If Infantino prevails and there is a World Cup every two years, soccer will die

The FIFA president is touring several countries seeking support for his project. However, UEFA, CONMEBOL, the players and even the International Olympic Committee are against it. This op-ed summarizes the risks and the reasons behind the idea

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is presented with a soccer jersey with his name next to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores Palace during his visit in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria
FIFA President Gianni Infantino is presented with a soccer jersey with his name next to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores Palace during his visit in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

Gianni Infantino’s tour, currently going on in several countries, is a cause of concern for the soccer industry. It has been extensively reported that the FIFA president’s goal is to gather wider approval to support a World Cup championship every two years, instead of every four years, as it has been happening for the last 91 years.

This reckless effort infringes, to begin with, two standards:

1) The FIFA bylaws do not allow the kind of political meddling that its president is exercises when he addresses heads of states, and not sport officials;

2) This ambition is not effectively supported by the players, the federations and the confederations which embody the fundamental spirit of the game.

So far Infantino has not taken into account such an essential consideration, and he is moving forward towards the industrialization of soccer; this implies the serious risk of causing a devastating schism. Just to assess the peril that such an action would entail, it is possible to infer, not without worry, that Infantino could alter soccer the way boxing was reshaped: a new organization, at least, could split the market.

It is evident that Infantino’s divisive project would undermine the Olympic cycle that keeps games apart. And that is the logic that the officers have applied to rule in the past: one year for the Senior World Cup, another for the Youth and Olympic Games, the following one for regional games and the beginning of the eliminatory round; finally, the circle is closed by a new World Cup in the chosen venue.

Several damages would be caused by cutting the time to half:

1) Local league tournaments would be undermined;

2) It would discourage the hiring of players in those local leagues. What kind of international club would invest a reasonable amount of money in players that it would not be able to actually get to play, since they would be playing for their national team more often than for the club?

3) It would delay the development process of young talents, because the lesser the contracts, the lesser the spots left in the top league;

4) Soccer organizations’ budgets would shrink, because minimizing international sales would slash the main source of income in constant currency.

Those are just basic examples of the damages that would be caused by such a disruption of the competitive balance, which has fueled this passion. Infantino’s vision does not show —as a president’s should— a single element that would favor the game, its development, its evolution or its international growth. Whether for men or women.

On the contrary. And the beneficiaries of this vision seem to be those who finance Infantino’s idea, who mainly proceed from Saudi Arabia. It would not be fitting for the president of the FIFA to ignore this situation, since speculations about the origins of the funds have been so worldwide exposed, and a matter of suspicion.

The next World Cup has had a dubious eligibility process —as is well known— because of the impression of vote trading. It has also been globally divulged that a humongous level of corruption within the FIFA was associated with those votes in order to achieve some crooked leaders’ ambitions: to enrich themselves unlawfully. The notorious FIFA-Gate.

Nevertheless, the next World Cup, which will take place in Qatar in 2022, found a robust promoter in Infantino. As secretary to Michel Platini —president of the UEFA at the time— he actively worked to get the country to be host; later, as FIFA’s president, he endorsed all the terms of that questionable arrangement.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Asia Qualifiers - Group B - Australia v China - Khalifa Stadium, Doha, Qatar - September 2, 2021 FIFA President Gianni Infantino on the stands before the match REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari
Soccer Football - World Cup - Asia Qualifiers - Group B - Australia v China - Khalifa Stadium, Doha, Qatar - September 2, 2021 FIFA President Gianni Infantino on the stands before the match REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari

Infantino is an ally of these forces, and an ally of those who manage the funds. Two-year championships are advantageous for this money of unfathomable origins: it would allow their modest national teams to increase their competitive edge thanks to a shorter rotation. They have the money and the highest authority of the FIFA is on their side; also, since we are talking about a royal power, the Justice and the Treasury are not separated.

Now the battle will involve powerful confederations such as UEFA, which has issued a harsh statement. These are its main ideas:

UEFA is disappointed with the methodology adopted, which has so far led to radical reform projects being communicated and openly promoted before having been given, together with other stakeholders, the chance to participate in any consultation meeting.

There are real dangers associated with this plan:

* the dilution of the value of the No.1 world football event, whose quadrennial occurrence gives it a mystique that generations of fans have grown up with;

* the erosion of sporting opportunities for the weaker national teams by replacing regular matches with final tournaments;

* the risk to sustainability for players, forced to engage in summer high intensity competitions every year instead of longer recuperation breaks in alternate years;

* the risk for the future of women’s tournaments, deprived of exclusive slots and overshadowed by the proximity of top men’s events.

These are just some of the serious concerns that the FIFA proposal provokes at first glance and they cannot be dispelled simply with unsubstantiated promotional slogans on the supposed benefits of a thicker calendar for final tournaments.

UEFA is of the opinion that the future of the international calendar should be the subject of genuine consultation and exchange between FIFA, the confederations and key stakeholders of competitions, kicking off with an open discussion on perceived problems and considering a range of solutions that will be identified in the course of the debate, taking into account the interest of the game and the legitimate point of view of the different parties.

In this phase, the respect for a consultation process with the stakeholders – which should be unbiased – would suggest abstaining from promotional campaigns of unilaterally pre-determined concepts that nobody has been given the possibility to see in detail and which have wide-ranging, often unexpected, effects.

On 14 September, UEFA and its 55 member associations asked FIFA to organise a special meeting with them to be able to voice their concerns on the impact of such plans. UEFA and its 55 member associations have to-date not yet received a reply from FIFA on this request.

Soccer Football - Champions League - Group H - Chelsea v Zenit St Petersburg - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - September 14, 2021 UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin before the match Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
Soccer Football - Champions League - Group H - Chelsea v Zenit St Petersburg - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - September 14, 2021 UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin before the match Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

Regardless of the dire situation spurred in Europe and South America, Infantino has chosen to prioritize visiting several heads of state. Currently, thanks to bottomless resources apparently coming from Saudi Arabia —a country motivated by the pressing need to host a World Cup—, Infantino is on tour offering money to officials in smaller countries, in not entirely clear ways. It is troubling to see FIFA driven by interests that are not exactly sporting, which could seriously damage this marvelous sport.

In Venezuela, for instance, it was pretty easy to get Nicolas Maduro to amicably —and baseless— say: “As a soccer fan, I expressed to the president of FIFA my support to hold a World Cup every two years. It is an extraordinary idea, and an opportunity for more teams to participate in this sporting celebration, and bring joy, emotion and role models to the youth”.

That is mere hypocrisy, since all that Infantino sought from Maduro are the 26 votes of the Caribbean League —part of the 41 votes of CONCACAF— over which he wields a certain dominance. Those are the votes once controlled by Jack Warner, main actor of the FIFA-Gate, who was permanently suspended and sentenced for racketeering and money laundering in detriment of his confederation.

While Maduro smiles and nods to Infantino, Boris Johnson has advised against these changes and the United Kingdom —the country that invented soccer, home to a federation of impeccable performance and conservative integrity— has expressed its opposition to such a daring plan. But Maduro has, or might have, 29 votes; and Johnson has only those of the four British federations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Last but not least, the players have also made their voices heard.

Soccer players’ union FIFPro has criticized the debate over plans for a biennial World Cup, citing athletes’ health and the need for a reduced workload as issues that have not been considered.

FIFA announced a feasibility study into replacing the traditional four-year World Cup cycle with a biennial one, leading to concern from various organizations, including European football governing body UEFA.

FIFPro said an expansion of the calendar should safeguard players’ health and aid the development of both men’s and women’s football.

The statement detailed: “Proposals isolating further expansions such as a biennial World Cup —as well as other competition reforms under discussion— are inadequate in the absence of solutions for existing problems”.

UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin warned that European and South American countries could boycott the World Cup if it were to move away from its existing layout. The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) joined UEFA in opposing the change.

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, secretary general of FIFPro, was especially critical of the discussions among the parties.

“The lack of genuine dialogue and trust between institutions in football blocks the game’s ability to build more resilience after a painful pandemic, but rather we keep reverting to the same old habits of conflict”, said Baer-Hoffmann.

“Players have natural physiological limits, and an inherent interest in the sustainable advancement of the game: the success of the sport depends on your physical and mental well-being. What we decide at the highest levels of the game affects thousands of professionals around the world. Any plan to extend the competitions must integrate their experience and opinions at the collective level.”

Everybody is against the proposed changes: UEFA, CONMEBOL and even the International Olympic Committee, which issued the following statement:

The Executive Board (EB) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes note of FIFA’s plans to change the football competition schedule and to hold the World Cup every two years. A number of International Federations (IFs) of other sports, national football federations, clubs, players, players associations and coaches have expressed strong reservations and concerns regarding the plans to generate more revenue for FIFA, mainly for the following reasons:

* Impact on other sportsThe increased frequency and timing for the World Cup would create a clash with other major international sports. This includes tennis, cycling, golf, gymnastics, swimming, athletics, Formula 1 and many others. This would undermine the diversity and development of sports other than football.

* Gender equality The increase in men’s events in the calendar would create challenges for the further promotion of women’s football.

* Players’ welfare – The plans, in particular the doubling in the frequency of the World Cup, would create a further massive strain on the physical and mental health of the players.

The IOC shares these concerns and supports the calls of stakeholders of football, International Sports Federations and major event organizers for a wider consultation, including with athletes’ representatives, which has obviously not taken place.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) congratulates FIFA president Gianni Infantino after his election as IOC member during the 135th Session in Lausanne, Switzerland, January 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) congratulates FIFA president Gianni Infantino after his election as IOC member during the 135th Session in Lausanne, Switzerland, January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Despite so many dissenting opinions, so cautiously voiced, Infantino keeps on searching the votes to impose his plan in an upcoming congress. It is likely that Asia (47 votes, headed by the Sheikh of Bareim, Salman bin Ibrahim Al Jalifa) and Africa (57 votes, headed by the South African Patrice Motsepe, loyal to Infantino) will join him in this non-sustainable proposal.

Yet the world of soccer will have to remain alert because this project has unlimited economic support. And Infantino is willing to break FIFA apart to create a sport different from soccer: no offsides; dynamic and unlimited substitutions; time off as requested by the coaches or the broadcasters —just like the NBA— for ads; four quarters instead of two halves and 25 minutes of intermission to sell more ads and present great artistic shows. To quote Infantino: “Something similar to the Super Bowl”.

If this were to happen, the soccer we knew, played and enjoyed, will be dead.

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