FIFA has formally delayed the start of the World Cup by one day to give host nation Qatar an exclusive Sunday evening slot in front of a global audience.
Qatar will now face Ecuador in Doha on November 20 — just 101 days after FIFA’s decision on Thursday — extending the World Cup to 29 days from the 28 agreed upon seven years ago when a June-July tournament was pushed back to avoid the searing desert heat in midsummer.
A FIFA committee comprised of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the presidents of the six continental soccer bodies approved the surprise late switch. According to FIFA, the vote was unanimous.
The plan was revealed on Wednesday, following several rounds of ticket sales to fans around the world since last year.
“FIFA will seek to address any issues arising from this change on a case-by-case basis,” soccer’s global governing body said Thursday of fans whose travel plans have been disrupted.
The danger to fans “Commercially, FIFA previously stated this week in a letter to soccer officials proposing the switch, “is sufficiently outweighed by the value and benefits of the proposal.”
Tournament organizers in the tiny gas-rich emirate, South American soccer body CONMEBOL, and the two teams’ national soccer federations were said to support the date change.
Qatar will now make its World Cup debut against Ecuador on November 20 at 7 p.m. local time, following an opening ceremony on the field at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium.
The match between the world’s No. 49 and No. 44 men’s national teams was originally scheduled for Nov. 21 after the finals tournament draw was made on April 1 in Doha.
Despite being the third game of the tournament and with only an hour of free time after the final whistle of the second game on the schedule, England vs. Iran, the opening ceremony was still scheduled to take place before Qatar-Ecuador.
It is unclear why Qatar’s first game was not scheduled as the tournament opener in April.
FIFA acknowledged in a letter this week that having the opening ceremony before the tournament’s first game featuring the host nation has “significant ceremonial, cultural, and commercial value.”
Until Thursday’s decision, the first game in Qatar’s Group A was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. local time on Nov. 21. That will now return to the cooler hours of the 7 p.m. Monday slot previously occupied by Qatar-Ecuador.
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.