Asia and Africa on one side. Europe and South America on the other.
Some of the game’s legends on one side. A few current stars on the other.
At the centre of the incoming storm is FIFA. Feeling the threat of being swept aside is UEFA, the body that controls the game in Europe, the nerve centre of world football.
When coaching great Arsene Wenger proposed the idea of having a World Cup every two years, one wonders if he had imagined that it would split the football world in such a dramatic fashion. On the face of it, this seems like a straightforward debate. But scratch the surface and multiple layers emerge, the most crucial being the enduring power struggle between FIFA and UEFA.
FIFA and Wenger, while proposing this idea, said the fans would be more interested in watching ‘meaningful’ matches, which might be true given that more than a billion people watched the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia. They’ve also claimed that the players would like more chances to play in a World Cup. Critics, however, have constantly pointed at a third element, which they allege is the main motive behind this move. “All about money,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said recently.
FIFA raised approximately $6 billion in revenue from the 2018 World Cup. This money was generated by selling broadcast rights, tickets and sponsorship. FIFA hopes that instead of having just one World Cup in four years, conducting two during the same period would double its income.
This is where the clash of power between FIFA and UEFA takes place. FIFA, as the Financial Times noted, is ‘challenging clubs and leagues’ for a larger share of profits as the sport continues to grow. The world body’s president, Gianni Infantino, is trying to do so by increasing the number of teams in the World Cup from 32 to 48 and also expanding the Club World Cup.
The UEFA, trying to protect its own financial interests, sees this as a threat to its own competitions for the simple reason that more international matches will directly eat into European club competitions – continental and domestic – thus impacting their revenue.
A World Cup every two years would also have a cascading effect on the continental championships like the Euros, which is currently held between two World Cups. According to Wenger’s proposal, the Euros will have to change the year when it is held and thus, each season will conclude with a big-ticket event in June. As Reuters explained: ‘For example, in 2028 there would be a World Cup. In 2029, there would be a European Championship (and similar continental competitions around the world) then in 2030 there would be the next World Cup.”
This would, in turn, have an impact on all other competitions. FIFA has not yet made clear what happens in an Olympic year, or what happens if the World Cup is to be held in a country where the only option is to play the tournament in winter, as is the case with Qatar 2022.
Not just football, a major football tournament every summer – and a World Cup every two years – would eat into the market for other summer sports, something which World Athletics president Sebastian Coe underlined last week.
“I can see no good reason for it. There may be vested interests here but the summer sports are protective about the landscape as it’s hard enough for them as it is to grab space in the traditional or digital media. A biennial World Cup will inevitably start clashing with the Olympic Games too,” Coe was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
Amidst all this lack of clarity, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has threatened a boycott. “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,” Ceferin told The Times.
The South American confederation hasn’t publicly spoken about a boycott yet, but has also opposed the idea. However, if Europe does as Ceferin has threatened – a far-fetched scenario at the moment but a situation that could escalate any time – it would take all the sheen away from the World Cup, given that European teams have won all but one edition since 1998 and also have the highest representation in the semifinals.
So far, only Asia and Africa – the two confederations that rely heavily on FIFA money – have openly backed the idea. Or to be precise, just a handful of Asian countries – Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives – that have not come close to qualifying for the World Cup. Saudi Arabia set the ball rolling in this debate by formally putting forward this proposal at a FIFA Congress this year.
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There’s a split among players and managers as well. Last week, several of the game’s legends gathered in Qatar and backed the idea. “If you ask Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo if they would love to have more opportunities to win the World Cup, I’m sure they’d say yes,” Brazilian World Cup winner Ronaldo said at a press conference on Friday.
Messi and Cristiano haven’t spoken on the issue. But Gareth Bale, one of the stars of this generation, did not seem too enthused. “I don’t like every two years. I feel it loses that bit of history. The fact it’s over four years, and it’s a long time until the next one, makes it that bit more prestigious,” Bale was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Eventually, it won’t matter what players, managers, administrators, fans or the media feel about this. The final decision will be taken by the 211 FIFA member nations. Infantino, it is reported, is keen to hold a vote in December this year. And the split in the football world might not be good news for those who aren’t fans of the biennial World Cup.
Europe and South America, the only confederations who have been vocal against the idea, have a total of 65 votes between them. If Asia, Africa and the Americas vote in favour of the idea, none of the voices against the proposal would matter.