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BERNE (Reuters) - FIFA has revived the possibility of staging the 2022 World Cup in January and February after president Sepp Blatter previously ruled out the idea last year.
Three possible time slots were discussed for the tournament as a FIFA task force, set up specifically to decide once and for all when the finals should take place, met for the first time at the headquarters of world soccer's governing body on Monday.
Qatar was awarded the World Cup on the widely held understanding that it would be staged in the summer despite the searing heat in the country.
Although Qatar has insisted that a summer World Cup is viable thanks to cooling technologies it is developing for stadiums, training areas and fan zones, there is still widespread concern over the health of the players and visiting supporters.
"Discussions centered around the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and participants were presented with information on the implications of staging the event in winter as opposed to summer, as proposed by the FIFA executive committee," FIFA said in a statement.
"FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke clarified that, based on the hosting agreement, the FIFA World Cup must be held in 2022.
"The options of January/February 2022 and November/December 2022 were put forward as alternatives to June/July 2022, and initial feedback received."
Last November, Blatter categorically ruled out a winter World Cup that could clash with the Winter Olympics.
"The FIFA World Cup can only be played in November/December 2022, no way it's going to take place in January/February," he told a news conference in Abu Dhabi at the time.
"We have to see how we can have the FIFA World Cup played in winter, but only Nov/Dec are possible."
The International Olympic Committee, contacted by Reuters, said on Monday it had received assurances from Blatter the 2022 World Cup would not clash with the winter Olympics, the world's biggest winter sports event.
"It is in the interest of both organizations (FIFA and the IOC) that there is no clash between our calendars," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "We have received assurances from President Blatter that this will not be the case.
Monday's meeting included representatives from European clubs, leagues and the world players' union FIFPro as well as national association representatives.
"This is the first meeting and there will be future meetings on this matter," said Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who chaired the meeting.
"As the FIFA executive committee has emphasized, the consultation process should not be rushed but instead be given the necessary time to consider all of the elements relevant for a decision.
"We have made progress at today's meeting and will continue to work together to find the best solution for soccer."
However, Blatter, speaking in a taped interview shown to the Soccerex convention in Manchester, seemed to rule out a summer World Cup, even though it was put to the task force.
"We have already said we cannot play in summer in this heat in Qatar," he said. "We have to play in winter.
"Now we are making this consultation but it is the first official one, so far.
"So far the FIFA secretary Jerome Valcke has made some contact by telephone with the different leagues and now we will bring them together and identify what is the best possible moment to play in Qatar. But that decision is not taken. Definitely not."
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Stephen Wood and Ken Ferris