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A biennial World Cup is dead, but FIFA’s fight isn’t over

DOHA, Qatar — Gianni Infantino stepped into the lights of a crowded convention center on Friday alongside the Emir of Qatar and said he expected this year’s World Cup to be the best ever. all the time. It was not an unusual boast; Infantino has done it before, in Russia in 2018, and he will surely do it again when the tournament heads to North America in 2026. But behind his beaming smile and bombastic words, the trip to the desert had been the setting of The FIFA President’s Last Disappointment.

It was here that another of Infantino’s hopes for revolutionary change, the kind of audacious but ultimately failed plan that marked his presidency of football’s world governing body, finally came to an end. Divisional efforts to double the frequency of the men’s World Cup, to milk FIFA’s multi-billion dollar cash cow every two years instead of every four, are complete.

As Infantino reminded FIFA members, meeting in person for the first time in three years, that the idea of ​​a biennial World Cup had not been his – a technically accurate claim – he had spent a significant financial and political capital to try to engineer what would have been one of the biggest changes in football history. Polls were commissioned to show support. Experts have been recruited to fend off criticism. But opponents of the concept have never wavered: last fall, European and South American football leaders were already threatening to boycott if it materialized.

In Doha, Infantino finally raised the white flag.

The reversal, yet another capitulation on another of his big ideas, followed earlier gaffes that led to damaging divisions with important constituencies. In 2018, Infantino tried to force a $25 billion deal with Japanese conglomerate SoftBank to sell some of FIFA’s top assets and create new club and national team competitions, sparking such a bitter fight that he and the leader of European football have not spoken. a year.

In 2019, FIFA made indirect efforts to try to expand this year’s World Cup to 48 teams out of the planned 32. The proposal was scrapped as it would have forced host Qatar to share matches with its neighbors, including a group then engaged in a prolonged economic blockade of the tiny Gulf nation.

Last week Infantino, 52, could not bring himself to say explicitly that the biennial World Cup, the source of so much acrimony over the past year, was not going to take place. Instead, he only admitted that now was the time to “find agreements and compromises”.

FIFA, he told delegates, needed new competitions, the kind that would produce the kind of revenue needed to deliver on the promises FIFA made to its 211 member federations. No FIFA president has been as generous as Infantino, and for him follow-up is suddenly vital: he announced on Thursday that he would run again next year.

Plans for future events are already taking shape. Annual competitions for boys and girls are planned, with a 48-team youth event for boys and a 24-team girls competition which is unlikely to meet with any opposition. And opposition to an expanded Club World Cup to be played every four years – another Infantino priority – is now surprisingly muted. A 24-team Club World Cup had been awarded to China for 2021 but was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic and then sidelined altogether as Infantino focused his energies on the biennial World Cup.

Now, with even once reluctant European officials engaging in positive talks, the Club World Cup – potentially expanded even further, to 32 teams – is set to be agreed in the coming months. The new event could start as early as 2025. Or it could be postponed to 2027 if FIFA, facing resilient European opposition, finds an alternative competition for national teams to the biennial World Cup. Some regional bodies, including Concacaf, the group responsible for soccer in North and Central America, are still pushing for a major new competition for national teams.

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

Montagliani suggested a revived and expanded version of the mothballed Confederations Cup, a largely unpopular tournament held in World Cup host countries as a test event, could be an option, as could a World League. des Nations which could fuel a new quadrennial event for its regional winners – an idea some Europeans have derided as a biennial World Cup “through the back door”.

At the heart of much of the tension, however, remains a bigger fight: the battle for supremacy between European football and FIFA. European officials have been angered by what they perceive to be efforts by Infantino, a former UEFA general secretary, to diminish Europe in a bid to boost its popularity around the world, and signs of their rift. were clear in Qatar last week. For example, several members of the UEFA delegation, including its president, Aleksander Ceferin, were conspicuously absent from Friday’s World Cup draw, an event that took place just a day after their participation in the FIFA Congress.

Infantino has spoken openly about breaking Europe’s grip on success – FIFA last year appeared to encourage efforts to found a breakaway European Super League before walking away from the project as it crumbled – and he retains important allies who share his concerns about his dominance.

“What are the rest of us supposed to do?” Just twiddle your thumbs and send players and capital to Europe? said Montagliani, a Canadian. “That can’t happen. I am sorry. The reality is that they have just as much fiduciary duty to the rest of the world, and I think it’s time we all got around the table to understand that.

The now doomed two-year World Cup campaign has seen Infantino bring other allies into the fight, including leveraging popular former players and coaches to lobby the issue on his behalf. The efforts were led by Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, who has toured the world espousing the benefits of the competition, and members of the FIFA Legends programme, a group of former international stars funded by the FIFA, which also offered rave reviews. (Current players were generally opposed to the idea.)

At the same time, opinion polls and public relations consultants were tasked with changing the minds of skeptical media and suspicious fan groups. Ultimately, however, the effort produced only disruption and discord. And it doesn’t seem to have come cheap: FIFA reported an increase in its communication costs in its latest financial communication last week. They increased by nearly $10 million – 62% – over the previous year.

Now, as he forges ahead and makes promises for his re-election, some are waiting, even waiting, for Infantino’s next big idea, which could provide money to his constituents and also the legacy as as an actor of the change he wants.

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