Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says players and coaches should consider going on strike about player welfare concerns to get football authorities to take the issue seriously.

Amid the rising COVID-19 outbreak in the Premier League which has seen games postponed, clubs are scheduled to have three matchdays during the traditional upcoming festive week.

The Man City boss provocatively suggested that players and managers should strike in response to the situation to demand a reduction in their workload.

"Should the players and the managers be all together and make a strike?" Guardiola said during the post-game news conference.

"Just through words it’s not going to be solved. For FIFA, the Premier League, the broadcasters, the business is more important than their welfare.

"The simplest example is all around the world they have five substitutions; here it’s still three. Tell me one argument to take care of players’ welfare than this one? Here, where everyone decides for themselves, we didn’t do it.

"I don't think [a strike would happen] because we want to play, we want to continue. Make the people happy going to the stadium on the 26th, 27th, 29th, 31st [December] and 1st [January] and play games because we love to do that.

"I'm not saying there's a reason to make a strike. But when people say World Cups, European Cups, Carabao Cup semifinals over two legs, and FA Cups and the Premier League; more games and more games and less holidays.

"They need holidays. They need a rest for two or three weeks. And now we talk about welfare for players in that moment? No. It's a problem."

Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) chief executive Maheta Molango reinforced Guardiola's messaging, adding that the issue cannot be ignored any longer.

"I can tell you that it isn't going away. Players don't choose to speak out on issues like this without having given it a lot of thought," he said. "As their union, the PFA enables players to stand together. That unity gives them enormous strength.

"Now it's up to those who run the game at all levels to begin to take this seriously so it's an issue that can be addressed constructively with players at the heart of the conversation. That has to happen now."

Belgium will sit at the top of FIFA's world rankings for a fourth successive year at the end of a record-breaking 12 months for international football.

Having seen just 352 full internationals take place in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fewest since 1987 (323), things were cranked up several notches this year as World Cup qualification attracted focus.

A total of 1,116 FIFA internationals were played across 2021, a new record, with teams making up for the loss of action a year earlier.

While the frequency of games changed significantly, one constant remains: Belgium lead the way once again, edging out Brazil by 2.1 points, while UEFA Nations League winners France finish the year third.

 

European champions Italy go into 2022 in sixth having claimed 115.77 points more than in 2020, while Copa America winners Argentina are one place better off, improving on their 2020 points total by 108.51 points.

But the biggest improvement of the year has been recorded by Canada, whose ranking of 40th is the joint-highest they have ever been.

The Canucks reached the semi-finals of the Gold Cup and are well on course to reach only their second World Cup finals – and a first since Mexico 1986 – as they sit top of the CONCACAF qualifying group with six games to go.

Their 1,462.32 points is 132.32 more than last year, the biggest 12-month improvement of all FIFA nations.

Meanwhile, World Cup hosts Qatar head into their big year just inside the top 50 at 48.

Gianni Infantino believes FIFA currently has majority support among national associations for its plans to stage World Cup tournaments every two years.

The FIFA president gave that verdict at the world governing body's global summit on Monday, where FIFA-commissioned studies said the game would receive a significant financial boost if the plans are approved.

The overall boost would amount to $4.4billion in the first four-year cycle of a new international calendar, it was claimed, and that would climb to $6.6billion if each confederation also switches its regional competition to become biennial.

Currently, the men's and women's World Cups take place every four years, but dramatic change could be coming.

"Not only is it feasible from a sporting point of view, but the economic return is very strong," said Infantino, "meaning more money can be invested, re-invested, into football development all over the world.

"This is quite an important project to bridge the gap between those who have and those who don't have. At the end of the day, everyone will benefit. Everyone will have additional possibilities to play and additional revenue as well."

The powerful European and South American confederations, UEFA and CONMEBOL, have refused to support FIFA's plans, but there is support from within Asia, Africa and the CONCACAF region that covers North and Central America, plus the Caribbean.

FIFA issued studies that showed solidarity funding for each of its 211 national associations rise from $6million to "potentially" $25million for the first four-year cycle of an era of biennial World Cups.

Such a rise holds clear appeal to many associations, given its potential to be transformative, and Infantino said in a news conference: "If I was going to a vote tomorrow, probably the majority would vote in favour of World Cups every two years."

He has declined to say when such a vote might take place, at this stage.

FIFA's plans have been driven in part by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now the head of global development and Infantino's right-hand man on this matter.

Wenger said there was "fear" within the football establishment about the proposals and called for that to be banished.

"We face opposition," said Wenger, "but what I regret is that 90 per cent of this opposition is emotional and not facts and not analysis. And we have to get over this fear because most of the emotions we face are based on fears: fear to lose control of your own competition. There is a demand from the young fans; there is a demand in society for meaningful events.

"If we don't create them, another sport will create them. We have an opportunity to give countries an opportunity to improve, and I think it's worth it to fight for it. It is 211 countries that make that decision. We will accept that decision."

Infantino, sharing the stage with Wenger, also said he had encountered "a lot of opposition" but spoke too of "a lot of voices in favour".

"FIFA is a global organising body and for this reason we have to combine these points of view," the FIFA president said.

Europe's big-money leagues have expressed strong opposition to the prospect of international football becoming a bigger presence on the calendar, with concerns for player burnout being raised by a number of top managers.

Infantino made a curious attempt to allay fears the Olympics might be affected by pointing to there being Olympic Games every two years already – winter and summer editions.

Of those, the summer Olympics secures by far the biggest audiences, and the prospect of any clash with international football for that multisport showcase would be unwelcome.

Infantino stressed that FIFA is confident the appeal of the World Cup would stand up, even if the tournament comes around more often in future. The men's tournament has been staged every four years since 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 due to the Second World War.

The FIFA chief said: "The prestige of a competition like the World Cup will not be undermined by playing more frequently."

FIFA has published results from a study that claims "the majority" of football fans would like to see more frequent World Cups just hours after UEFA said an independent survey called proposals "alarming".

Earlier on Friday, UEFA warned of "a deeply negative outlook" for international football in Europe if FIFA gets the green light to stage the World Cup every two years.

The messages from the two governing bodies came ahead of FIFA holding its global summit with national associations on Monday.

FIFA will lay out its plans to stage World Cups, both men's and women's, every two years in the future, in what could lead to the biggest shake-up in the game for many years.

The "independent" study that was commissioned by UEFA, which has been vehemently against the idea of biennial World Cups ever since proposals gained mainstream traction, said European national associations could see a drop in revenues of up to €3billion over four years and that 30 per cent of fans would watch less domestic and European Championship football.

Additionally, it suggested 60 per cent of fans believe the World Cup's prestige would fall and 65 per cent think it would lead to a bloated international football calendar.

But FIFA's own study says fans are in favour of watching "the FIFA World Cup more frequently, for example every two years, provided that player workload does not increase".

According to FIFA, of the 30,390 people involved in the study who said football was their favourite sport, 63.7 per cent were in favour of more men's World Cups, with the 25-34 age category apparently the "most supportive", and 52.4 per cent want to see the women's tournament more often.

The results were split between continents and suggest there is more backing among the lesser-established international teams.

It is claimed Africa (76 per cent), Asia (66), North, Central America and the Caribbean (53), South America (54) and Oceania (55) all have majorities in favour of more men's World Cups, however less than half (48 per cent) of Europeans are.

Opposition is said to be especially strong in some of the leading European nations, with England's disapproval percentage at 53, Germany's at 50 and France's at 42. Those three were also considered the most disapproving of more women's World Cups.

UEFA has warned of "a deeply negative outlook" for international football in Europe if FIFA gets the green light to stage the World Cup every two years.

The message from Europe's governing body comes ahead of FIFA holding its global summit with national associations on Monday.

FIFA will lay out its plans to stage World Cups, both men's and women's, every two years in the future, in what could lead to the biggest shake-up in the game for many years.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently suggested football's elite who opposed a revamping of the game were "afraid" of what change would mean for them, given their positions of power.

A study commissioned by UEFA points to a steep slide in revenues stemming from its own international competitions. It forecasts European national associations could see a drop by between €2.5billion and €3billion in a four-year cycle, also warning of a major decline in UEFA income for the women's game if more men's tournaments are to be staged.

UEFA, which was already firmly opposed to FIFA's plan, said the findings of the study by consultancy firm Oliver and Ohlbaum were "alarming" and raise "severe concerns".

The study contended that broadcast revenue will fall for each event, with advertising rates "likely to hold up" but viewing set to "likely decline".

It said research showed that around 30 per cent of fans would watch less of the European Championship and domestic football, while 60 per cent think the World Cup's prestige would fall and 65 per cent think a change would lead to a bloated international football calendar.

The study warned of "lower broadcaster and sponsor willingness to pay for further tournaments, even if they deliver eyeballs", and said for the four years from 2026 to 2030, with World Cups happening every two years, the impact "would be strongly negative", even if UEFA's European Championship also shifted to become biennial.

It forecast UEFA revenues would be reduced from €4.6billion to €4.2billion if qualification took place in two blocks of games, and to €4.0billion if all qualifiers took place in a single block, with a knock-on effect on distributions to national associations.

Women's football has been on an upward growth curve in recent years, helped by the exposure its tournaments have had at times when there has been no corresponding men's event.

But the study predicted that viewership "would fall significantly" if men's events take place in the same year as women's showpieces, reducing their prospects of being in the media and public spotlight. It said income from the Women's European Championship would slide from €102m to €44m if that tournament continues to take place once every four years, or to €78m should it also become a biennial competition.

FIFA has found some support for its proposals, which have been pushed by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now head of global football at the governing body. Africa has given its backing, while there has also been positive interest from Asia and those from the CONCACAF region. Like UEFA, however, South America's powerful CONMEBOL confederation has come out firmly against FIFA's idea.

UEFA warned again on Friday of the prospect of "increasing mental and physical exhaustion of players", and of intruding on spaces in the calendar currently occupied by other sports.

"In this dark sporting context, the research conducted by Oliver and Ohlbaum projects a deeply negative outlook for European national team football, should the FIFA plan be implemented," UEFA said in a statement.

Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain each have four nominees in the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA FIFPRO Men's World 11 for 2021.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold are also included, although there is no place for Mohamed Salah.

PSG's attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are among the forwards, as is Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Veteran Dani Alves also won enough votes to make the list, even though the 38-year-old, who recently rejoined Barcelona, only played 16 times in domestic competition in Brazil this year.

Professional footballers across the world were asked to vote for the three players they considered to have the best seasons during the 2020-21 season among goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.

FIFPRO said: "For the first time in 17 years, FIFPRO is updating the announcement about the most-voted players, reducing the shortlist from 55 to 23. This has been done to resemble a real-life 'squad' which, usually for international competitions, is the number of players involved. 

"The three goalkeepers, six defenders, six midfielders and six forwards with the most votes earned a place in the 23-men World 11 'squad'. To complete this elite selection, the two remaining outfield players with the most votes were added."

The keeper, three defenders, three midfielders and three forwards with the most votes will be chosen for the World 11, with the remaining spot assigned to the outfield player with the next highest number of votes.

The final 11 will be announced at The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony on January 17.

 

FIFA FIFPRO MEN'S WORLD 11 23-PLAYER SHORTLIST:

Goalkeepers:
Alisson (Liverpool, Brazil)
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan/Paris Saint-Germain, Italy)
Edouard Mendy (Chelsea, Senegal)

Defenders:
David Alaba (Bayern Munich/Real Madrid, Austria)
Jordi Alba (Barcelona, Spain)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, England)
Dani Alves (Sao Paulo/Barcelona, Brazil)
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus, Italy)
Ruben Dias (Manchester City, Portugal)

Midfielders:
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona, Spain)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United, Portugal)
Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, The Netherlands)
Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)
N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Forwards:
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus/Manchester United, Portugal)
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, Norway)
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
Romelu Lukaku (Inter/Chelsea, Belgium)
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Paris Saint-Germain, Argentina)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil)

Football’s world governing body FIFA has fined Jamaica Football Federation (JMD$170,000) for a bottle-throwing incident that occurred during the World Cup qualifying match against the United States at the National Stadium in Kingston last month.

Near the end of the match that ended in a 1-1 draw, a plastic water bottle was thrown from the bleachers' seats near the running track. The incident was reported to the FIFA security officer on-site and the JFF was subsequently fined.

According to the FIFA ruling, “The Jamaica Football Federation is ordered to pay 1000 Swiss Francs for the inappropriate behaviour of its supporters in connection with the match Jamaica vs the USA played on 16 November 2021 in the scope of the Preliminary Competition for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, CONCACAF Zone. The fine is to be paid within 30 days of notification of the present decision.”

The JFF appealed the decision but the appeal was deemed inadmissible. In its appeal, the JFF expressed regret at the incident while pointing to its constant appeal to fans through different means not to throw objects, as well as the limitations on the sale of refreshments inside the stadium.

In light of the fine, the JFF said it was once again reminding spectators that they must follow all outlined protocols once they are within the confines of the National Stadium on match day as another breach could threaten Jamaica's hopes of hosting international games in the future.

Roberto Mancini admitted Italy would rather not have to do battle with Portugal for a place in the 2022 World Cup if they get past North Macedonia.

The European champions were on Friday drawn to face North Macedonia in a semi-final next March after missing out on automatic qualification for the tournament in Qatar.

Italy will come up against either Portugal or Turkey in a decisive showdown if they avoid a semi-final upset.

Euro 2016 champions Portugal were consigned to a play-off spot in dramatic fashion as Aleksandar Mitrovic's last-gasp strike saw Serbia through as Group A winners.

Italy boss Mancini is confident his side will qualify, but gave an honest reaction to the prospect of trying to deny Cristiano Ronaldo what could be his last trip to a World Cup.

He said: "We are always confident and positive. Macedonia had a good qualifying group, we will have to play a great match. Then we will see what happens in the final.

Asked about the prospect of coming up against Portugal, he said: "We would have liked to avoid them, in the same way Portugal would have gladly avoided Italy."

The draw also threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine.

Russia will host Poland, with the winners playing either Sweden or the Czech Republic. 

The final play-off draw for the 2022 World Cup has taken place, with four teams to compete for two places in Qatar.

On Friday, following the draw for the European play-offs – in which Italy and Portugal were drawn in the same path – FIFA also completed the draw for the inter-confederation games.

These matches will take place in Qatar in June 2022.

One team from each of the federations of Asia (AFC), South America (CONMEBOL), the Caribbean, North and Central America (CONCACAF) and Oceania (OFC) will compete in the single-leg fixtures to settle the final two places in the 32-team tournament.

The AFC side, which will be the winner of the fourth-round play-off in the Asian zone, were drawn against the CONMEBOL team, which will be the fifth-ranked side in the South American qualifying standings - that spot is currently occupied by Peru, with four matchdays remaining.

In the other match, the winner of the OFC qualifiers will take on the fourth-placed team from the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers. 

African nations threw their support behind FIFA's proposal for a biennial World Cup as Gianni Infantino claimed elite-level opponents of the plan are objecting out of fear.

FIFA president Infantino made a personal appearance at African federation CAF's extraordinary general assembly in Cairo on Friday, along with Arsene Wenger.

Former Arsenal boss Wenger is the head of global development at FIFA, with the world governing body employing the Frenchman as a figurehead for the World Cup overhaul.

It is far from a fait accompli that FIFA will get its way – UEFA and CONMEBOL are firmly against the switch – but CAF members overwhelmingly backed the plan, having been told by Infantino that it provided a route towards more opportunities on the world stage.

"Obviously as well, it's natural and understandable, those who are against it are those at the top," Infantino told CAF members.

"It happens in every sector of life when there are reforms and changes; those who are at the top, they don't want anything to change because they are at the top, and they are afraid maybe that if something changes, their leadership position is at risk.

"We understand that, and we compliment and applaud them for having been so successful in reaching the top. This is fantastic, and they are an example for everyone.

"But at the same time, we cannot close the door, we need to keep the door open, we need to give hope, and we need to give opportunities to the entire world.

"We need to give more opportunities to all the teams to play with each other - will it be with the World Cup or will it be in another way? We have to study of course all of this.

"We continue to consult, we continue to speak, we thank you for your views and your input."

Infantino has been telling African nations of the prospect for development long before FIFA put forward its World Cup proposal, and it is clear he has strong support on the continent.

Wenger gave a presentation in which he expressed his belief that biennial World Cups for men's and women's football and also spoke of the prospect of more chances to compete for African nations.

"I only defend the project because it is to make football better and more competitive," Wenger said.

A resolution was announced during the general assembly, in which it was stated: "CAF welcomes the FIFA congress decision to conduct the feasibility study on having men's and women's World Cup every two years.

"If the FIFA study concludes that it is feasible, CAF will fully support hosting the men's and women's World Cup every two years."

CAF president Patrice Motsepe conducted a show of hands and, with no objections to the resolution, declared it a unanimous vote in favour of backing FIFA.

Italy or Portugal will miss out on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the two most recent European champions were drawn in the same play-off path.

Roberto Mancini led Italy to a Euro 2020 triumph earlier this year, yet the Azzurri failed to qualify automatically for next year's World Cup, with Switzerland progressing instead.

Portugal, Euro 2016 winners, also fell short, finishing three points behind Serbia in Group A.

And now one of the heavyweights will fail to appear in Qatar, with both teams drawn together in Path C of the play-offs, which will take place in March.

Italy were drawn in a semi-final against minnows North Macedonia, who are aiming to make their first appearance at a World Cup, while Portugal will face Turkey.

Should they progress, Portugal will have home advantage in the Path C final to determine which team progresses to Qatar. While Cristiano Ronaldo could well be fighting to play in his final World Cup, the Azzurri will be aiming to avoid missing out on the tournament for a second successive time.

Path A threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine, who went unbeaten in a qualifying group that also included reigning world champions France, respectively.

In Path B, Russia will host Poland and Sweden will play the Czech Republic. 

The winner of Russia v Poland will host the Path B final.

Play-offs draw in full

Path A

SF1 – Scotland v Ukraine

SF2 – Wales v Austria

F1 – Winner SF2 v Winner SF1

Path B

SF3 – Russia v Poland

SF4 – Sweden v Czech Republic

F2 – Winner SF3 v Winner SF4

Path C

SF5 – Italy v North Macedonia

SF6 – Portugal v Turkey

F3 – Winner SF6 v Winner SF5

Carlo Ancelotti backed Thibaut Courtois by insisting he would not swap the Belgian for anyone after the Real Madrid star was snubbed for The Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper award.

World football's governing body announced its list of nominees for the end-of-year awards on Monday, and Courtois was curiously absent.

Alisson, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Edouard Mendy, Manuel Neuer and Kasper Schmeichel were those confirmed to be in the running for the goalkeeper award.

Courtois, who won the award in 2018, does not believe he has been overlooked because of his performances, rather recent comments he made.

The 29-year-old criticised UEFA and FIFA in October, accusing the institutions of treating players like "robots" amid fixture congestion, claiming those in charge only "care about their pockets" and not those playing the sport.

Speaking on Tuesday ahead of Madrid's Champions League clash with Sheriff, Courtois told reporters: "I'm not going to comment on why I'm not nominated for The Best.

"I think it's because of something I commented on a month ago, but that's it. Whoever gets it wins. The individual awards are not important."

Madrid certainly are not shy about publicly backing their own players for individual awards, with such campaigns frequently seen during Cristiano Ronaldo's time at the club.

More recently, the club has backed Karim Benzema to win the Ballon d'or with social media posts.

But Ancelotti highlighted the greater importance for Courtois to win titles with Madrid, with the Italian adamant he would not change goalkeepers despite FIFA seemingly not rating him among the five best in 2021.

"There are many good goalkeepers in Europe," Ancelotti said. "Others are going to choose [who wins the award], what are we going to do about it?

"We wouldn't want to change him for anyone and I think he doesn't want to change this club for any other. It's a marriage that is fine.

"For him, it is more important to win LaLiga or the Champions League than an individual trophy."

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah have all been nominated for the 2021 The Best FIFA Men's Player award.

Chelsea midfielders Jorginho and N'Golo Kante, Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski and Paris Saint-Germain stars Kylian Mbappe and Neymar are also on the shortlist.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland, Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne and Real Madrid's Karim Benzema complete the 11-man list.

There are seven nominees for the Best FIFA Men's Coach prize, including City boss Pep Guardiola and Italy coach Roberto Mancini, who led his side to Euro 2020 glory.

Hansi Flick is nominated after significant success with Bayern before taking the Germany job, along with Chelsea's Thomas Tuchel, Atletico Madrid's Diego Simeone and new Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte.

Lionel Scaloni, who guided Argentina to a Copa America triumph, completes the list.

Liverpool's Alisson, PSG's Gianluigi Donnarumma, Chelsea's Edouard Mendy, Bayern's Manuel Neuer and Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City are up for the Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper award.

The shortlist for the Best FIFA Women's Player includes four Barcelona players, among them Alexia Putellas and Jennifer Hermoso.

Pernille Harder leads a four-woman Chelsea contingent, while City duo Ellen White and Lucy Bronze are nominated, as is Arsenal's Vivianne Miedema.

Barcelona's Lluis Cortes, Sweden's Peter Gerhardsson, Chelsea's Emma Hayes, Canada's Beverly Priestmann and England boss Sarina Wiegman are up for the Best FIFA Women's Coach prize.

The candidates for each category were selected by respective panels of experts for men's and women's football. A public vote will run until 23:59 CET on December 10, after which three finalists in each category will be announced ahead of the ceremony on January 17.

Lewandowski won the Men's Player prize in 2020, ahead of Ronaldo and Messi, while Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp took the Men's Coach award.

Bronze was named the Best FIFA Women's Player and Wiegman the Best FIFA Women's Coach.

To many it still sounds absurd, but on November 21, 2022, the 22nd FIFA World Cup will get under way in Qatar.

Twelve years will have slipped by since Sepp Blatter pulled a card from an envelope and declared Qatar the hosts, giving the Arab world its first crack at putting on the tournament.

When the announcement came at FIFA HQ in Zurich, former US president Bill Clinton wrestled to mask his disappointment and offered a congratulatory handshake as the Qatari delegation celebrated on the row behind him. Clinton was the US bid committee's honorary chairman. It was reported he smashed a mirror in fury after returning to his hotel suite.

The USA, Australia, South Korea and Japan had been the rival candidates to Qatar, and many in the game believed the Americans would be awarded the tournament.

Chuck Blazer, the crooked FIFA executive who was also CONCACAF general secretary at the time, smiled along as the triumphant Qataris took to the stage.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, chairman of the Qatar bid team, said: "Thank you for believing in change, thank you for believing in expanding the game, thank you for giving Qatar a chance. We will not let you down. You will be proud of us; you will be proud of the Middle East and I promise you this."

Within a fortnight, Blatter said any gay fans planning on travelling to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, should "refrain from sexual activity". He faced a swift backlash for that remark, which was supposedly made in jest.

He added: "I think there is too much concern for a competition that will be done only in 12 years."

That sounded almost like a polite way of saying "not my problem", and as the FIFA gravy train soon hit the rails, with widespread corruption being exposed, the World Cup was indeed taken out of Blatter's hands.

Where then do we stand, with 12 months to go? Is this really a World Cup at the wrong time, in the wrong place?

Stats Perform has looked at the state of play, and the concerns that Blatter so flippantly dismissed continue to linger. Others have since sprung up and remain active worries; but at the same time, perhaps there is still cause for a little cautious optimism.

 


Can Qatar now be considered a fit and proper host for a World Cup?

May Romanos is a Gulf researcher for Amnesty International, the human rights organisation. She hails from Lebanon and lives in London.

When Qatar was handed the rights to the 2022 World Cup, Amnesty jumped at the chance to turn the spotlight on human rights concerns in the country and lobby for positive change that might spread throughout the Middle East. Over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the tournament, according to a Guardian investigation. Amnesty says that around 70 per cent of those deaths have not been satisfactorily explained.

Romanos says Amnesty harboured worries about "major labour abuse and exploitation".

It is not known exactly how many of those who have died were involved in the World Cup building project, given that over 90 per cent of Qatar's workforce are thought to be migrants, but staging the World Cup has been a major project for the country and it has been reported a significant proportion would have been involved in creating the infrastructure for the event.

These are the workers who built the stadiums, the roads and the hotels. Amnesty has been pushing for these workers to be afforded rights they could reasonably expect elsewhere in the world.

"In the first few years, the calls fell a bit on deaf ears and Qatar didn't really respond to the pressure, the criticism," Romanos told Stats Perform.

"Eventually in 2018 they signed this agreement with the International Labour Organization, which definitely indicates a higher political will to commit to reform the system and make this World Cup a driving force for change and leave a positive legacy for human rights."

Qatar has managed to introduce "important legal reforms to change the system to introduce better access to justice for migrant workers, introduced the minimum wage, [and] a mechanism to monitor the payment of wages", says Romanos.

"But what we are finding is that although the laws are there, their implementation and enforcement remain very weak, meaning that many migrant workers continue to be victim of labour abuses and exploitation."

The Qatari government has rejected claims of a spike in migrant worker deaths, stating that the mortality rate sits "within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population".

Qatar's World Cup Supreme Committee, through its Workers' Welfare legacy programme, says it is "achieving long-term tangible changes that now serve as benchmarks across the country and the region".

There have been new and improved laws introduced, directed at improving worker welfare, and Amnesty is optimistic these will make a telling difference.

"I think the political will is still there," says Romanos. "There is, I think, the need to get into action quickly and urgently because the window of opportunity is closing.

"We are 12 months away from this World Cup and I think it's very crucial that they take urgent action now to address the shortcomings and ensure the next few months will be very vital to deliver a World Cup that is not going to be tainted by labour abuses and exploitation or human rights concerns in general."


What can football do to help?

A UEFA working group visited Qatar in August, to take a first-hand look at work on the ground, amid concerns for the workers.

Gijs de Jong, general secretary of the Royal Netherlands Football Association, was among the delegation and spoke afterwards to praise Qatar's "significant positive progress with human rights legislation in the last three years", stressing he had "no doubt" this was hastened by the award of the World Cup. De Jong underlined, however, that the legislation was "not yet universally adopted".

According to Amnesty, there is a need for pressure to be applied to the Qatari authorities by all parties concerned with the World Cup.

Stats Perform pointed to the UEFA working group, and to David Beckham's reported big-money deal to be a tournament ambassador, questioning what role such figures can play in pressing for a better human rights situation.

"We want them, and we urge them, to take our concerns seriously," Romanos said. "Because they do have responsibility towards taking part in this tournament; they have responsibility to ensure their participation is not going to lead to further human rights violations.

"They have to use their leverage they have over FIFA and therefore over Qatar to push for further changes, and I think while we all agree there has been some legal progress, some of it remains ink on paper. The time is to recognise this but also to push further, to use the leverage they have to push Qatar and push FIFA to implement these reforms, so at least teams can go there confident in the knowledge their operation there is not going to lead to further human rights abuses."
 

What about the players? Won't they have enough to focus on without searching their consciences?

There is a tournament to win, and doubtless Qatar will put on a tremendous show in their space-age stadiums.

But politics will never be far from the surface, and players might be wise to at least be aware of the fundamentals of the human rights issues, which include oppression of LGBTQ+ people and discriminatory laws affecting women.

Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One superstar, used his platform ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix to highlight inequality and abuses.

"When we see a statement like this, we welcome it," said Romanos, "and we welcome players who decide to speak out about the human rights situation. We urge everyone to educate themselves and be ready to use their leverage or their voice to push for further changes.

"Obviously, the obligation of players is different to the obligation of the football association who actually have legal obligation and responsibility to ensure they use their leverage, push for change but also do their due diligence to ensure the teams they send are not going to be linked to any human rights violations.

"For the players, we would welcome and we would love to see this happening more often, using this platform, using the leverage you have to shed the light on a very important issue and ensure this World Cup will actually leave a positive legacy, or any sporting event will leave actually a positive legacy."

FIFPro, the global players' union, has already gathered together a number of footballers for discussions with the Building and Wood Workers International organisation, which has campaigned for better and more rights for those who have literally shed blood, sweat and tears for the sake of building a futuristic World Cup landscape. Players have spoken directly to such workers and this dialogue is expected to continue over the months ahead.

Although FIFPro would not take sides on such matters, it is providing the pathways for such important discourse to take place. Then it falls to the players to choose their next course of action.

FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer Hoffmann said earlier this year: "Let's not forget that, while footballers have no say in the decision to pick tournament host countries, they inevitably become the face of those events when they run onto the pitch to compete. They feel a responsibility to foster human rights in those countries."

FIFA and UEFA are among the football authorities that have allowed players to take the knee before games, in support of the Black Lives Matter anti-discrimination movement. Whether FIFA will be quite so lenient if players are actively speaking out against the Qatari authorities while at Qatar 2022 remains to be seen.

The world governing body has rules for that sort of thing, to keep politics out of football. It has financial interests to protect – sponsors, TV, supreme committees – but it is understood there are significant voices within the game that would urge FIFA to allow players to speak and express themselves freely on rights abuses next year. FIFA would also be risking global contempt by blocking such discussion. The clock is ticking for Qatar.

"This World Cup has brought the spotlight and has pushed the authorities to commit maybe at a faster pace to reform these processes. Probably they had this in mind, but the World Cup accelerated this," said Romanos.

There are countries "with equally if not even worse troubling human rights records [that] are also eyeing to host mega sporting events", Romanos added, without naming names, promising "more scrutiny" for those that get to stage such international jamborees.

"We are still hopeful," she added. "We really think that if anyone can pull this together and deliver their commitments and deliver a World Cup that will have a positive legacy, Qatar can do it."


What can fans, including LGBTQ+ fans, expect from Qatar, and should they even travel?

The comedian and football presenter Elis James spoke on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast of the quandary of wanting to follow Wales to a World Cup, but being wary of being part of a showcase event in a country where deep injustices have been called out.

He said he had "reservations about Qatar, but we haven't qualified for a World Cup since 1958, so the head and the heart are saying two very different things".

"And I actually don't like myself for being in that position," James added, "because I wish I could have more moral certainty about this."

He is far from alone, and Amnesty is not calling for anybody to boycott the tournament, although there have been others who have gone down that route. There was a strong movement in Norway calling for the national team of that country to give the tournament a miss. Ultimately, missing out on qualification meant Norway sealed their own fate in that regard, while the nation's football federation had already voted against the prospect of a boycott.

"Obviously it's a personal choice," said Romanos. "At Amnesty, our role as a human rights watchdog is to inform about the human rights situation and invite people to educate themselves before going and know what will happen there and expect what will happen."

 

Qatar is considered unlikely by many observers to impose its strictest rules on visitors during World Cup time, which may mean LGBTQ+ fans of the game will not face any persecution. Rainbow flags are expected to fly in fan zones and inside stadiums, but whether this has any influence on Qatari daily life beyond the tournament remains to be seen.

Fan power for four weeks in November and December is one thing, but changing the way of life in Qatar is likely to involve gradual shifts rather than overnight change.

"I think it’s up to the individual to decide how they want to use the platform they have to push for greater changes," Romanos said.

"As a person coming from the Middle East myself, the moment I learned that Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup I was genuinely very happy because I felt like our region deserves to be mentioned with some mega sporting event.

"We love football, but we don't have great football teams; but football is huge in the Middle East, and I felt for once it’s good for us not to be connected with terrorism, wars.

"But when you look at the human rights situation of migrant workers and the abuses that happen, you would say, okay, let's do a World Cup that we are proud of as the first World Cup in the Middle East. That's why we believe there is still this window of opportunity."

Premier League clubs are unanimously opposed to FIFA's proposal for a biennial men's World Cup.

While the idea of a World Cup every two years had been tentatively mentioned in the past, it gained traction in July when former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger – now FIFA's head of global football development – publicly backed the potential change.

FIFA began carrying out a feasibility study and Wenger insisted a biennial World Cup "is what the fans want", but the proposals have been met with widespread criticism.

UEFA officials have been particularly vocal in their opposition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed concerns, and players and managers have largely questioned the wisdom of such an alteration to the football calendar.

The Premier League has now lent its collective voice to the conversation, denouncing FIFA's proposals – which also encompassed the extension of international windows – due to concern for player welfare and domestic football.

A Premier League statement confirmed none of the 20 Premier League clubs were in favour of a World Cup every two years, while CEO Richard Masters said: "The Premier League is committed to preventing any radical changes to the post-2024 FIFA International Match Calendar that would adversely affect player welfare and threaten the competitiveness, calendar, structures and traditions of domestic football.

"We are open to reforms and new ideas, but they must enhance the complementary balance between domestic and international football in order to improve the game at all levels.

"This process should also involve meaningful agreements with the leagues that provide the foundations for the game.

"We will continue to work with supporter groups, players, domestic and international stakeholders to find solutions that are in the best interests of football's long-term future."

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