You can pack a lot into two years. It’s how long Boris Johnson has been prime minister, it’s the time explorers Lewis and Clark spent finding out what was west of the Mississippi and it’s the average life span of the North American opossum.
But a World Cup cycle, complete with continental qualifying campaigns and a 48-team final tournament?
It is the question that has very quickly gone from being FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s latest madcap idea to football’s next big fight.
In the red corner, we have world football’s governing body, its chief of global development Arsene Wenger, national football federations from Saudi Arabia to South Africa and an 80-strong group of former managers and players that includes Avram Grant, Jay-Jay Okocha and Michael Owen.
In the blue corner, we have Europe: its governing body UEFA, clubs, leagues, fans’ groups and players’ unions.
The latter has the money, players and recent World Cup winners. The former has the votes.
That is how these things usually start out in global football politics and the end result is nearly always a compromise, with both sides giving a little, grumbling about it but muddling on. This time, however, it is very hard to see how the two positions — why not vs absolutely not — can be pushed together.
The European Club Association (ECA) knows better than most just how eventful 24 months can be as it held its first large in-person gathering since September 2019 in Geneva this week.
The intervening months have not been kind to the organisation that started as the G-14 gang of elite clubs but is now a group that represents 247 sides across the continent. First, there was the biggest pandemic for a century — a crisis that cancelled seasons, postponed competitions and shut stadiums, causing combined financial losses of £3 billion or so.
And then, six months ago, there was what new ECA chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi described on Monday as a “midnight coup” by 12 of the group’s most senior members: the attempt to create a breakaway Super League last April.
It was an act of treachery that almost killed this unlikely collective but you would not have known that if your first experience of its dynamics was its 26th general assembly.
Held in the Hotel President Wilson, a posh gaff on the shore of Lake Geneva, this meeting went well. Hatchets were buried — and not in each other’s backs — most of the traitors were forgiven, those who have refused to apologise were not mentioned, awards were presented, a pleasant meal was had and plans for dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and how to make clubs more sustainable were advanced.
But, most of all, the ECA united against a common external threat — more international football — proving once again the old adage about my enemy’s enemy being my friend.
“There is no space for anything,” said Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano. “No room at all. The players cannot play more games, that’s for sure.”
Al-Khelaifi, the Paris Saint-Germain president, tried to be more diplomatic, saying: “We want to engage with other stakeholders — a unilateral decision will not help anyone.
“It’s very clear we need to consult with all stakeholders for decisions on the future of football and we are ready to discuss it with them.”
ECA vice-chairman and Bayern Munich director of legal affairs Michael Gerlinger said: “We have a running (memorandum of understanding) with FIFA where we agree on a calendar — it lasts until next year.
“We have not yet had any proposals on the table from FIFA on what a World Cup every two years would look like. In the current calendar, there’s no room, so there’s no possibility to comment on how that could be the case. For the time being, the World Cup every two years is impossible.”
Leeds United chairman Andrea Radrizzani proposed a potential compromise — “I like four (years) but perhaps there could be a discussion around every three” — only to then agree with his colleagues that FIFA has failed to engage. “There is a disconnect,” the Italian added.
The World Leagues Forum, which counts the Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 among its members, issued a statement on Wednesday night saying it “firmly opposes” a biennial World Cup, which it believes would “dilute the historical and traditional values of a competition that means so much to fans and players”. “FIFA’s leadership cannot be able to turn something exceptional into a commonplace event purely to serve their short-term interests,” it added. Touche.
The details of FIFA’s plan for biennial World Cups — and how European Championships, Copas America and Asian Cups might fit in — will be revealed by Wenger in a press conference on Thursday in Qatar, where he is meeting Grant, Okocha, Owen and the rest of his new technical advisory group. But the former Arsenal boss gave the general idea away in an interview with French outlet L’Equipe last week.
Much has been made of the apparent contrast between the 71-year-old’s views on international football now and what he used to say when he managed Arsenal but, to be fair, there is not as much difference as has been suggested in some quarters.
A bunch of FIFA legends…and me. pic.twitter.com/0FYLG5bxNI
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) September 8, 2021
Arsene the Arsenal boss got fed up with losing his players to international duty every other month and the burden those absences placed on his squad from air miles and extra games. He did not like the Africa Cup of Nations interrupting his flow mid-season but he never actually railed against meaningful international football, as long as it was in its right place and proportion.
For him, that is in two chunks, preferably a month of qualifying matches in October and then a month for the finals in June/July, with no other interruptions, a mandatory rest period of 25 days for every player every summer and an overall ratio, in terms of games, of 80-20 in favour of club football.
This, he believes, can be achieved if we scrap friendlies and other fripperies such as the Nations League, streamline the qualifiers and pack these two windows with meaningful fixtures. Do this and we could hold biennial World Cups and European Championships, on alternating two-year cycles, without actually adding to the players’ workload, while cutting down on travel and time away from clubs. They might even get three weeks in Miami or Mykonos.
FIFA boss Infantino loves this idea for several reasons.
One, it doubles his organisation’s paydays. At present, FIFA earns about £4 billion in a four-year cycle, with nearly all of that coming in a World Cup year. It runs significant deficits in the three intervening years. UEFA, on the other hand, earns nearly £11 billion over the same period, as it has its own four-yearly international money-spinner tournament plus the billions it earns every year from its very lucrative club competitions.
Twice as many World Cups means twice as much political patronage to dish out, twice as much hobnobbing with global leaders and twice as many chances of winning a Nobel Peace Prize. It really is double the fun for a FIFA boss.
Now, it is easy to be very cynical about the above and say biennial World Cups sound like a great idea for FIFA and Infantino but what about the rest of the game?
The answer to that is the status quo is working pretty well for UEFA and Europe’s leading clubs but not so well for the majority of FIFA’s 211 member associations who do not make World Cups or even their own confederation championships and need FIFA handouts to fund whatever development programmes they are running in their countries.
This is what Infantino means when he talks about growing the game and giving nations more chances to experience the joy of a World Cup. He has already expanded the number of teams in the tournament from 32 to 48, and now he wants to double the number of actual tournaments. This is his levelling-up agenda.
The numbers speak for themselves. Only 79 countries have played in a World Cup, 21 of those have played in only one and 38 have played in three or fewer of the 21 total competitions since 1930.
Among the nations that have only played in one tournament are Canada, China and Indonesia. Football-mad Turkey and Senegal are among those who have been twice, while Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast and South Africa have reached only three World Cups. India haven’t played in any.
Fourteen countries have played in more than half of the 21 World Cups: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay and 10 from Europe. UEFA members have provided 12 of the 21 winners and there have only been two World Cup finals without a European participant — 1930 in Uruguay and 1950 in Brazil. Three of the last four World Cup finals have been all-European affairs.
FIFA’s rankings tell a similar story. Six of the top 10 and 13 of the top 20 are European. The highest-ranked African team is Senegal at 21, Japan is Asia’s best at 24.
If you were dishing out World Cup berths for a 48-team competition tomorrow on the basis of a ranking, 26 European teams would get in, eight from South America, six from Africa, five from Asia and three from North and Central America.
It is just as one-sided in the club game. More so, in fact. European teams have won 13 of the 17 Club World Cups, a tournament that earns FIFA almost nothing. This is hardly surprising when you consider the fact that only one non-European club, Flamengo, has ever made Deloitte’s top 20 clubs by annual revenue. And they only did it once and that was 24 years ago.
When you put it like that, it is easy to see why 166 nations voted in favour of Saudi Arabia’s proposal to explore the possibility of biennial World Cups at the last FIFA Congress in May.
The Confederation of African Football, which is effectively being run by FIFA under special measures at the moment, went further than that in July, saying there is no need for any further exploration, it is a yes from its 54 members.
And at the weekend, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka — four nations yet to experience World Cup fever and currently in the bottom quartile of FIFA’s rankings — added their weight (and four votes) to the cause.
So nasty old Europe cannot just say no, right? Right?
The honest answer to this one is nobody knows because football has not had a row like this one — one as complicated, fundamental, and wide-ranging — for a very long time.
Is Wenger right that the six current windows for international football can be concertinaed into two without adding more games and stress to the system at a time when the ECA and UEFA are about to increase the number of international club games they play?
FIFA is convinced fans and players still love international football — and this summer’s tournaments in Europe and South America suggest it is right — but do they want twice as much? Has anyone asked them?
Have we not spent most of the last decade talking about how the northern hemisphere summer is not the best time to play the most meaningful games in every part of the planet?
Does FIFA still want to overhaul its Club World Cup to make it as prestigious as the country vs country comp?
Wenger told L’Equipe he thinks this can be signed off by December but The Athletic understands that would require a change in FIFA’s statutes — they currently state that World Cups take place every four years — and then a two-thirds majority at an extraordinary congress. That is a lot to sort out by Christmas.
And even if FIFA gets the legal framework for biennial World Cups arranged, will anything actually change? It managed to outflank European opposition to gain regulatory approval for a 24-team Club World Cup two and a half years ago. It now seems like FIFA is willing to drop that idea, without ever actually testing it, in order to get more World Cups.
Some in Geneva wondered if the real goal here is to finally get full buy-in from the ECA and UEFA for that expanded Club World Cup, as that would boost FIFA’s revenues. But, as one club boss put it: “With Infantino, who really knows?”
What is certain is this potential threat has helped Europe’s leading clubs and UEFA get over the last one, what Al-Khelaifi described as the “not so Super League” and the “fabulists and failures” who have refused to give up on that idea.
As the PSG president also said — although he may have been referring to something else — there are opportunities in every crisis.
This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.
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