LAUSANNE: Fifa’s controversial project to stage the World Cup every two years instead of the current four-year cycle is back on the table on Monday as world football’s governing body holds a virtual global summit with its 211 member federations.
There will be no vote, but Fifa president Gianni Infantino has said the idea is to find a consensus — do national federations really want more regular World Cups, or is the plan promoted by Arsene Wenger doomed?
Former Arsenal manager Wenger, now Fifa’s head of global development, championed the idea of having a major international tournament every year, alternating between a World Cup and different continental championships.
“There won’t be more matches than before. The idea is about improving the quality of football and competitions. It is not about money,” Wenger told French newspaper L’Equipe in September.
It would be a radical change, given the men’s World Cup has always taken place every four years since its inception in 1930, and the women’s event since 1991.
It is also a change that not everyone seems keen on. European governing body Uefa and CONMEBOL, its South American counterpart, have led the opposition.
“I don’t see the point,” remarked Real Madrid and Croatia star Luka Modric, while clubs in the English Premier League have united in opposition and the head of global players union FIFPro recently suggested that the project had little chance of succeeding.
“It is probably dead in its tracks,” Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, whose organisation is comprised of national member associations from 64 countries, told AFP.
Meanwhile the Confederation of African Football, with its 54 member associations, appears in favour — last month it gave support to the “decision of the Fifa Congress to conduct a feasibility study”.
There is plenty of tension, with the current international men’s calendar up for renewal in 2024 and many different parties trying to influence how the future of the sport will look.
Holding the World Cup every two years would have consequences for the health of players, with FIFPro already regularly citing concerns about their workload in a crowded calendar.
There would be economic consequences too, and potential issues could arise if clubs are not willing to release players for an international tournament every year.
Wenger’s idea is to stage all qualifier in two windows a year, in October and March.
Thereby clubs could actually benefit, rather than losing players to international call-ups on four or five separate occasions each season.
“Too many players do not have enough opportunities to develop,” he said in November.
The Frenchman said the tournament has served as a “unique window” for players to make their names but pointed out that “133 countries have never taken part” at a World Cup.
Critics might point out that there will be more opportunities in future anyway, with the World Cup set to expand to feature 48 teams rather than the current 32 from 2026.
Europe, South America unite
Fifa also claims it is what fans want, and on Friday it published the results of a survey of over 30,000 people “who said football was their favourite sport”.
It claimed a majority wanted to see World Cups more often, saying 63.7 per cent favoured biennial men’s tournaments, while 52.4 per cent favoured a biennial women’s version.
Given that each of the 211 member federations has an equal vote, the chances are there will be enough support for the project to be submitted to a vote at the next Fifa Congress on March 31 in Doha.
Back in Europe, meanwhile, Uefa recently commissioned a report, which estimated that more regular World Cups would lead to a total shortfall over four years of between €2.5 and 3 billion ($2.8 to 3.4 billion).
It is instead focusing on developing closer ties with CONMEBOL.
This week it announced that Euro 2020 winners Italy would play Copa America holders Argentina for a new intercontinental crown next year.
On Friday it also confirmed to AFP that it was working on a joint Nations League, which would see the 10 South American national teams go into the existing European competition after 2024.
What are the main reasons for Fifa’s proposal?
Fifa’s central argument is that a biennial World Cup would create more profits that could be distributed to federations in Africa, Asia and South America, who have a greater reliance on Fifa funds than the wealthy European leagues.
President Gianni Infantino also wants to “make football truly global” and open up the tournament to smaller countries, which will partially be addressed by the expansion to 48 teams from 2026.
“When we scratch beneath the surface, we see that top football is very much confined to a small group of countries,” Infantino said this week in Doha. “It is our job to narrow this gap.”
No team outside Europe or South America has ever reached the World Cup final. Next year’s tournament will be the first held in the Middle East, with 16 of 21 previous editions organised by Uefa or CONMEBOL members.
Infantino not only wants more World Cups, but more joint hosts too.
“Right now, the World Cup doesn’t come back to a continent for 24 years and that’s more than a generation.”
Who has spoken up in support?
CAF last month gave its support to Fifa’s proposal, while both CONCACAF — which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean — and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have said they are open to the idea. It is likely to appeal to the Oceania region as well.
Only five African nations will go to Qatar, prompting Ivory Coast coach Patrice Beaumelle to recently accuse Fifa of “killing African football” after his side were eliminated from qualifying.
CONCACAF said in September it would consider proposals to overhaul the international calendars for men’s, women’s and youth football if it were to create a more balanced structure for the sport globally.
Fifa has also enlisted a host of former players and coaches, so-called “legends” who are paid as ambassadors, to promote the project, including former Manchester United and Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.
After a gathering in Doha, Schmeichel said “we all were in agreement”.
Brazilian World Cup winner Ronaldo insisted that if you asked the world’s two best current players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, “I’m sure they will all say yes.”
How will it affect other competitions?
Arsene Wenger, Fifa’s head of global development, has suggested having a major international tournament every year, alternating between World Cups and continental events like the European Championship and the Copa America.
Space would be created, he claims, by staging all qualifying matches in October, or October and March, rather than spacing them out across the year.
The prospect of more men’s international competitions risks diverting attention away from the women’s game, but two-time Women’s World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis says the potential to spur growth cannot be ignored.
“World championships are just massive focus points in terms of elevating our game, not just in terms of the economic driver of sponsors coming to the table, but I think participation probably increases too after these events,” said Ellis, who led the United States to World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019.
“There are a lot of reasons for us to dig into it.”
What about concerns over player welfare?
Wenger refutes the argument that the players would face increased strain, contending that they would have to make fewer long journeys and would have a minimum of 25 days rest after playing in summer tournaments for their countries.
No timeline has been given for the implementation of Fifa’s proposal, but there is a broad consensus the international match calendar - for which there is an agreement in place until 2024 - needs reforming.
Manchester City and Belgium star Kevin De Bruyne has claimed a biennial competition is “not a bad idea”, so long as players are granted more time to rest at the end of the season.