FIFA’s bet is very clear: a wave of prior support so that the IOC, UEFA and CONMEBOL cannot refuse to discuss the idea of the World Cup being held every two years

There are times when soccer politics is quite simple: a good part of FIFA’s strategy is exposed on its website, for all to see.

FILE PHOTO. France players celebrate with the trophy after winning the men's World Cup against Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia. July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
FILE PHOTO. France players celebrate with the trophy after winning the men's World Cup against Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia. July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

You have to hand it to Gianni Infantino: his strategy for increasing his power in soccer and world sport is pretty clear: after all, much of it is laid out on FIFA’s own website.

A headline on fifa.com, a direct communication channel with fans that the world soccer governing body has been promoting for some time now, says that FIFA is looking for just that, the opinion of soccer fans. Do you want a World Cup every two years?

That direct communication channel is leading to a change in the usual physiognomy of the major international sports federations.

”Younger people, when you name them ‘FIFA’, think of the video game and not the mother organization of soccer,” recently highlighted an article in the specialized blog “Big Data Sports” (BDS).”

Perhaps a World Cup every two years will even allow FIFA to relaunch itself as a sponsorship platform and activate sponsorships in a more creative and visible way (...),” adds BDS.

“FIFA has the facts: more than half of the world’s population is under the age of 24. It is on this demographic that it is trying to make the new winds blow”.

There is, then, a level of “soft power” that is difficult to evaluate in its scope, but which can only be beneficial for FIFA, which sees its name associated with something desirable, fun and positive - a video game - and not with corruption issues.

In another headline on the FIFA website, former Nigerian footballer Emmanuel Amuneke focuses on the needs of his continent: “Africa is going to win the World Cup. But to win the World Cup, it’s not enough just to talk. We have to develop the new generation and lay the foundations for young people to be able to compete.”

How would Africa develop? With more money. And how do you get more money? By doubling the editions of the World Cup.

And in another article - all accompanied by impeccable videos - Frenchman David Trezeguet offers a European perspective.

”From the players’ perspective, a change is needed in my opinion. We are all aware that there are a lot of games in club and international soccer, so we have to understand that the players are tired between all the travel and high-level competitions. We can try to increase the level of the game and eliminate matches that are less useful for the players.”

“Since 1930, we have kept the same idea of matches: friendlies, qualifiers and the World Cup. But in my opinion, we must also keep in mind the fact that fans want more spectacle and more matches at the highest level.”

Trezeguet, then, is anticipating the answer as to what the fans want, even though FIFA has already conducted its own survey weeks ago. In a first preview it concluded that fans want to see more frequent World Cup matches.

Pablo Zabaleta, a former Argentina international, expresses the South American position in yet another article on FIFA’s prolific website.

“I think reducing the number of international breaks in a season would be really useful,” says Zabaleta, a gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games.

“And in the same article, FIFA offers its analysis of the situation: “In fact, during a four-year cycle, South American stars playing for European clubs could travel up to seven times more than their European counterparts, increasing the imbalance worldwide. That imbalance is reflected in the fact that, in the finals of the last four editions of the FIFA World Cup, only one non-European nation has been present. That was in 2014, when an Argentina side with Zabaleta himself in their ranks lost in extra time to Germany.”

One of FIFA’s lures to its 211 member federations is to reduce the number of international match windows. Zabaleta likes the idea, but do the clubs like it too?

Those clubs, the most powerful in the world, operate under the great umbrella of UEFA within that annual celebration of soccer that is the Champions League.

The fact that FIFA is presenting a proposal that would solve one of their most important problems is also a strategic move by Infantino: the calendar proposed by Zurich “establishes the dates of international matches and the days on which clubs must release players to concentrate with their national teams. It therefore plays a fundamental role in the sustainable growth of soccer in all regions of the world and at all levels,” FIFA notes on its website.

“Reducing those five international breaks and being able to play all matches in one month would mean far less travel and would benefit players in terms of reducing physical and mental fatigue,” agrees Zabaleta.

“Particularly from the fans’ point of view, they would be able to enjoy four or five of their national team’s matches in a month, and there would be a better connection between the fans and the national team. The players would be able to concentrate [fully] on their national teams before returning to their clubs.

”And so the protagonists or, in the language of high sports politics, “interest groups” are being added: fans, players, teams from different confederations, clubs and FIFA’s own opinion. In women’s soccer, which is also revising its calendar, the leadership is in the hands of the experienced Anglo-American Jill Ellis.

And there are other players on FIFA’s website who insist on the benefits of the “Infantino plan”. Former top players such as Roberto Carlos, Germany’s Sami Khedira and Italy’s Marco Materazzi, all world champions.

“There is 20 percent national team soccer and 80 percent club soccer. Our desire is to maintain that balance, but we want to reorganize it in a more efficient way,” explained French coach Arsène Wenger, whom Infantino put in charge of the whole process.

Arsene Wenger / EFE/JuanJo Martín
Arsene Wenger / EFE/JuanJo Martín

“Transcendent matches and rest periods,” they all emphasize, a mantra that FIFA seeks to install: the matches will be better for spectators and protagonists, it claims.

The fact that FIFA has included a World Cup every two years in this much-needed revision of the international match calendar irritated the IOC, UEFA and CONMEBOL, who rightly feel that Infantino is harming them and endangering their own products: the Olympic Games, the European Championship, the Copa America, etc.

Thomas Bach did not like the fact that IOC member Infantino did not inform him until hours before the idea he would present. Something very similar happened to Aleksandr Ceferin and Alejandro Domínguez.

But the road is long and personal dislikes or anger will gradually give way to the reality that an agreement will have to be reached in which everyone gives a little.

FIFA has already announced that it will talk to all kinds of groups and protagonists before taking the matter to the debate with the six confederations.

It’s a bit like being taken to a restaurant with the table already set and not having been able to choose from the menu. At that table are already seated players, fans, federations from all over the world, clubs and some other power factors. In this situation, the IOC, UEFA and CONMEBOL will have something to eat.

There are also ways to prevent major events from coinciding in the same year. For example, the World Cup could be moved to odd-numbered years.

In the midst of the public tensions, Around the Rings was able to confirm that there are discreet high-level contacts between all the protagonists. It is clear that the new World Cup cannot be born with the opposition of UEFA, CONMEBOL and the open antipathy of the IOC. But it can be born, and one need look no further than FIFA’s own website to understand why.

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