Pele, the only person to win three World Cups, said there will be “no problem” playing the 2022 tournament in Qatar during the summer and that the death of an Eduadorian soccer player in the Gulf state was a freak event.
Christian Benitez, 27, died this week of heart failure a day after his first game for his new Qatari team, El Jaish. It’s unclear whether heat played a role in the death of Benitez, who was hospitalized with chest pains.
Temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer in Qatar. On July 29, the date of Benitez’s first game for El Jaish, the capital of Qatar, Doha, had a high temperature of 40 degrees, according to the Weather Channel’s website.
“Of course you can play, no problem,” Pele told reporters in New York yesterday while promoting an endorsement deal with Subway Restaurants. “This is one case out of a billion.”
Sepp Blatter, president of world soccer governing body FIFA, will ask the organization’s executive board in October to move the 2022 World Cup earlier from its June-July schedule to cooler months. That plan is opposed by European soccer leagues including England’s Premier League, which say it will cause serious disruption to their seasons.
Pele, who spent most of his playing days with Santos in Brazil, said he played in hot conditions throughout his career without suffering any ill effects.
FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D’Hooghe yesterday reiterated his desire to bring the event forward.
“I’ve said it since the beginning, before the vote for Qatar, that if we go to Qatar take care if we play in summer, we will have problems,” D’Hooghe said in a telephone interview.
While Qatar has pledged to cool stadiums, the rest of the country will pose problems for players and visitors alike, according to D’Hooghe, a physician who sits on FIFA’s decision-making board.
“There are other components in a World Cup,” he said. “There are the 500 people of FIFA working there, there are the more than 14,000 press representatives and the tens of thousands of people coming with their teams. And then you will certainly have problems.
‘‘I think from a medical point of view, if you are not used to such temperatures it is not wise,’’ D’Hooghe said. ‘‘You cannot cover the whole country with air conditioning.’’
World Cup organizers, who have said they are planning for a summer World Cup, say they are happy to move the tournament if FIFA makes that decision.
‘‘I’ve had many people come to Qatar during June and it wasn’t the horror story people expected, that they would burst in flames,” Qatar World Cup organizing committee general secretary Hassan Al Thawadi told a conference in Rio de Janeiro last month. “It’s not Armageddon.”
Qatar defeated bids from the U.S., Australia, Japan and Korea following a vote marred by bribery allegations against several FIFA officials. Qatar, which is smaller in size than the U.S. state of Connecticut, has a population of about 2 million - - less than the number of tickets sold for the last World Cup in South Africa.