LAUSANNE: FIFA risks plunging the world of football into a new conflict with its proposal to hold the World Cup every two years instead of four, raising the possibility of a divorce with leading clubs and the powerful European leagues. The proposal, first floated in the 1990s, was revived in March by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now head of football development at FIFA.
In May, FIFA President Gianni Infantino agreed, at the request of the Saudi football federation, to launch a “feasibility study” into the proposal, making it clear that he is open to reforming the international calendar. With Wenger saying he hopes the consultation process will be completed by the end of the year, the powerful European leagues have stepped up their opposition.
A final phase every summer
FIFA’s central argument is that a biennial World Cup would create more profits that could be distributed to federations in Africa, Asia and South America, who have a greater reliance on FIFA funds than the wealthy European leagues.
Wenger says the idea would be to have a final phase every summer from 2025-2026, alternating World Cups and continental tournaments like the European Championships and Copa America. Qualifying matches would be grouped together in October, or in October and March.
He refutes the argument that the players would face increased strain, arguing that they would have to make fewer long journeys and would have a minimum of 25 days rest after playing in summer tournaments for their countries. “Today’s calendar is outdated,” Wenger said. “We want to organize it in a more efficient way.”
Hostility in Europe
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin is fiercely opposed to the proposal and threatened that European nations and South American powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina would boycott a biennial World Cup.
“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,” he told The Times newspaper. “I think it will never happen as it is so much against the basic principles of football.”
South American federation CONMEBOL followed that up with a strongly worded statement on Friday, saying the proposal would “distort the most important football competition on the planet”. “There is no sporting justification for shortening the period between World Cups,” CONMEBOL said.
Major European clubs have opposed it as well. “I’m not a fan of it,” said Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann, arguing that “if you want more value, make yourself rare.” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp claimed Friday that FIFA’s proposal was “all about money”.
The European Club Association, which represents the continent’s biggest clubs, said it believed there was no space in the current calendar for the proposals and complained that FIFA had not contacted it to discuss the matter. The World Leagues Forum, which speaks for 42 leagues around the globe, said the two-year proposal was detrimental to the economic interests of football and the players’ health.
Perhaps sensing it was losing the battle of public opinion, FIFA gathered together a group of illustrious former players and coaches in Doha this week to defend the idea of a biennial World Cup. One of those present, former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, said “we all were in agreement”.
Brazilian World Cup winner Ronaldo insisted that if you asked the world’s two best current players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, “I’m sure they will all say yes.” FIFA holds the key. Any final decision on the proposal would have to be made by a FIFA Congress, which usually takes place in May.
Even if FIFA decides to go ahead, it seems unlikely that European clubs — where the best players are mostly concentrated — would be prepared to part with their expensive assets for a month at a time, with the increased risk of injury that would bring.
A foretaste of what could happen came this week when some English clubs refused to release their players for matches in countries with an increased risk of COVID-19. FIFA could also face legal challenges from clubs. – AFP