LONDON (AP) — FIFA President Gianni Infantino found a curious salesman to push his plan to double the frequency of World Cups: a coach who spent his career until now complaining about the spate of international tournaments.
Three years after leaving Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is trying to sell the merits of a biennial World Cup rather than waiting four years between tournaments.
Infantino, who publicly seems to prioritize introducing more and bigger competitions run by FIFA rather than more pressing matters such as new strategies to tackle racism in the game, has already managed to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026.
FIFA argues it is acting purely in the interests of what is best for world football.
But the process that led to the addition of 16 teams at the World Cup shows that isn’t exactly the case. FIFA’s own feasibility study in 2016 — months into Infantino's first term as Sepp Blatter’s successor — found that “the highest absolute quality would be achieved under the current format.”
That was ignored. It’s not hard to see why.
Giving more countries the chance of competing in the World Cup, and promises of more cash handouts, panders to more of the 211 national federations whose reelection votes he requires. There is rarely dissent at a FIFA Congress. Is it any wonder 166 nations voted in favor of a feasibility study on biennial World Cups?
Dangling the prospect of more cash and more tournament slots is irresistible to many federations. How many will pause to think about the damage to the prestige and appeal of the tournament by staging it more often, let alone the additional burden already placed on overstretched players?
The FIFA delegates were told the proposal for the feasibility study came from Saudi Arabia’s federation. Officially, a sponsor was required to get it on the congress agenda. But the plan had been in the works long before May, with Infantino talking up the merits of biennial World Cups in advance of the Saudi proposal existing. Infantino has shown little hesitation for meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, overlooking concerns about Saudi human rights violations and piracy of FIFA's own broadcasts linked to the kingdom.
FIFA would not discuss the supposed role of the Saudis when approached by The Associated Press. Infantino has also rejected repeated offers to discuss in depth his World Cup plans.
FIFA did, however, challenge the AP’s right in an article last month to use a quote that came from Infantino’s own mouth in May.
“You don’t need to be an Einstein,” Infantino said, “to know that if you have two World Cups in four years you will double the revenues.”
He followed that up by confusingly saying: “This will not happen.”
That could be because the value of a World Cup is actually in its infrequency. The appeal to broadcasters who fund FIFA is the rarity of the tournament — just as Olympic medals are awarded only every four years. The risk is broadcasters have no extra cash to pay for more events.
Even a player like Gareth Bale, whose hopes of going to a first World Cup with Wales are fading at 32, is against the prospect.
“I don’t like every two years,” said Bale, who was the world’s most expensive player after moving from Tottenham to Real Madrid in 2013. “I feel it loses that bit of history. The fact it’s over four years, and it’s a long time until the next one, makes it that bit more prestigious.”
More frequent World Cups don't automatically translate into more countries qualifying for the World Cup.
There are many flaws FIFA has yet explained in public.
More World Cups could actually create fewer opportunities for players to break into their national teams. To find the space in the calendar after 2024 for more World Cups, FIFA is looking at reducing the number of international breaks which are currently in March, June, September, October and November.
The new format could see a World Cup or continental championship across June and July, then players wouldn't be called to international duty again until a month of games between October and November for potential qualifiers. So if a player — particularly an uncapped one — wasn't selected for those games, it could prove hard, however much they shine for their clubs, to be called up for a tournament the following June by a coach who has never used them before.
It would also be harder for fans to take two blocks of the year off work to travel to games.
Then there's the disruption to domestic leagues which are the lifeblood of the sport. Currently only one weekend is knocked out for most international breaks. FIFA could deny them a whole month of games across October and November, which intersects a competition like UEFA's Champions League.
UEFA leader Aleksander Ceferin, a FIFA vice president, opposes Infantino's plans and complained about the lack of consultation.
The organization representing the world’s major domestic leagues is also aghast to have seen Wenger making the case in public before talking to them.
“FIFA’s leadership cannot be able to turn something exceptional into a commonplace event purely to serve their short-term interests,” the World Leagues Forum said in a statement on Wednesday. “A biennial World Cup would negatively disrupt the football economy and undermine players’ welfare in a calendar that is already overloaded.”
If all this looks like it's being centered on an overhaul focused on men's football that's because FIFA has skewed it that way. The FIFA study overseen by Wenger hasn't even been considering the impact of having a men’s tournament at the end of every season on the women's game. Currently, odd-numbered years are the preserve of women's tournaments.
It was only on Sunday that FIFA announced that two-time Women's World Cup winning former U.S. coach Jill Ellis was being hired as lead adviser on changes to the women's game.
The plan is to also have biennial Women's World Cups and there is more space in the calendar to achieve that. But FIFA does little to dispel the image that the women's game is secondary, just based on the order of the consultation process.
“Considering the major impact this reform may have on the whole organization of football,” Ceferin said, “there is widespread astonishment that FIFA appears to be launching a PR campaign to push its proposal."
FIFA will claim it's a democratic exercise. That's exactly why it is talking more to national federation leaders outside Europe to gather support rather than leagues and current players who don't have a say in how football is run.
As for Wenger's role, former France coach Raymond Domenech recalled him trying to block players being released by Arsenal. Now wearing his FIFA suit, with the title chief of global football development, Wenger relishes World Cups more often.
“It’s stupid,” Domenech said.
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