The Biennale World Cup is dead, but FIFA’s fight is not over

DOHA, Qatar – Gianni Infantino entered the bright lights of a crowded convention center with the Emir of Qatar on Friday and said he expects this year’s World Cup to be the best ever. It was not an unusual boast; Infantino has succeeded before, in Russia in 2018, and will surely succeed again when the tournament starts in North America in 2026. But behind his bright smile and his bombastic words, the trip to the desert was the environment for the last disappointment of the FIFA president.

That was the end of another Infantino’s hope for revolutionary change, a kind of brave but ultimately failed plan that marked his presidency of the global governing body of football. Efforts by the division to double the frequency of the World Cup for men, to muse FIFA’s multibillion-dollar cow every two years instead of every four, are over.

While Infantino reminded FIFA members, gathered in person for the first time in three years, that the idea of ​​a two-year World Cup was not his – a claim that was technically correct – he spent a significant amount of financial and political capital trying to figure out what to do. represented one of the most significant changes in the history of football. Surveys were commissioned to show support. Experts have been hired to oppose the critics. But opponents of the concept have not wavered: by last fall, European and South American football leaders had already threatened a boycott if it materialized.

In Doha, Infantino finally raised the white flag.

The turnaround, another capitulation to another of his great ideas, followed earlier mistakes that led to damaging divisions with important constituencies. In 2018, Infantino tried to force the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank worth 25 billion dollars to sell part of FIFA’s largest assets and create new club and representative competitions, causing such a bitter quarrel that he and the leader of European football did not speak for themselves.

In 2019, FIFA used the background channel’s efforts to try to expand this year’s World Cup to 48 teams from the planned 32. The proposal was rejected because it would require the host, Qatar, to share matches with its neighbors, including the group then involved. the prolonged economic blockade of the small Gulf nation.

Last week, Infantino, 52, could not bring himself to explicitly say that the World Cup to be held every year, which has been the source of so much anger over the past year, will not happen. Instead, he only allowed that now was the time to “find agreements and compromises.”

According to the delegates, FIFA needs new competitions, the kind that would bring in the income needed to fulfill the promises that FIFA gave to its 211 members. No FIFA president has been as generous as Infantino, and for him, monitoring is suddenly vital: on Thursday, he announced that he would run for re-election next year.

Plans for future events are already being formed. Annual competitions for boys and girls are planned, with 48 youth teams for boys and 24 teams for girls, it is unlikely that they will face any opposition. And opposition to the expanded World Club Championship, which will be played every four years – another Infantino priority – is now surprisingly subdued. The World Club Championship for 24 teams was awarded to China in 2021, but was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then completely rejected because Infantino focused its energy on the World Cup, which is held every two years.

Now, with even once reluctant European officials taking part in positive talks, the Club World Cup – which could be extended even further to 32 teams – is likely to be agreed in the next few months. A new event could start as early as 2025. Or it could be postponed until 2027 if FIFA, faced with persistent European opposition, finds an alternative national competition for the World Cup, which is held biennially. Some regional bodies, including Concacaf, the group responsible for football in North and Central America, are still pushing for a new big competition for national teams.

“I think there is an appetite for change, and I think the rest of the world really wants change,” Concacafa President Victor Montagliani said.

Montagliani suggested that a revived and expanded version of the Confederations Cup, a hugely unpopular tournament held in World Cup host countries as a trial event, could be an option, as could a global League of Nations that serve as a new four-year event for its regional winners. which some Europeans ridiculed as a two-year World Cup “on the back door”.

However, at the heart of much of the tension remains a greater struggle: the battle for supremacy between European football and FIFA. European officials are angry at what they see as the efforts of Infantino, the former UEFA secretary general, to diminish Europe in an effort to boost its popularity around the world, and signs of their rift were clear in Qatar last week. Several members of the UEFA delegation, for example, including its president Alexander Ceferin, were noted for their absence from Friday’s World Cup draw, an event that took place just a day after attending the FIFA Congress.

Infantino has spoken openly about breaking Europe’s stifling success – FIFA encouraged efforts last year to form a breakaway European Super League before abandoning the project because it failed – and he retains important allies who share his concerns about its dominance.

“What should the rest of us do?” Let’s just roll our thumbs and send players and capital to Europe? ” said Montagliani, a Canadian. “It simply cannot happen. I’m sorry. The reality is that they have just as much fiduciary duty as the rest of the world, and I think it’s time we all went around the table and realized that. “

Now doomed, the campaign for the two-year World Cup has led Infantino to bring other allies into the fight, including using popular former players and coaches to press the issue on his behalf. The effort was led by Arsène Wenger, a former Arsenal coach who has toured the world supporting the benefits of the competition, and members of FIFA Legends, a group of former international stars funded by FIFA, who also offered great reviews. (Current players have largely opposed the idea.)

At the same time, opinion polls and public relations consultants were tasked with changing the minds of skeptical media and cautious fan groups. In the end, however, the effort produced only disruption and discord. And it didn’t seem to be cheap: FIFA reported an increase in communication costs last week in its latest financial disclosure. They rose nearly $ 10 million – 62 percent – compared to the previous year.

Now, as he pushes forward and makes promises for his re-election, some are waiting, even waiting, for Infantino’s next big idea, one that could deliver cash to his constituents, as well as a legacy as the creator of change he craves.

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