Football reform risks big pushback

Most clubs, leagues and associations oppose Fifa's proposal centred on annual Finals

LONDON • Fifa risks plunging the world of football into a new conflict with its proposal to hold the World Cup every two years instead of four, raising the possibility of a divorce with leading clubs and the powerful European leagues.

The proposal, first floated in the 1990s, was revived in March by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now head of football development at the governing body.

In May, Fifa president Gianni Infantino agreed, at the request of the Saudi Football Federation, to launch a "feasibility study" into the proposal, making it clear that he is open to reforming the international calendar.

With Wenger saying he hopes the consultation process will be completed by the end of the year, the powerful European leagues have stepped up their opposition.

A final phase every summer - Fifa's central argument is that a biennial World Cup would create more profits that could be distributed to federations in Africa and Asia, which have a greater reliance on their funds than the wealthy European leagues.

Wenger says the idea would be to have a final phase every summer, alternating World Cups and continental tournaments like the European Championship and Copa America.

Qualifying games would be crammed into a four to five-week break in October when all the qualifiers can be played. This would then leave domestic football uninterrupted until the end of the season.

Wenger refutes the argument the players would face increased strain, arguing that they would have to make fewer long journeys and would have a minimum of 25 days' rest after playing in summer tournaments for their countries.

"Today's calendar is outdated," the 71-year-old Frenchman said.

"We want to organise it in a more efficient way."

However, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin is fiercely opposed to the proposal and threatened that European nations and South American powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina would boycott a biennial World Cup.

"We can decide not to play in it. As far as I know, the South Americans are on the same page. So good luck with a World Cup like that," he told The Times of London.

"I think it will never happen as it is so much against the basic principles of football."

The South American federation Conmebol followed that up with a strongly worded statement last week, saying the proposal would "distort the most important football competition on the planet".

"There is no sporting justification for shortening the period between World Cups," it said.

Major European clubs have opposed it as well.

"I'm not a fan of it. If you want more value, make yourself rare," said Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp agreed, saying Fifa's proposal was "all about money", while the European Club Association, which represents the continent's biggest clubs, said it believed there was no space in the current calendar.

The World Leagues Forum, which speaks for 42 global leagues, said the two-year proposal was detrimental to the economic interests of football and the players' health.

But despite the threats of a boycott by top European clubs and potential legal challenges, the radical idea is being openly supported by the Asian and African confederations.

Some legends of the game like former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel are also in favour.

Brazil great Ronaldo added: "If you ask (Lionel) Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo if they would love to have more opportunities to win the World Cup, I'm sure they'd say yes."

The final decision will be taken by the 211 Fifa member teams and Infantino is reportedly keen to hold a vote in December.

Europe and South America have a total of 65 votes between them but if Asia, Africa and the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football support the vote, that would be enough to get the motion passed.

New Zealand Football, the leading nation in the Oceania Football Confederation, has yet to decide its stance but news website Stuff confirmed the association was one of the 166 countries that voted in favour of conducting a feasibility study.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Football reform risks big pushback'. Subscribe