Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, came under heavy criticism this week from European soccer’s most powerful countries during a tense meeting in which UEFA president Aleksandr Ceferin asked him to stay away from “populism” and warned him that his confederation will not play the World Cup every two years.
“To sum up: we will not play a World Cup every two years, but we will gladly play a World Cup every four years,” Ceferin told Infantino at the close of an intense one-and-a-half-hour virtual meeting on Tuesday, the contents of which were accessed by Around the Rings.
The world soccer chief joined the meeting, which Ceferin addressed from UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, to hear the backlash over his plan for the World Cup to be played every two years instead of every four, as it has been since 1930.
Several of the continent’s major soccer federations - Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal, among others - were emphatic in their refusal to support Infantino’s plan. Finland, on behalf of the Nordic countries, Scotland, Switzerland and Romania, among others, also expressed their rejection.
Conmebol (South American Football Confederation) is also opposed to the project, which could however be approved with the votes of the other confederations if Infantino were to move forward despite the refusal of Europe and South America, the only two regions with world champions.
“Thank you for the comments and criticisms, because this is how we make progress,” Infantino said at the close of the meeting, somewhat overwhelmed by the closed refusal of the federations and the harshness of the comments. “My role as FIFA president is to facilitate dialogue and participation, I am not the one who decides, those who decide are you.”
One of the most repeated criticisms Infantino received pointed to his intention to have the FIFA Congress on December 20 decide in a vote whether to approve the biennial World Cup.
“We want a consensus and an agreement with everyone involved. You can imagine how difficult this issue is for the FIFA president. The important thing is that we reach a common conclusion by then, on December 20,” Infantino argued.
Ceferin, unsatisfied with the response, hit back: “What happens if we don’t reach an agreement? Because as a member of the (FIFA) council I also have the feeling that the alternative is ‘either an agreement is reached or we vote’.”
“Let’s work together. I will work with all my commitment and goodwill to get us to agree,” Infantino insisted.
Ceferin, already on behalf of the 55 European federations, then doubled down and spoke directly to Infantino with unusual clarity.
“The proposal that was made to us on September 30 goes directly against the federations, the clubs and the European leagues. For me it is more of a political project than a footballing one.”
“It’s going to cannibalize women’s soccer. If you ask me, the consultation process was not a consultation process. It is not if December 20 becomes a date when you have to vote. I would seriously, seriously ask you and FIFA not to push for a vote, because that can have terrible consequences for soccer.”
The European soccer chief refloated the memory of old grievances.
“We are tired of European federations and clubs being portrayed as rich and arrogant who don’t care about the development of soccer. We help a lot, and we are ready to help more. Our calendar is different from other confederations that have almost no league.”
Infantino’s plan affects clubs and soccer leagues, but they have no voting rights at FIFA, Ceferin noted.
“I don’t think it’s good to vote. Clubs and Leagues do not have the right to vote, and this is detrimental to them. I understand that you want to develop soccer and make FIFA stronger, but in my modest opinion, shared by 55 federations, you are not going to make soccer better or FIFA stronger with this.”
“To sum up: we are not going to play a World Cup every two years, but we will gladly play a World Cup every four years. The World Cup is a great competition and we respect it. Please, let’s not push for a populist vote, because this will mean that soccer will not be better, but much worse in the future.”
When Ceferin speaks of a “populist vote” he is referring to the possibility that Infantino will rely on smaller federations with relatively little World Cup history to push through his plan.
Recently, a group of national federations that make up UEFA, some of them among the largest in Europe, put forward an idea to rein in FIFA: appealing to article 18 of UEFA’s statutes.
As confirmed by Around the Rings, the proposal to activate that article by that group of large and medium-sized UEFA federations would mean leaving FIFA. “Let’s play a World Cup with Conmebol, and good luck to FIFA,” it was said.
Article 18 was not mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting, although there was no need to: Europe’s “no” was crystal clear.
The other major sporting body opposed to the FIFA president’s plans is the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
This week, Infantino also reacted to the IOC’s public hardening by promising to “listen” to President Thomas Bach, who is opposed to his controversial project.
“We will listen to the IOC president and all the associations to make a thorough analysis,” Infantino said during his Monday visit to Argentina, the stop on a Latin American tour in which he promoted a project he claims not to have initially believed in.
“I myself had refused to hold a World Cup every two years, because it’s about changing a dogma. But when you do a whole analysis, you understand the benefits it attracts,” added the world soccer chief.
Infantino’s promise to talk to Bach comes after the IOC raised its profile and made clear its annoyance with the FIFA president, who is also a member of the world governing body of Olympism.
The IOC took two steps. On Saturday it issued a stark statement unambiguously titled: “The IOC supports calls for wider consultation on FIFA’s World Cup plans and shares the concerns.”
And on Monday it went further by confirming to Around the Rings that Infantino did not advance his plans to Bach.
“At no time did the FIFA president contact the IOC president to discuss these proposals,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams.