Biennial World Cup ‘for the good of the game’? That’s laughable

Date published: Wednesday 8th September 2021 6:30 - Ian King

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Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man. His innovations with scouting, training and diet at Arsenal in the 1990s transformed that club into a powerhouse, and his methods have been copied all over the world. But since his retirement from club football at the end of the 2017/18 season, it’s started to feel as though he’s been thinking rather too much. Since 2019, Wenger has been FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, responsible for overseeing and driving the growth and development of the game around the world, and it is a curiosity that the former manager of a big European club should have now come up with a biennial World Cup, a position that it’s difficult to imagine he would have supported while he was at Arsenal.

Wenger’s argument is superficially appealing. The four-year World Cup cycle, it is argued, is outdated. In the social media age, younger audiences do not want to wait such an interminable time, and changing the calendar around would give international football set times when it would be in the spotlight with two international breaks – in March and October – qualifying groups of four (meaning six matches), and a compulsory 25-day rest period for players after international tournaments. And doubling the number of tournaments would certainly help FIFA reduce the backlog of countries who want to host the tournament.

But if you scratch the surface of these proposals, they start to look a little more problematic. Wenger claims that a biennial World Cup is “what the fans want”, but earlier this week a joint statement issued by 58 fan groups spread across all six FIFA confederations refuted this, countering that it would be difficult for Wenger to know “what the fans want” when no fan groups have been consulted over the proposals.

The same goes for UEFA and the European clubs, whose interests seem to have been little more than an afterthought in the process thus far. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who replaced Andrea Agnelli as the chair of the European Clubs Association (ECA) earlier this year, has already confirmed that they haven’t been consulted and has invited Wenger to engage with them.

If all of this sounds a little bit superficial, well, that’s probably because it is. For all this talk of ‘consultation’ and ‘engagement’, the two sides have already made up their minds. That much is obvious. When asked about the matter at this week’s ECA meeting in Geneva, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told the press: “Holding it every two years will lead to less legitimacy, and it will unfortunately dilute the World Cup itself.”

On the other side, Wenger’s consultation has included Javier Mascherano and Yaya Toure, both of whom have thoroughly hitched their flags to the biennial mast to such a degree that they may be considered little more than soldiers in a PR battle. It’s not difficult to see where the battle lines will harden on this matter over the coming months: FIFA believe that they have the numbers to force through whatever they want, with 166 of their 211 members having supported Wenger’s research in the first place. With that level of support their ‘consultation period’ only needs to be a fig leaf from a voting perspective.

Wenger has a reputation as a bit of an idealist, but it’s doubtful that this is the driving factor behind FIFA’s current machinations. Their revenue jumped from £734m in 2017 to £4.641bn the following year as a result of the World Cup finals in France. Doubling the number of World Cups would swell their coffers considerably. And the lack of consultation of fan groups makes a mockery of the idea that this is all for their benefit. Contorting the 2022 World Cup out of shape in order to host it in Qatar and expanding the finals to 48 teams from 2026 happened despite considerable criticism. They’ve seldom listened to fans in the past; why would they start now?

The idea that FIFA does anything ‘for the good of the game’ is a fanciful notion. The idea to double the number of World Cups was initially proposed by Saudi Arabia, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if their ambition wasn’t ultimately rewarded with a tournament to host of their own. Expanding the tournament to 48 teams served a dual purpose, giving the smaller countries which prop up the FIFA leadership a better chance of reaching the finals while increasing FIFA’s revenues from the tournament itself.

There are plenty of reasons to be wary of the counter-arguments from UEFA and the ECA (Daniel Levy of Spurs, who jumped into bed with the European Super League just a few months ago, has recently been voted onto the ECA’s executive board), but that doesn’t mean that we should just throw our hands in the air and declare both sides to be as bad as each other. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and Ceferin is right when he mentions ‘less legitimacy’ and ‘dilution’, even if we might arch an eyebrow at his use of the word “unfortunately”.

If you stick to official publications you’ll read a lot about ‘the football family’, but Arsene Wenger’s research shows just how dysfunctional this family really is. There’s a soup of motivations for FIFA to want to bring in a biennial World Cup, and the lack of consultation so far implies that this is already a fait accompli, as far as they are concerned. And while it’s right to be suspicious of the motives of the ECA about anything, on this subject it’s likely that their interests align with the interests of fans. The football calendar is a form of circadian rhythm to millions of people, and messing around with that should only be considered for very good reasons. Making more money for FIFA and putting UEFA and the big clubs back in their box are not good enough reasons alone.

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