The race to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has now begun with the qualification campaign underway across the globe. Next Thursday, April 1, marks the 600-day countdown to the start of tournament on Nov. 21, 2022, and the period in between promises to be hectic and congested for many of the world's top players.
While the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on players due to the congested nature of this season, the workload is only likely to intensify in the weeks and months until the start of Qatar 2022.
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The major leagues, national associations and continental confederations have yet to agree on a calendar that will enable the 2022-23 club season to incorporate a six-week suspension for the World Cup to take place, while the knock-on effect of the pandemic has created uncertainty over the prospect of clubs embarking on lucrative preseason tours in the summer of 2022. But, however the key issues are resolved, the men in the middle will be the star players who are expected to perform in domestic leagues and cups, European competitions and international fixtures.
One thing for certain is that the 2022 World Cup, because of its November-December schedule, will have a huge impact on football in the years ahead. So what can players and fans expect?
Why is Qatar 2022 having such an impact on the calendar?
When Qatar was announced as the winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, it was awarded on the basis of the tournament being staged in June and July, as with every previous tournament. But concerns over the searing summer temperatures in the Middle East, which average 41.2 degrees Celsius (106.2 Fahrenheit) in June, prompted FIFA to move the World Cup to November-December.
That decision immediately created a major problem for the club game, particularly in Europe, with the season traditionally played from August to May. The final two months of the year are a busy time with plenty of domestic games and group fixtures in the Champions League and Europa League.
With Qatar 2022 running from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, 2022, the club game faces a shutdown of at least six weeks -- a week before the tournament for preparation and a week after for players to recover -- so the 2022-23 season must somehow be reconfigured to enable the club game and the World Cup to be concluded as smoothly as possible. But the ripple effect of dropping a World Cup into the middle of a club season will affect both the start and finish date of the 2022-23 season and potentially the start of the 2023-24 campaign.
What will a player's workload look like between now and the World Cup?
Players have different demands in different leagues, but the top stars can expect to play between 55-60 games a season if their club is successful. And then you have international fixtures. In 2019-20, according to Transfermarkt, Manchester United captain Harry Maguire played more minutes than any other player in the world, clocking up 5,509 minutes in 61 games for club and country last season. FC Copenhagen defender Victor Nelsson came second, with 5,366 minutes.
United reached the semifinals in three competitions last season, which helped Maguire make so many appearances, but with the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich also regularly going deep in all competitions, top players could play more than 100 games each for club and country between now and the start of the World Cup. But they will then have to play in the tournament -- the pinnacle of many players' career -- and return for the second half of the 2022-23 season. And if you play for a team like Bayern, United or City, players can expect to travel to Asia or North America in summer 2022 on a preseason tour, which will only add to their game time.
So what are the solutions?
If there are solutions out there, the rival factions -- FIFA, clubs, national associations, continental confederations -- are yet to agree on them.
One obvious answer would be to simply start the 2022-23 club season at the beginning of August and extend it until early June, giving clubs additional time to play their fixtures and overcome the impact of a 4-6 week break in November and December.
But UEFA has already scheduled the 2023 Champions League final for May 27 in Munich, one day earlier than the date for the 2022 final in Saint Petersburg, so there is little sign of UEFA extending their season to allow for the disruption caused by the World Cup. UEFA will also lose two Champions League/Europa League match days to the World Cup, so when will they be staged? We are still awaiting an answer.
And in terms of national leagues, sources have told ESPN that discussions are still ongoing in terms of a start date and end date, but while it seems straightforward to cram in the European fixtures over a shorter period of time as has been done this season, it would not solve the problem of finding space for 4-6 weeks of league games that would need to be moved for the World Cup
Has the pandemic added to the problem?
Yes. The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers in South America began last October, but a full round of qualifiers has been postponed this month due to travel restrictions forcing Europe-based players to stay with their clubs. Those fixtures are likely to be played next season, with the delayed Copa America expected to take place this summer, a year after being postponed because of the pandemic.
In Europe, Euro 2020 is also due to go ahead this June and July, so what was due to be a free summer for players will now be busy with two major tournaments, plus the delayed Olympics in Tokyo, which will involve major nations such as Germany, France, Spain, Argentina and Brazil. The pandemic, and delay in staging the Euros, Copa and Olympics, has hit the revenue streams of top clubs, who will miss out on a money-spinning summer tours for the second successive year, making it a financial necessity to cash in next summer.
So the impact on the 2021-22 season is still unknown, but any rollover from this campaign will inevitably add to the congestion and demands of next year.
What do the clubs think?
Sources at a number of high-profile clubs have told ESPN that the scheduling of the 2022 World Cup is unhelpful and an inconvenience, but something that they have no option but to accept. However, sources have also said that clubs will hold onto players until the latest possible departure date for Qatar, potentially using them for league fixtures just a week before the World Cup begins. Similarly, players could find themselves back in club action just days after the World Cup ends, which could be challenging for players who reach the semifinals and final.
International coaches often have the benefit of a lengthy build-up to a major tournament, with training camps and friendly games scheduled for preparation, but that is unlikely to happen in 2022. Expect clubs to insist that the World Cup fits in around their demands rather than the other way around.
The European Club Association (ECA), which includes Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool and other major teams, initially urged FIFA to stage the tournament in April-May 2022 before the decision was made to move to November-December. Having lost that battle, the clubs and UEFA blocked FIFA president Gianni Infantino's attempts to enlarge Qatar 2022 to 48 teams from 32, in order to avoid further games for their players.
Will football adopt Arsene Wenger's plan for a unified calendar?
Wenger: Winter World Cup makes sense
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said it makes sense to hold the 2022 Qatar World Cup in the winter months, but admitted it will have an impact on European league schedules.
Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, is now FIFA's chief of global development and he recently proposed an overhaul of the football calendar that would see a unified season from March to November.
"I'm convinced that to harmonise the world calendar, somebody has to give in and it's Europe or the rest of the world," Wenger said. "It would make things more simple."
In an ideal world, the simplicity of Wenger's plan would solve the problem, but arguably the biggest reason for moving Qatar 2022 to November-December was the summer climate and the same would apply to many leagues in Europe, with the heat in likes of Spain, France, Greece and Russia making it unfeasible to play club games. It would be a similar problem in large parts of Africa and Asia.
The plan would also see teams in the southern hemisphere having to play through harsh winter conditions, so the proposal falls down on the issue of climate. So shifting the football season from March to November would not solve the Qatar 2022 problem, even if it could be imposed in such a short space of time.
Is anyone thinking about the demands on the players?
Leading players are becoming increasingly vocal on a range of issues, but so far, there have been no concerns raised about the workload between now and Qatar 2022. Players tend to want to play, but coaches are often the ones to speak up about the demands being placed on their squad.
Earlier this season, England manager Gareth Southgate said that the issue over the football calendar around Qatar had not been addressed, but he called on coaches to be given an input.
"I would hope that within all the discussions that coaches are consulted," Southgate said. "It doesn't have to be me, but maybe coaches of the big clubs, maybe all the national managers, whatever it might be. But generally speaking, a lot of the decisions are made without the input of coaches."
So when will we have a confirmed road map for football into Qatar 2022?
That continues to be an unanswered question. The challenge of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably taken the focus away from the need to plan the calendar ahead of Qatar 2022, but sources have said that a resolution is unlikely until later this year, well into the 2021-22 season.
But it's safe to say that the next two years will be busier than ever for the world's top footballers.
Qatar has been a controversial choice of host from the outset, so what will it be like in 2022?
FIFA has changed the selection process for World Cups since 2010, when the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were decided, with the voting of Russia and Qatar's successful bids both mired in allegations of corruption. Now, every football nation gets to vote on the potential host for future tournaments rather than 22 FIFA Executive Committee members.
But aside from the controversy over the tournament being moved from its usual June-July slot in the calendar, Qatar has also been under the microscope for the treatment of migrant workers who have helped build many of the new stadia in the country since 2010. According to a report in the Guardian last month, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar during that time.
Responding to the Guardian report, Qatar's government said a "very small percentage" of over 1.4 million expatriates in the state had died between 2011 and 2019.
The government's statement said it had taken steps to improve health and safety of workers in the last two decades and had imposed punishments on business owners who violated safety standards.
Homosexuality is an illegal offence in Qatar that can carry a prison sentence, and there has been widespread condemnation of the Gulf state's human rights record, with Norway's players wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Human rights on and off the pitch" prior to Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Gibraltar.
When asked about Qatar's position on homosexuality by ESPN in 2019, Hassan al Thawadi, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy for Qatar 2022, said: "We are a conservative people and we ask visitors to appreciate our culture while at the same time accepting our hospitality. Open displays of affection are not part of our culture and we ask that people don't [openly display affection]."
The international scrutiny of Qatar will only increase as the tournament approaches, and is likely to overshadow the host nation during the event itself like no other World Cup before it.