but a dictatorship nevertheless.  Some might say the same of FIFA, ruled by its President, its World Cup decision making executive committee including representatives of Papua New Guinea and the Cayman Islands, hardly football nations.  Two members in recent times were thrown out for corruption.  The Court of Arbitration for Sport has not looked into the change of rules nor the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. 

The United States could have been the host for 2022.  It ticked at the right boxes as an emerging soccer nation with the possibility of huge crowds and massive sponsorship.  So could several other countries.  And at short notice.

Will Hollywood have the last word with the blockbuster “Sepp Blatter – Chariot on Fire”, the football movie to end all football movies?  And who will play the part of Mr Blatter?

An alternative title might be:  “Over the line – The FIFA story”.

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