x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Chance for Fifa and Qatar to give something new

Sometimes change must be forced through the barriers of innate conservatism by fair means or foul like awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup and then asking for a change in schedule.

A general view of the snow-covered pitch at St Andrews in Birmingham, England.
A general view of the snow-covered pitch at St Andrews in Birmingham, England.

A purple velvet bag. To understand the innate conservatism of many football fans, we need look no further than a simple drawstring purse of plush, woven fabric.

Every year, in the build-up to the televised FA Cup draw in England, at least one pundit will say with a whimsical sigh: "Of course, it is not the same now they have got rid of the velvet bag." The comment will be echoed by fans of a certain age across the land.

You see, in the halcyon days of yore, the numbered balls, each representing a different team, would be plucked at random from a purple velvet bag. We loved that bag. It was as much a part of the cup's magic as giant-slaying in the third round, or a sun-baked Wembley in May.

Then, a few years ago, Fifa forced the English Football Association to change the procedure. They took away our velvet bag and, like Kubla Khan in Xanadu, "a stately pleasure dome decreed".

Well, in truth, it was more of a small perspex dome, of the type a French patisserie owner might use to keep the flies off his apricot tarts.

Certainly it contained no sacred rivers, nor caverns measureless to man, which is probably a good thing as it would have made retrieving the balls a bit tricky.

No, not a pleasure dome but just another showy plastic gimmick for our increasingly showy plastic game, we grumbled.

They may have given a reason: transparency of process, perhaps, which as we all know is very important to Fifa.

But we were not listening. All we knew was that they had taken away our velvet bag - no, it does not count that they continue to pour the balls from the bag into the dome, as a patronising nod to tradition. Things would never be the same.

So, now you understand how many football fans feel about a change in ball-receptacle for a domestic cup draw, try to imagine how they might react to a slightly more significant upheaval. Like, oh I don't know, holding the World Cup in the winter.

Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, has suggested that Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup in January or February to avoid the intense heat of June or July. Of course they should.This is a classic no-brainer, which already has the theoretical backing of FIFpro, the world players' union.

It will surely make for a more comfortable and competitive arena for fans and players alike.

Yes, it will disrupt the normal order of things for certain countries: an earlier start to the season, a later finish, possibly a dip in attendance figures and television revenues, perhaps a break in players' mental focus on their club ambitions.

But so what? These issues are surmountable, and the disruption will affect every top club in the same way. Would it really hurt to try something different for a single season?

European football (and it is the big dogs of Europe who will com'plain most bitterly) managed to survive the disruption of the Second World War, but do we honestly believe it will crumble to dust if we take an extended winter break?

The Bundesliga already takes a month-long winter break, while the leagues of Spain, Italy and France pause for a fortnight over the Christmas period.

English clubs take no winter break but prefer to bury their heads in the snow, seeming genuinely puzzled when Arctic conditions yet again force the postponement of fixtures, as happened this weekend. (Seeing footage of the snow-bound chaos in the UK this weekend, one must wonder why they are not actively seeking an excuse to visit Qatar.)

Alas, these arguments are logical, and the velvet bag brigade prefers to respond emotionally.

Ian Holloway, the excitable manager of Blackpool, launched a bitter and hysterical tirade against Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, for even mooting the idea, suggesting that Fifa's next plan would be to "reschedule Christmas". (They are not moving Christmas, of course, and nor is Blatter suggesting holding the World Cup during that period, which would no doubt disgust Holloway even more.)

Perhaps the most reasonable charge to be levelled against Blatter is the timing of this suggestion, which was instigated by him and not the Qataris.

The time to discuss the possibility of a winter tournament, one might say, was at the bidding stage and not after the vote.

But here's the rub: it had to wait. Awarding the tournament to Qatar was always going to be controversial, but even a body as progressively-minded as the Fifa executive committee may have struggled to swallow such a seismic proposition.

The sleight of hand was a necessary trick to achieve Blatter's dream of taking the game into new territory.

Progress is not always easy, particularly in a "football family" so fond of its rituals and traditions that it borders on the obsessive compulsive.

Sometimes change must be forced through the barriers of innate conservatism by fair means or foul.

An iron fist in a velvet glove, you might say.

Or perhaps an iron fist in a velvet bag.