Gorging the goose – the plan for a revised World Cup cycle

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? 

@GameofthePeople

32 to 48 – the madness goes on

ALREADY considered by many to be pure folly, FIFA’s decision to host a 48-team World Cup may be brought forward to 2022 in the Middle East.

Originally targeted for 2026 in North America, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in Kuala Lumpur the expansion could take place four years earlier. “We have to see if it is feasible,” he said. “We are discussing it with our Qatari friends.”

Such an idea appears to be foolhardy. Qatar is building eight stadiums for the 32-team tournament, but in such a small, football-unfriendly place, the pressure on the country and the organising committee will be amplified by 50%.

However, Infantino also said that FIFA may engage some of Qatar’s neighbours to help host the competition, should the governing body decide to make 2022 the biggest-ever finals.

What has prompted this possible change of plan? Well, Infantino is facing an election next year and a bigger, more inclusive competition (Asia will get another four places, for example), will surely win votes.

Infantino has already been accused of pursuing “pet projects” such as a revamped FIFA Club World Cup as well as the “World Nations League” following the unexpected success of World Cup 2018.

Deep down, FIFA knows that the blue riband event in world football is the UEFA Champions League. FIFA cannot compete with this, given that it gets one stab every four years to dominate the limelight. The current Club World Cup is neither here nor there, taken seriously in South America but nowhere else. It either has to be reconfigured or scrapped.

With Russia 2018 a big success and winning-back some of the World Cup’s appeal after a trail of disappointment, FIFA may feel it is a good position to introduce new competitions to build on the momentum of the summer. Certainly, a club competition on similar lines to the FIFA World Cup could have some credibility, although the imbalances that exist worldwide suggests the winners will be very predictable.

Are Infantino’s comments just throwaway, or do they represent the equivalent of a politican calling for an early election to leverage popularity? FIFA is in a better place today than it was a couple of years ago, partly due to the World Cup, so increasing 2022 and bearing gifts for potential voters might be a prudent move.

Regardless, the logistics of increasing 32 to 48 in Qatar and surrounding states might be incredibly stupid. Who will take the overspill, for instance? Let’s not forget that Qatar has been living under a trade and diplomatic blockade after neighbours – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – accused the country of financing terrorism.

Unless fences are repaired, which countries does Infantino have in mind – Oman, Yemen, Dubai, Kuwait? Obviously, if FIFA opts for a snap expansion, there are three years to go before 2022. While money will have to be spent – Qatar, despite the blockade is still on budget – the World Cup will also bring money, prestige and profile to any state that becomes part of the plan.

Expanding an already large competition is not necessarily the way ahead. A 48-team format does not bring strength to the World Cup, it merely introduces more weaker sides. It’s a good way to kill the goose that laid the golden egg and from a political standpoint, Infantino is odds-on to be re-elected – he doesn’t need to throw promises from his chariot.

The question remains, is the competition run to provide a festival of excellence, or is it ever-expanding to squeeze as much cash out of the global audience as possible. Increasingly, the latter appears to be the logical conclusion.

Photo: PA