The FIFA World Cup Every Two Years?

In yesterday’s rant, I had an item related to soccer and MLS.  Today, I want to look at another “soccer story” involving FIFA and the major European soccer leagues and clubs.  The idea has been floated that FIFA should hold a World Cup Tournament every other year instead of every four years as it currently does.  That idea did not come out of the blue; there is a history here.

Back in May, the FIFA congress commissioned a feasibility study regarding holding the World Cup tournament every two years instead of every four years.  Saudi Arabia was the country federation that put the issue before the membership, and it was supported by the FIFA president Gianni Infantino.  The vote by the FIFA congress was 166 votes in support of the study and 22 opposed to the study.

Another senior officer of FIFA is Arsene Wenger.  Wenger had been a long-term and successful manager of Arsenal FC in the English Premier League from 1996 to 2018; he is widely known in the soccer world and while he is generally considered to be studious and capable, he has also had a few less-than-collegial moments in his career.  Currently, Wegner’s job is as FIFA’s Chief of Football Global Development.

It is not clear that Wenger had already formulated a “2-year plan for the World Cup” prior to the motion made by the Saudi federation, but he championed that idea under the auspices of the study commissioned because of that motion.  Here are the current scheduling windows for “international breaks” where individual leagues take a pause and national teams can assemble, practice and play qualifying matches:

  • There are breaks in September, October, November and March.

Wenger says that is too many interruptions and his proposal is to condense all that into a single four- or five-week hiatus in October when all the qualifying matches could take place.  That all sounds good to me; I would not expect any violent opposition to that sort of thinking.

However, there is one other little gem in this recommendation:

  • There would be major tournaments every June of every year.
  • In even numbered years, there would be a World Cup Tournament
  • In odd numbered years there would be “continental championships” such as the European Championship tournament.

Cue Hamlet:  “Aye, there’s the rub.

An organization such as UEFA just had their tournament relegated because they only get to do it every other year and they now do it at least three years out of four.  Of course, that will not be the public position of UEFA on the matter; they will oppose the idea based on this statement by its president:

“To play every summer a one-month tournament, for the players it’s a killer. If it’s every two years it clashes with the women’s World Cup, with the Olympic football tournament…  The value [of the World Cup] is precisely because it is every four years, you wait for it, it’s like the Olympic Games, it’s a huge event. I don’t see our federations supporting that.”

The IOC has not taken a position on this proposal just yet.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that it would want to have the World Cup Tournament in competition with the Olympic Summer Games every four years.  IOC president Thomas Bach said that he and others involved with the IOC are “in discussions” with FIFA and with “various continental associations.”

Players’ positions are split.  Some think it is a great idea; others think that every two years would diminish the prestige of the World Cup Tournament.  If this were to come down to a simple majority vote, the idea would likely pass because the World Cup revenue is split among all the membership of FIFA.  There are lots more “small national federations” than there are entities such as the English Premier League, Serie A or UEFA.  Those smaller entities can use the influx of more World Cup revenue to advance their own development.  [Aside: Remember Wenger is Chief of Football Global Development; that is one of his hooks into this issue.]

Another attraction for some of the smaller federations is that more frequent tournaments allow more opportunity for a smaller country to have a shot at hosting the event – – or at least being part of a multi-national hosting consortium.  Hosting obviously has the potential for economic benefit attached to it – – if countries do not overspend on facilities as did Brazil in 2014.

There is plenty of room for maneuvering and deal-making and politicking in this matter.  President Infantino says that he and the folks at FIFA will have a roadmap for evaluating this proposal by the end of 2021 and some have taken that to mean that Infantino plans to put this proposal before the next FIFA congress in early 2022.  As I said, it is hard to imagine the congress as a whole voting it down.

At the same time, the current position of UEFA is that European nations might choose to boycott the World Cup Tournament if it were to become a biennial event.  That is a nuclear option.  No offense to federations in South America, North America, Africa and Asia, a World Cup Tournament without European teams is a Junior Varsity event.  Can UEFA really hold firm in such a boycott position?  Do the world soccer mavens really want to find out?

And it is not just UEFA that opposes this idea.  There is an entity known as the European Leagues Group; it has 37 members including all the major – and minor – national club leagues in those countries.  Here is their reaction to this idea:

“The leagues have firmly and unanimously opposed any proposals to organise the FIFA World Cup every two years.

“The leagues will work together with the other stakeholders to prevent football governing bodies taking unilateral decisions that will harm domestic football which is the foundation of our industry and of utmost importance for clubs, players and fans across Europe and the world.

“New competitions, revamped competitions or expanded competitions for club and national team football both at continental level and/or at global level are not the solutions to the current problems of our game in an already congested calendar.”

Finally, today’s rant began because Arsene Wenger offered up an idea that would reshape the international soccer calendar.  So, let me close with an observation about ideas in general from essayist Emil Cioran that seem eerily appropriate here:

“The history of ideas is the history of the grudges of solitary men.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………