“It’s all about the money.” You’ve probably heard critics of FIFA’s proposed biennial World Cup make that very point, and guess what? It largely is. And, from FIFA’s perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that. Their core mission is literally “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future.”
All those things take money or, at the very least, are a heck of a lot easier to do with money. FIFA funds — mostly the Forward Programme — is pretty much the only source of revenue for a majority of federations around the world, and because the World Cup is basically FIFA’s only source of revenue to funds its member federations, why wouldn’t they want to have twice as many World Cups per four-year cycle?
– How 2022 World Cup qualifying works around the world
I have a colleague who likes to say “FIFA gonna FIFA,” and he’s right. Complaining about FIFA wanting to create more competitions to create more revenues so they can distribute more money to their members is a little bit like complaining about a union wanting more pay and better working conditions, or like a private equity fund squeezing an asset to maximise profits on behalf of their clients. You can call it greed or lust for power or whatever you like, but it falls squarely within their remit. And, frankly, it aligns nicely with the interests of their member associations.
Around two-thirds of FIFA member nations do not have a professional men’s league, and much of the other third who does have a pro league offers facilities, wages and working conditions that are closer to League Two in England than the Premier League or LaLiga. These countries feel they can’t rely on the club game to grow organically — the road map that built the game in Europe and South America — because they’re too far behind. In a globalised world, many sponsors and broadcasters would rather spend money on established products than whatever is on their own doorstep.
Next time you watch a Premier League game, note how many sponsors come from outside not just England, but Western Europe. Or consider the fact that even in the world’s biggest economy, the United States, the broadcast rights of the top local professional league (Major League Soccer) are worth less than those of the Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga and Italy’s Serie A. What these federations see is the money in their own countries flowing out via sponsors and broadcasters to Europe’s big leagues, and they ask themselves: how they can ever compete if even their local businesses would rather throw cash at already rich leagues halfway around the world?
This is where you may be tempted to say: “It’s a global economy, shut up and deal with it.” Fair enough, but don’t be surprised if FIFA, whose power derives from their 211 members, might decide to cater to what a majority of their member associations want: more opportunities to play competitive matches and make money for the game in their own country.
Now’s a good time to note that I’m not endorsing Arsene Wenger’s proposed biennial World Cup plan. I think there are some good elements to it, such as reducing the number of international breaks per year from five to three (or even two, in the more radical version), reducing the number of World Cup qualifiers, introducing mandatory rest periods after summer competition. There are also some that I don’t like quite so much, like the fact that they suddenly become vague when it comes to an expanded Club World Cup and where it would sit in the calendar, like the fact that a major international tournament every year might cannibalise sponsors and attention for the women’s game, and that even with the rest period, we risk overworking a tiny group of players at the very top.
FIFA wants to see a more regular World Cup and it’s not hard to understand why. But don’t let their motivation obscure the fact that change is welcome. FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
While we’re at it, I really don’t like the way this was done, either — by commissioning (at Saudi Arabia’s request) a feasibility study with very little detail, and sending Wenger around the world to preach the biennial World Cup gospel without first consulting other stakeholders like the confederations, leagues and players. It feels like a power play, and it’s probably not surprising that UEFA, CONMEBOL, FIFPro (the global players’ union), the World Leagues Forum, the European Club Association and a number of other bodies have come out against it.
Imagine your spouse telling you they’ve made plans to sell your house and move into a camper van without telling you: “Honey, I’ve made plans to sign the paperwork next week, but don’t worry, I really do care about what you think too… in fact, you can help me choose the RV we’ll be living in for the rest of our lives.” It’s not surprising then, given the way it came about and faced with what looked like a fait accompli — Wenger went so far as to say he hoped all this would be approved by December — that UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has floated plans to boycott a biennial World Cup.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.
Right now, it looks like a game of chicken, and as often happens, it may well end up with some sort of 11th-hour compromise. The clock is ticking, though, because the International Match Calendar — the global Memorandum of Understanding between clubs, leagues, associations, confederations and FIFA governing when games are played — expires in 2024 and to avoid wreaking havoc (and financial losses, since there are sponsorship and media rights contracts to be signed), a deal realistically must be in place by this time next year at the latest.
The thing to remember, though, is that each stakeholder is looking out for their members’ interests. FIFA is pushing this due to the interests of a majority of FIFA nations (majority in number, not majority in terms of the cash they generate for the game). This was evident by the fact that CONCACAF and the Asian Football Confederation said they were “open” to the proposal. So too did the African confederation while, as far as I can tell, the Oceania Football Confederation — and their 11 full FIFA members — are just happy to talk.
UEFA and CONMEBOL — the folks who control most of the desirable (and lucrative) product — are acting in the interest of their stakeholders. FIFPro and the domestic leagues are doing the same, which, when you think about it, is how it should be: special interests defending their patch.
But the overriding issue won’t go away. The game is wildly popular around the world, but the money flows mostly to two continents and, within that, to a handful of countries in those two continents (and, within that, a handful of clubs, all of them in western Europe). And it’s not just an inequality of revenue; it’s an inequality of opportunity, of development, of pathways to growth.
Depending on where you are politically, you may or may not see a problem with this. That’s fine, but don’t blame FIFA for addressing this and riding the “haves vs. have-nots” narrative. While their plan may have flaws, while the way they’re pushing it is wrong and, maybe, their ultimate self-interest isn’t purely altruistic (in football as in politics, if you control the purse-strings, you control the world, and if FIFA president Gianni Infantino gets to control an even bigger pot of money, then he becomes even more powerful), they are responding to what they think a majority of their members — in particular, the poorer, less developed members who say they’re suffering as a result of the status quo — want.
So yeah, FIFA gonna FIFA and while few of football’s governing bodies have sterling reputations — the last three permanent presidents of CONMEBOL (Nicolas Leoz, Eugenio Figuereido and Juan Angel Napout) were all accused of corruption and banned from the game, the last four presidents of CONCACAF (Jack Warner, Lisle Austin, Alfredo Hawit, Jeffrey Webb) were all either indicted or banned, as were the last two presidents of CAF (Issa Hayatou and Ahmad Ahmad), Oceania (Reynald Temarii, David Chung) and the last presidents of the AFC (Mohamed bin Hammam) and UEFA (Michel Platini) — the FIFA name, as Infantino himself admits, is still “toxic” to many, which is what happens when six years ago you were on the verge of being designated as a “criminal organization” by the U.S. Department of Justice.
But that doesn’t mean that, by advocating on behalf of their poorer members — which happen to be the majority — they aren’t doing their job. And that advocacy alone can’t be the reason to oppose their proposed plans.