Sepp Blatter, the head of soccer's leading body, has finally admitted what the rest of the world already knew: That it’s really hot in the Arabian peninsula in summer, and that playing, or even watching, the game in 120-degree weather kind of sucks.
And that, maybe, awarding the game's most important tournament to Qatar was kind of a stupid idea.
The FIFA president conceded on Thursday that the decision was a "mistake."
Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup was surrounded by controversy. There were allegations of bribery, not exactly a first in FIFA’s history, then questions about whether alcohol would be served in a country where it is heavily restricted, and speculation about how LGBT fans would be treated — homosexuality is illegal in the emirate, which has a smaller area than Connecticut. When Blatter was asked about the concerns of gay supporters he infamously joked: "I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities."
But one of the biggest problems is the extreme heat.
"Of course, it was a mistake. You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life,” Sepp Blatter told Swiss TV channel RTS. "The technical report indicated clearly that it was too hot in summer, but despite that the executive committee decided with quite a big majority that the tournament would be in Qatar."
While nearly everyone else might have thought it, the head of FIFA flat-out calling the decision “a mistake” is kind of a big deal. Blatter had just fallen short of doing so once before, when he told Inside World Football in September 2013 that "it may well be that we made a mistake."
FIFA, of course, rushed to patch up and tone down its president’s latest comments.
"The comment by the FIFA president concerning the organization of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar to Swiss TV station RTS is in line with previous comments on this matter," the association said in a statement.
"As explained in his answer to the journalist, the president reiterated that the decision to organize the World Cup in summer was an 'error' based on the technical assessment report of the bid, which had highlighted the extremely hot temperatures in summer in Qatar. At no stage did he question Qatar as hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”
In its bid, Qatar promised all kinds of fancy cooling technology in an attempt to convince teams that it's really not so bad over there.
"Each of the five stadia will harness the power of the sun's rays to provide a cool environment for players and fans by converting solar energy into electricity that will then be used to cool both fans and players at the stadia,” the bid proposed. “Along with the stadia, we plan to make the cooling technologies we’ve developed available to other countries in hot climates, so that they too can host major sporting events."
But that failed to convince many in the soccer world, with some pushing to move the tournament to the winter — which would be a first in World Cup history. That possibility, too, was accidentally revealed to the media by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke — forcing the association to retract and then admit that, yeah, maybe that was not such a terrible idea.
FIFA has said it won’t make a decision on postponing the tournament to cooler months until the end of this year’s World Cup, which kicks off in Brazil on June 12.
Speaking to RTS, Blatter also denied, once again, the widespread allegations that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup — calling it more euphemistically a “political decision.”
“I have never said it was bought, but that it was due to political considerations,” he said. “We know full well that big French and German companies work in Qatar but they don't just work for the World Cup. The World Cup is only a small part of what is going on in Qatar."
What is also going on in Qatar — and what Blatter failed to mention — is alleged widespread abuse of migrant laborers employed in preparations for the 2022 tournament and other construction in the fast-growing emirate. Qatar has reportedly invested some $100 billion in World Cup-related infrastructure — most of which is being built by migrants from south and southeast Asia.
Folks, FIFA's Sepp Blatter said awarding World Cup to Qatar was a mistake because of heat. It has nothing to do w/ migrant workers issue 1/2
— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle)May 16, 2014
In a recent report, Amnesty International (AI) documented harsh working conditions and an "alarming level of exploitation" of these workers.
"It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world, that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive," Salil Shetty, AI secretary general said last November, calling on FIFA to push Qatar to do more.
Last year, the Guardian published an investigation into 44 Nepalese construction workers who died in a two-month period of heart attacks, heart failure, and workplace incidents. The report suggested the exploitation of migrant workers amounted to “modern-day slavery.”
In a different report, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that at least 4,000 workers could die in Qatar before the 2022 World Cup even kicks off.
That report describes impoverished migrant workers living in squalid conditions “like animals, living like horses in a stable.”
And if Qatar’s heat seems too much for a 90-minute soccer game, it’s probably no fun for the workers spending hours — and years — building stadiums and hotels ahead of the World Cup either.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi