It sounds so enticing, doesn’t it? A World Cup or European Championship every summer, allowing us to gorge like a footballing Augustus Gloop almost all year round. Never mind the risk of burnout, of greater TV subscription fees, of the game becoming even more bloated; just listen to the tinkle of nickel and copper swelling Fifa’s coffers.
Yet such a proposal is about to sneak up on us, without most people realising, just like the 48-team World Cup – a ridiculous idea that became a reality. On Friday, Arsène Wenger, Fifa’s chief of global football development, even suggested a new football calendar could be decided by December, with alternate World Cups and Euros played from 2028 onwards.
Wenger also floated the idea of qualifying matches being played in October and perhaps March, with groups of four playing six games and the top two going through to a summer final. The players, meanwhile, would then get 25 days’ rest before starting again.
“We must recognise that society is demanding more and more high-stakes and emotional matches,” Wenger explained to L’Équipe. “Even Euro 2020, which took place two months ago, seems far away. I think that the football public no longer wants the qualifiers to last a year and a half. They can be concentrated in four or five weeks.”
Wenger is a reasonable man, and much of this sounds perfectly reasonable. Who doesn’t want fewer meaningless international games? Sift a little deeper, however, and Wenger starts to sound more like an infomercial salesman who insists the Diamonique pendant you don’t need, or initially want, will improve your life. The benefits are inflated; the costs ignored.
When Wenger was asked how supporters would react if there were no club matches in October, for instance, his reply was frankly bizarre. “The real question is whether to continue with the status quo – five 10-day meetings in September, October, November, March and June – or to combine the qualifiers.” With respect to one of the game’s great minds, that is dodging the question.
What of the clubs, who pay players’ wages? According to Wenger, they should be happy too. “The clubs will have the players all to themselves for at least seven months! They have everything to gain,” he says.
There is a whiff of late-era Wenger at Arsenal here: part romantic, part delusionist. But, to put it mildly, many clubs do not share his view. I am told that the recent board meeting of the European Clubs Association, representing the 247 clubs of Europe, in Istanbul was supposed to discuss a multitude of issues, but was quickly overtaken by “a universal indignation” at Fifa’s conduct, with demands for the ECA and Uefa to fight back.
That counter-offensive has already started, with Uefa’s president Alexander Ceferin expressing his “grave concerns” about a biennial World Cup and also criticising Fifa – and will continue when the ECA meets in Geneva this week.
There is also growing anger that for all its PR talk of “togetherness” Fifa is trying to push a radical overhaul with barely any consultation and before a feasibility study has concluded. As one source at a club put it: “They want football stakeholders to be together when it’s in Fifa interests. Other than that, togetherness gets thrown out of the window on the Fifa super highway.”
It doesn’t help that suspicions linger about Fifa’s involvement in the embryonic stages of the failed European Super League. Some have also noted that Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Fifa president Gianni Infantino, made the initial proposal for a biennial World Cup. How long, they ask, before Riyadh is rewarded with a tournament?
As an aside, it is also somewhat ironic that Wenger, who used to complain constantly about too many international games, is now the face of a biennial World Cup – and strange, too, that he insists money is not a factor. “The idea is really to improve the quality of the game and the competitions, there is no financial intention behind it,” he says.
If you believe that, I have a pile of £1,000 banknotes for you. This is about money and power – with Fifa trying to isolate Europe and weaken Uefa.
What might stop it? Uefa and the ECA will certainly try, but even Fifa’s critics concede it probably has the votes. Fan groups are also solidly opposed to it, but this issue does not inflame the passions in the way the European Super League did. There will be no protests outside Fifa HQ. No burning of Infantino effigies. No angry calls for ministers to intervene.
But as Football Supporters Europe noted in a letter to Ceferin last week: “Most fans look forward to the World Cup precisely because it is a unique event that only occurs every four years. They do not have an unlimited amount of time, money, or enthusiasm to expend on flights, accommodation, and tickets – or TV subscriptions.”
As the FSE also pointed out: “There is no doubt that football is in desperate need of reform … but doubling the number of World Cups will not solve its problems.”
Perhaps the only hope for a change of course is for the game’s superstars to wade in. Would Fifa really be able to ignore Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappé?
For now, though, we are reduced to pointing out the obvious. A World Cup every two years won’t benefit football or the fans. Merely Fifa.