THE CYNICS among us believe there are two motives behind the proposal to stage the FIFA World Cup every two years: the generation of more money for FIFA and its members; and an attempt to prise power away from UEFA and its uber-clubs.
The World Cup used to be special but a number of disappointing tournaments diluted its appeal in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2018, the competition staged a comeback, building on a half-decent 2014 to produce a compelling month of football. But one of UEFA’s major countries failed to make the cut – Italy were absent from the finals and it hurt. The enlargement of the World Cup wasn’t meant to exclude the big European markets. From FIFA’s perspective, to lose one of its blue riband nations must have been a blow, but Italy bounced back and won Euro 2020.
FIFA still made money, but their profitability in 2018 compensated for losses before the Russia World Cup. UEFA has its Champions League which has made both the confederation and its major clubs wealthy on an annual basis, but FIFA doesn’t have the benefit of lucrative club football, year-in, year-out.
The idea of a World Cup every two years came from Saudi Arabia and is being championed by none other than Arsène Wenger, who is responsible for global development at FIFA. Wenger wants to reduce the number of qualifying games, of which there are many. Somehow, the UEFA and FIFA qualifiers have to be coordinated and work in conjunction with each other.
There are simply far too many meaningless games and we’re not talking about friendly games. For example, since the World Cup in Russia, England have played 28 games against lesser opposition and almost half of these against what can only be described as very mediocre countries. Just six games have been played against nations from the upper echelons of the European game.
Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, said that the “status quo of the international calendar shows us we have reached some limits.” Forbes’ journalist Steve Price, cautioning that you can have too much of a good thing, said the World Cup’s rarity is what makes it such a spectacle. “Most fans would agree with Infantino’s analysis that fans want less meaningless games, but at the same time, FIFA has to be careful to ensure the World Cup itself doesn’t lose its meaning,” he wrote.
Unsurprisingly, the Premier League, EFL and Scottish Premier are all against the idea. They see exhausted players and a crowded calendar that allows little wriggle room for lucrative pre-season games, such as those transatlantic trips to play in the US or franchise-building sojourns to Asia.
In fact, the revised calendar in both option A and B, makes for a very meaningful programme, with very little gap between seasons and fewer but more intense international breaks. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, though. Manchester City chief executive, Ferran Soriano was very clear what he thought: “There is no room at all. The players cannot play more games, that’s for sure.”
Aleksander Ceferein, UEFA president, told the Times he has “grave concerns” about the proposal: “We can decide not to play in it. As far as I know, the South Americans are on the same page. So good luck with a World Cup like that. I think it will never happen as it is so much against the basic principles of football. To play every summer a one-month tournament (Wenger’s blueprint for international football), for the players it’s a killer.”
Wenger claimed he had a good response from 166 federations regarding his proposal, but it would be interesting to see who is in favour and who is not. Although 166 of 211 were positive about carrying out a feasibility study, only 79 of the 211 have ever qualified for the World Cup and just 58 have appeared more than once. It is not difficult to conclude the enthused nations are those that rarely get a look-in.
Basically, FIFA can also win support by promising more money for the developing football nations, a tactic that served some election-seeking suits very well in the past. More World Cups means more money.
But how will it impact domestic football? There are concerns about the health of players and the consequences of a month-long tournament every season. Without an accompanying restructuring of club football, the international game could swamp the football programme. There are too many games already, so we could see a power struggle between FIFA and leading confederations like UEFA and CONMEBOL. There’s also the Olympics to consider, who may find themselves compromised by an all too frequent World Cup. And, in a worse case scenario, there could another attempt at mutiny by the elite clubs.
Whatever happens, the proposal is little more than another self-serving exercise and demonstrates football’s authorities are far from united. They’ve already stretched the World Cup as far as they can, increasing the numbers to 48 for 2026. Here’s a thought, would there be 166 keen nations if the competition was to become more frequent but for a much reduced number?