In an effort to get more of its membership behind the idea of a biennial World Cup, global soccer’s major governing body, FIFA, invited all of its 211 members to an online summit to take place Sept. 30.
Opposition to the proposal has been strong. From fans to associations, scholars to club owners, many in the soccer world have voiced their concern and do not want to change the 91-year status quo of a tournament every four years. The major proponents thus far are a handful of retired players FIFA invited to Qatar for a two-day event earlier this month, and Saudi Arabia, which proposed the biennial World Cup during the FIFA congress last May. FIFA’s plan to bring the World Cup from its current four-year cycle to an every-other-year format is set to go to a vote in December.
UEFA, European soccer's governing body, is leading the opposition against FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s proposal. On Wednesday the organization sent out an official statement criticizing FIFA’s lack of response toward their request to organize a special meeting with their 55-member association. Last week, UEFA’s president Aleksander Ceferin expressed “grave concerns” about the plan, saying it will “dilute the tournament’s impact.” UEFA’s South American counterpart, CONMEBOL, and the European Club Association (ECA) are also expected to reject FIFA’s proposal. ECA’s chairman Nasser Al Khelaifi warned against “unilateral decisions” on the international calendar.
Although UEFA and CONMEBOL do not have enough votes to block the new proposal, the world’s top soccer players play in their leagues, giving these two associations leverage.
Infantino said his association is “consulting players and clubs from all over the world, as well as the 211 member associations, because they all have an equal right to be listened to.” Half of the member countries have never qualified for a World Cup, and they might vote to change the schedule as they benefit from playing commercially attractive qualifiers more frequently. Concacaf president and FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani expects new ideas can come out of these discussions.
“I think when football stands still, it is not a good thing,” Montagliani said. “Because if we took the attitude of football standing still, we probably have eight teams in the World Cup, and they all will be European teams. I think these are good discussions. And to be honest, when people are uncomfortable with it, it makes me happy because it’s when you're uncomfortable that things happen.”
Industry experts do not agree with FIFA officials. “From an industry standpoint, it will be damaging to all big football countries,” said Ricardo Fort, owner of the consulting firm Sport by Fort, in a phone interview. “Therefore, only the lowest-ranked countries at the FIFA Ranking are advocating for it. Their leagues are weak and their odds to qualify insignificant. They will profit from the fees they will collect from FIFA, and nothing will change in their lives.”
Saudi Arabia is the exception. The oil-rich Middle Eastern nation, which advocated for a biennial World Cup, announced on Sept. 11 its official candidacy to host the 2034 tournament.
“I think Saudi Arabia’s cash is increasingly influential inside FIFA,” said Simon Chadwick, author and director of the Centre for Eurasian sport at EM Lyon Business School. According to Chadwick, Saudi Arabia put together a funding package for approximately $500 million to FIFA, in return for playing a pivotal role in the creation of a new Club World Cup, an idea that was buried rather quickly due to extreme resistance from European soccer clubs.
“Saudi Arabia is saying, ‘We want a World Cup from you because the money's there and we've agreed to it,’” Chadwick said. “I'm told that China will get 2030 [World Cup], then the earliest that Saudi Arabia can have a tournament is 2034. That's 14 years away, and clearly, Infantino can't risk losing the Saudi Arabian investment. Therefore, this opens the possibility of 2028 in Saudi Arabia and 2030 in China, and everybody's happy, and FIFA makes its money. Infantino gets reelected.” Attempts to reach the federation and Saudi officials for comment were unsuccessful.
Outside of FIFA, not everybody would be happy. According to FIFA’s survey of 15,000 people, in every age group and in every geographical area, the highest number preferred a four-year World Cup.
FIFA argues that biennial World Cups will give more players and teams an opportunity to compete, as well as raising more revenues to fuel soccer around the world. “When FIFA says a biennial World Cup will double the revenues, they are overestimating its financial potential by a large margin,” said Fort. “Media rights are the only revenue stream with a good potential to grow,” Fort said while noting they’re unlikely to double.
Meanwhile, Fort said: “Sponsorships and licensees’ fees will not invest a lot more than what they are investing today. In fact, for a sponsor, a FIFA World Cup every other year is almost impossible to activate properly.”
FIFA’s existing broadcast contracts are extended through the 2026 World Cup, which will take place in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Chadwick says in considering whether to stage a biennial World Cup, FIFA may want to factor the “Burberry Effect” into its decision-making. In the late 1990s, the coat manufacturer promoted its brand and made it more widely available. “But essentially, more became less,” Chadwick said. “Nobody wanted to buy the cheap Burberry. Then they had to turn the brand around and go back to become more exclusive. I think what FIFA may find out is there are lessons from history. More can very often be less.”