GENEVA — FIFA has formally moved the World Cup start up by one day to give host nation Qatar an exclusive Sunday evening slot with a global audience.
Qatar will now play Ecuador in Doha on Nov. 20 – just 101 days after FIFA’s decision Thursday – stretching the World Cup to 29 days from the 28 agreed seven years ago when a June-July tournament was pushed back to avoid the searing desert heat in midsummer.
The surprise late switch was signed off by a FIFA committee comprising its president Gianni Infantino and presidents of the six continental soccer bodies. FIFA said the vote was unanimous.
The plan was revealed Wednesday after several rounds of ticket sales to fans worldwide since last year.
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“FIFA will seek to address any issues arising from this change in a case-by-case basis,” soccer’s world body said Thursday regarding fans whose travel plans are affected.
The risk to fans “is sufficiently outweighed by the value and benefits of the proposal” commercially, FIFA previously said this week in a letter to soccer officials proposing the switch.
The date change was said to be supported by tournament organizers in the tiny gas-rich emirate, South American soccer body CONMEBOL and the two teams’ national soccer federations.
Qatar will now make its World Cup debut kicking off against Ecuador at 7 p.m. local time on Nov. 20 after an opening ceremony on the field at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium.
The meeting of the world’s No. 49 and No. 44-ranked men’s national teams was originally scheduled 24 hours later on Nov. 21 after the finals tournament draw was made April 1 in Doha.
In the original schedule, the opening ceremony was still planned to take place before Qatar-Ecuador despite it being the third game of the tournament, and with just an hour of free time after the final whistle of the second game on the schedule, England vs. Iran.
It is unclear why Qatar’s first game was not scheduled in April as the tournament opener.
FIFA acknowledged in its letter this week the “significant value from a ceremonial, cultural and commercial point of view,” to have the opening ceremony before the tournament’s first game featuring the host nation.
The first game until Thursday’s decision was Netherlands-Senegal in Qatar’s Group A, starting at 1 p.m. local time on Nov. 21. That now moves back to the cooler hours of the 7 p.m. Monday slot vacated by Qatar-Ecuador.
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Sponsors could also have their plans disrupted, according to Ricardo Fort, a former marketing executive with World Cup top-tier backers Coca-Cola and Visa, who described the late date change as “a huge problem.”
“They (sponsors) invited and confirmed hospitality guests, booked flights & hotels, and contracted with all the necessary logistics. Imagine changing it all!” Fort wrote on his Twitter account.
Changing the opening game does let FIFA follow recent trend of the host nation having an exclusive day to play the first of the 64-game tournament.
Still, it marks another way the first World Cup in the Middle East and the first of the 22 World Cups ever played outside of the northern hemisphere summer is upending soccer tradition.
FIFA got agreement from soccer officials worldwide in 2015 to delay the tournament previously set for the usual June-July period when temperatures routinely hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in Qatar.
Qatar committed to stay on soccer’s normal calendar and promised innovative stadium cooling technology when it bid for World Cup hosting rights in 2009-10.
When FIFA accepted the inevitable need to delay until Qatar’s cooler months, a tough negotiation with European leagues and clubs lead to the 2015 agreement for a shorter, 28-day program to minimize disruption for domestic soccer that relies on weekend games.
European leagues such as England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A will play through the Nov. 12-13 weekend, just seven days before the new opening game date.
Those leagues will shut down during the World Cup, which ends with a Sunday, Dec. 18 final on Qatar’s National Day. The Premier League is the first to resume on Dec. 26.
While an opening game on Sunday evening in Qatar should play well with viewers in Asia and Europe, in the United States the kickoff will be 11 a.m. EST. That puts the World Cup opener in direct competition with NFL pre-game coverage.
The U.S. soccer team plays its World Cup opener against Wales in the late Monday game in Qatar.