Can FIFA force World Cup without Europe or South America?

Ian King
Gianni Infantino World Cup

The prospect of FIFA and UEFA squaring up for a fight feels a little like having tickets for a wrestling match between Darth Vader and Lex Luthor. You wouldn’t really want either side to win, but at least the spectacle promises to be something else. FIFA are now openly pushing hard for a biennial World Cup, and their reported tactics threaten to open a schism within the global game which could prove too great to fix.

The Athletic’s Matt Slater reports that FIFA’s latest ploy is a global survey which shows that fans want more World Cups, in particular young fans and those from outside Europe. What a surprise that FIFA should have commissioned a survey for which the results coincide exactly what they want to do. But the important thing to bear in mind is that they don’t give a damn what the fans think. This is, as ever, about politics and money.

The money side of things is fairly easy to explain. In 2017, FIFA’s revenue was £734m and in 2019 it was £766m, but in 2018, a year in which a finals was held, their revenue jumped to £4.6bn. They made losses in both 2017 and 2019, but their profit in 2018 more than covered their losses. It’s also worth noting that UEFA’s revenues dwarf FIFA’s in years when there isn’t a World Cup, and that this is only reversed every four years.

But this is about more than money. This is about the global geopolitics of football. It’s important to understand that the ‘football family’ is a completely dysfunctional family in which everybody hates everybody else, and that for all the talk of ‘more football = more fun’, this is all about money and power rather than anything else.

A biennial World Cup would give FIFA the opportunity to put UEFA back in its box and significantly increase its own revenues. There is considerable unhappiness around the rest of the globe at the amount of power that is concentrated in European club football, and the opportunity to try to redress that imbalance while at the same time giving countries more opportunities to qualify for the World Cup finals will likely prove too much for many federations to resist.

FIFA already know that they have the numbers. FIFA has 209 members in total, and 65 of those nations are in UEFA and CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, which would likely be the only blocs to vote against the proposals. In other words, FIFA can wave this through whether Europe and South America likes it or not, and everything else might be considered window dressing, regardless of what objectors think.

Paul Pogba

It is likely that this is being shunted through now because of a perception that UEFA has been weakened by the European Super League fiasco. Aleksander Ceferin may have won that battle, in no small part because the plans put forward were so transparently half-baked and self-serving, but everybody knows that some of the biggest clubs are still plotting their escape to a gated community in which they can roll around in money forever.

The ESL clubs had grounds to believe that FIFA would support them over UEFA at the time that they were trying to make their break, only to have the rug pulled from under their feet by Gianni Infantino when they went public. Could there be a better time for confidently announce sweeping changes to the calendar (which just happen to hugely benefit FIFA) than when European football remains divided over competing visions of what the game should look like in a rapidly changing world?

But all of this ignores the realpolitik of world football, and the fact is that much of the game’s global wealth does reside in Europe and South America. When Aleksander Ceferin tells the media, “We can decide not to play in it. As far as I know, the South Americans are on the same page. So good luck with a World Cup like that,” he may sound insufferably arrogant, but he’s probably right.

What use is a World Cup without European and South American teams? Considering that every winner of this tournament since its inauguration in 1930 has come from one of these two continents, it would be impossible to call any winners the ‘world champions’ with a straight face. FIFA may be able to force this through, but it seems like a high stakes gamble on their part that Europe and South America will just roll over and let it happen. Even a boycott on one tournament would be hugely damaging to them.

And since we seem to be living through an era of ‘blue sky thinking’, we have to assume that relations between FIFA and UEFA are likely to deteriorate further. It remains an outside bet, but the possibility of a complete schism is closer than it has ever been before. Would it be that surprising to see UEFA dangle a financial carrot in front of South American clubs and federations to break away from FIFA completely if this is all waved through without any consultation with them?

It’s hardly as though this hasn’t happened before, as boxing and darts fans will readily attest, and the preparation of a survey confirming that fans want what FIFA want is little more than a PR exercise, designed to persuade all onlookers of its inevitability and desirability. They already have the votes in the bag, but the media battle will be real and it is clear that there are still a lot of people who they will want to persuade ahead of any vote on the matter.

But what happens at the vote is not what really matters here. What really matters is the reaction to that vote. Under pressure from big clubs who they’ve only just managed to keep on a leash, it’s difficult to see that UEFA can agree to such a proposal, and the biggest clubs might well refuse to release their players. If they can persuade CONMEBOL to join them, FIFA’s grand plans may yet blow up in Gianni Infantino’s face.