Commentary

A biennial World Cup too big an idea

This is football's age of the Big Idea. There is an incessant, unrelenting flow of Big Ideas, ones of such scale and scope that they have to be capitalised, from all corners of the game: from individuals and groups, from clubs and leagues, from the back of cigarette packets and from all manner of crumpled napkins.

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system was a Big Idea. Expanding the World Cup to 48 teams was a Big Idea. Project Big Picture, the plan to redraw how the Premier League worked, was a Big Idea. The Super League was the Biggest Idea of them all - perhaps, in hindsight, it was, in fact, too Big an Idea.

And now, thanks to Arsene Wenger, we have another. This latest Big Idea is, at heart, a very simple thought, rooted in the noted Alan Partridge dictum about detective TV shows: People like them, so let's make more of them. If the World Cup can grow in size, why not have it grow in time, too? Instead of playing it every four years, why not just play it biennially?

Everyone could have guessed the reaction. As fans, our relationship with football is an intensely personal one. It is bound up in affection and mythology and nostalgia.

It is no wonder, then, that fans are coded to resist change. No matter what form it takes - VAR or penalties being taken in the wrong order or the expansion of the World Cup.

Wenger's plan, then, was not met with rapturous applause. It has been condemned, pretty widely, not only by fans but also by all save two of the groups that we now routinely describe as football's stakeholders. Clubs, leagues, players: They are all against it.

They all fear it congests the calendar yet further, that it strips the World Cup of some, or much, of its prestige. Its value, they say, lies in its rarity.

The two exceptions, of course, are the phalanx of so-called legends - John Terry and Michael Owen and Peter Schmeichel and the rest - consulted by Wenger, in his capacity as Fifa's chief of global football development, ahead of, say, fan groups or the Bundesliga or Uefa; and the vast majority of Fifa's 211 member teams, many of whom stand to benefit in some way from the expansion and are, not coincidentally, in favour of it.

This is just the first of quite a long list of problems with Wenger's idea: Why should a decision that impacts the game at the club level as much as internationally, one that has ramifications for anyone who plays or watches professional football, be decided by such a narrow interest group?

What right - and apologies, here, if this comes across as Eurocentric - do the national federations of Oman or Uzbekistan or Canada, for that matter, have to vote on a proposal that would radically alter the way that European and South American club football, the great engines of the game, work? Particularly when they are not mere observers, judiciously selecting the best option for the game they love, but active beneficiaries of the plan?

That is just the start of it, though. The other issues are many and varied.

Wenger's system would see a World Cup staged every two years; in the intervening summers, the six major confederations would hold their continental championships.

Where, precisely, does this leave the women's game? Would the Women's World Cup have to compete with the men's European Championship in odd years? What happens to the expanded Club World Cup that Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, has spent years conceiving and crafting and flogging?

If the World Cup can retain its prestige despite doubling in frequency, can the same be said of the continental tournaments?

Is the best way to grow African or Asian football to make those continents compete for eyeballs and interest with the European Championship?

The answer, to both, is no.

There have been four iterations of the Copa America in the last seven years, and each one has meant just a little less than the last; this summer, running concurrently with the Euro, the Copa was largely an afterthought outside South America.

That Wenger and Fifa have not yet been able to provide a convincing riposte to those issues - beyond pointing out that more countries would be able to qualify for the World Cup, which is the sort of thing that may well prove to be untrue in practice, no matter how much sense it makes in theory - is a shame, because his proposal is not without value. The Big Idea may be riddled with flaws, but the small ideas that support it are worth considering.

Wenger wants to reduce player fatigue and football's carbon imprint, as well as impose order on football's archaic calendar, by streamlining the qualification process: Rather than a series of brief international windows, he would prefer either one, or two, longer ones per season. (When they would fall is not decided, but safe to say that taking a month off in October, just after Europe's season has started, should really be an opening gambit at best). That is a Good Idea, one that merits capitalising.

So, too, the thought of a secondary global competition - a sort of Europa League World Cup - to run alongside the main tournament, offering smaller nations a viable target, is not without merit.

Football fans are naturally conservative, but it would be self-defeating to spurn any notion of change whatsoever.

Sadly, though, the potential benefits most likely will be lost, either because the whole plan is vetoed - Uefa, its nose tweaked by the sense that Fifa is simply bulldozing its vision through, has already vowed to fight it - or because they represent small victories in a resounding, overall defeat.

There is a sadness in that, because there are plenty of ways that football's format might be changed for the better, and this is the chance to do it.

There is a reason that all of these Big Ideas keep emerging: In 2024, the game's calendar effectively resets and, until it does, every option is effectively in play.

This is an opportunity for change, the progressive and positive sort, if only all of the interested parties could resist the temptation to claim territory and investigate nurturing fertile ground instead.

It should not be beyond the wit of football, for example, to keep Wenger's ideas for a condensed qualification process and (more or less) contemporaneous continental tournaments, but abandon a biennial World Cup, with all its drawbacks.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'A biennial World Cup too big an idea'. Subscribe