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The battle to control football: Fifa versus Uefa

Almost a year before the men’s football World Cup takes place in Qatar, Arsène Wenger travelled to Doha this week to meet a group of sporting legends. They gathered not to reminisce about past exploits, but to plot a new future for the game.

Wenger, the venerable former manager of English Premier League club Arsenal, pitched a bold proposition to ex-stars including Brazilian striker Ronaldo and Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel: staging the World Cup every two years, instead of four.

“Times are changing,” says Wenger, 71, who became chief of global football development at Fifa, the sport’s international governing body, in 2018. “The new generation is used to quick responses to what they want.”

The idea is to give fans more of a product they already desire. The 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia was watched by 1.1bn people worldwide, according to Fifa. But the body also hopes to double its cash. That World Cup, held in Russia, generated an estimated $6bn in revenues from broadcasting, sponsorship and ticketing. Only the Olympic Games captures similar attention and income.

At its heart, the push for a biennial World Cup is a battle over money and power. Fifa is challenging clubs and leagues for greater proceeds from the sport’s expected growth. But its main opponent is Uefa, the European football’s governing body, which runs the Champions League, the world’s most popular club competition. The two sides are fighting for pre-eminence over the world’s favourite game.

Wenger was first asked to investigate the possibility of increasing the World Cup’s frequency by Fifa president Gianni Infantino, a Swiss-Italian bureaucrat who was elected in 2016, rising from obscurity to lead the organisation out of a corruption scandal to become the most powerful person in the game.

Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino, centre, and above Arsène Wenger, chief of global football development. Infantino has signalled he may force a ballot by December © Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Infantino has already secured an enlargement of the World Cup, which from 2026 will include 48 teams, up from 32. Yet, his latest expansion plan is seen by many as a power grab too far.

Staging the World Cup more often will swallow time allocated for other big football contests, including the annual Champions League in Europe, the Copa America, South America’s national team competition, and even Fifa’s own Women’s World Cup.

It would also steal attention — and potentially, broadcasting cash — away from other events, such as rival world cups for cricket and rugby union, while also colliding with summer Olympics.

Infantino faces stiff resistance. Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, has said Fifa’s move would “kill football” and that Europe and South America could join forces to boycott the biennial World Cup.

Ceferin’s statement came during a series of meetings this week among the continent’s top football executives held across Switzerland. Those gatherings were supposed to be a celebration of a recent victory against plans to launch the so-called European Super League, a breakaway competition outside the sport’s traditional structures and launched by a dozen of the richest clubs.

How the football calendar could change with a biennial World Cup. World Cup to be played two weeks earlier

Unveiled in May, the project quickly collapsed in the face of protests from fans, media and politicians. Only Italy’s Juventus and Spain’s Real Madrid and FC Barcelona remain committed to reviving the concept. Some involved in the Super League believed they had the tacit support of Infantino, who ultimately came out against.

Having beaten back the Super League rebels, European football’s bosses appear blindsided by the World Cup proposals, which were first floated in May, although the details and intense lobbying only came into the open over recent days.

“Let’s talk,” Nasser al-Khelaifi, president of France’s Paris Saint-Germain and the new chair of the European Club Association, the trade body that represents more than 200 leading club sides, said last week. “We haven’t been approached on this yet.”

Instead, Fifa executives have briefed star footballers and international media on its plans, seeking to drum up popular support. A final decision rests not with fans, players, commentators, clubs or domestic leagues: each one of Fifa’s 211 member nations will need to vote on the proposal.

People close to the lobbying say there is strong support in Africa and Asia, where many countries want more chances to participate in the showpiece tournament. Europe and South America, where opposition is strongest, only have 65 votes between them — not nearly enough to form a veto block. Infantino has signalled he may force a ballot by December.

“This is more materially threatening to football than the Super League,” says a senior European football industry figure. “The Super League was a fairytale. But for this, Fifa have the votes.”

People react as they watch the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia
Billions of people, from Argentina to Japan, South Africa to India, eagerly follow the World Cup, even if their nations do not qualify © Geoffery Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

Outdated schedule?

The first World Cup was the result of a schism over the sport’s future. In 1927, the International Olympic Committee dropped football from the upcoming 1932 Los Angeles Games, due to the sport’s lack of popularity in the US and a disagreement over which players counted as amateurs.

Fifa’s then president, Jules Rimet, decided to launch an international football contest in 1930 in Uruguay, but retained the Olympics’ quadrennial pattern. Over the decades, football grew in popularity, boosted by the advent of television. Billions of people, from Argentina to Japan, South Africa to India, eagerly follow the World Cup, even if their nations do not qualify. Footballers consider lifting the trophy as the sport’s pinnacle.

Seeking the World Cup’s spotlight, countries engage in bitterly-contested bids to stage the event. Governments pay billions of dollars to build stadiums and the privilege of hosting the jamboree. That includes the US, a co-host of the 2026 tournament alongside Mexico and Canada.

Wenger suggests that the World Cup schedule has become “outdated,” given fans’ apparent desire for ever-more football and the relative ease of international travel.

Liverpool’s English defender Trent Alexander-Arnold (L) vies with Real Madrid’s Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior during the UEFA Champions League quarter final
From left, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior. The main opponent against the push for a biennial World Cup is Uefa, the European football’s governing body © Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

And Fifa has a rare opening to implement its vision with the expiry in 2024 of the “international match calendar”, a 10-year agreement that dictates the timing of club and national team competitions.

Under the current calendar, in most countries, the football season takes place between August and June. At elite level, players take frequent breaks from playing in domestic club leagues to participate in their national teams’ qualifying matches for major tournaments, which are staged in the northern hemisphere’s summer months. In an unprecedented switch, Fifa moved the 2022 World Cup to November. This was because, having already awarded the event to Qatar, officials decided it was not feasible to play in the Gulf state in July, when temperatures can reach over 40C.

How a World Cup every two years would fit with other tournaments Africa Cup of Nations; Concacaf Gold Cup; UEFA European Championship; AFC Asian Cup; Oceania Nations Cup; Conmebol Copa América will be held in 2025 and 2027, World Cup in 2026 and 2028

Wenger’s proposal is to alter football’s annual schedule from 2024 onwards. All national team “qualifiers” would take place in a six-week block between October and November — or over two windows in October and March. “Friendly” matches between countries would be eliminated. The rest of the season would be given over to club games.

The changes would create space for a month-long window for national team tournaments in June. Most of July would be reserved as a rest period for players each year.

All this would allow the World Cup to be staged every two years from 2028 onwards. In alternate years, regional contests such as the European Championships, Copa America and African Cup of Nations could take place. Every summer would become a festival of football.

Uefa has attacked the revised calendar, partly because it will probably result in less time for club matches. That would conflict with its plans to expand the Champions League by at least four additional fixtures per team a season. That is another money-spinning move, designed to attract more TV income and increase the €2bn shared between participating European clubs.

Fifpro, the global players’ union, warns that players risk burnout from additional matches. But Brazil’s Ronaldo reckons the world’s best players will welcome more possibilities to capture football’s biggest prize. He says: “if you ask [Lionel] Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo if they love to have more opportunities to win the World Cup, I’m sure they will say yes.”

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, center, holds the Copa America trophy at the end a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, centre, holds the Copa America trophy. Staging the World Cup more often will swallow time allocated for other big football contests, including the Copa America © Natacha Pisarenko/AP

More World Cups also means many more hosts. That means prospective bidders could back the idea. In May, Saudi Arabia, which is increasing its investment in sport, partly in response to a regional rivalry with Qatar, was the first to call for a “feasibility study” into holding the World Cup every two years. Infantino had made an official visit to Riyadh only a few weeks earlier.

Many smaller countries are in favour, with only 79 nations having ever appeared in the finals of the tournament. Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are unlikely to reach their first World Cups any time soon. But the football federations for the four Asian nations released a joint statement this week, arguing: “four-year gaps between World Cup[s] is too great — and the window of opportunity too small — to preclude whole generations of talent”.

Increased revenue to Fifa would also allow Infantino to satisfy past presidential election pledges to vastly increase the amount of “development” funding given to national associations.

Some financial analysts warn against tampering with the frequency of the event, though. “If you have too much of the same product, it doesn’t necessarily maintain its value,” says Andrea Sartori, global head of sports at KPMG, the consultancy. “If we are having caviar every evening, you won’t appreciate it as much as on the first night.”

Grand bargain

European club officials detect a more sinister plot: a design to take charge of the club game. In 2018, Infantino held secret talks with a consortium of investors including Japan’s SoftBank, which pledged $25bn to create new Fifa-run tournaments, including expanding the 8-team annual Club World Cup into a sprawling 24-side contest.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin
Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, has said Fifa’s move would ‘kill football’ © Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Uefa saw the revamped global club contest as a threat to the primacy of the Champions League. Another antagonist is Conmebol, South American football’s governing body, which wants to profit from the growth of its own regional club contests, primarily the Copa Libertadores.

In the face of such bitter opposition, the SoftBank-led consortium withdrew its interest. Infantino ploughed ahead regardless. Fifa hired US-based merchant bank the Raine Group to seek new backers for a Club World Cup, hoping to raise $1bn to launch the inaugural tournament which was set to take place in China this year.

The coronavirus pandemic put the plans on indefinite hold, as Fifa did not want to compete against other events, such as the Euro 2020 championships and Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to this year.

The chief executive of one of the world’s richest clubs reckons Infantino is now seeking “leverage” to force a grand bargain — get European and South American officials to back his vision for the club game, in return for stepping back from the threat of a more frequent World Cup.

“[Infantino’s] obsession with the Club World Cup is real,” says the executive. “He has a lens on where the power is and where the growth is. The connection that we have with our fans is something he wants.”

A person close to the Fifa president says the World Cup proposal is a “separate” matter to the Club World Cup discussions, though admits it would be hard to fit both tournaments within a congested calendar. “In the end, every year only has 365 days,” the person says.

Jules Rimet
After the International Olympic Committee dropped football in 1927, Jules Rimet, left, Fifa’s then president, decided to launch an international football contest in 1930 in Uruguay retaining a quadrennial pattern © Staff/AFP via Getty Images

Club game

Fifa fears losing control over the game altogether. In August, Spain’s La Liga secured €2.1bn in investment from private equity group CVC Capital Partners. Buyout groups have also attempted to take stakes in Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga in recent months, though those deals stalled after opposition from clubs.

Fifa executives have argued that private investors may, over time, gain enough commercial power to force a future breakaway, akin to the Super League project. They say expanding the World Cup is a way of defending national team contests and maintain their prestige within the game.

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, rejects this view. He warns Fifa’s plans will instead hamper the development of domestic leagues, the main way that supporters engage with the sport each weekend, not just over a summer.

“A biennial World Cup would worsen what we have today and not allow those who can to build and improve,” says Tebas.

The final result is unclear, but Fifa is confident of securing victory. “To respect the fans, we need simplicity, clarity and meaningful games for them,” says Wenger. “That’s why we want more opportunities for them to watch top competition matches.”

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