FIFA: What if we made people hate the World Cup

These ideas, they are very unpopular but what if... we made it worse

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FIFA: What if we made people hate the World Cup

Arsene Wegner was out a few months ago promoting a biennial FIFA World Cup:

“There needs to be less diversity in the calendar between when clubs play and when national teams play, which for example would reduce the amount of transcontinental travel for players. What we’ve seen in studies on recovery is that player fatigue is impacted by travel and sudden changes in climate,” Wenger told French newspaper L’Équipe.

“I think it’s an interesting idea. I’ve been working on it for six months now, consulting on it, and the reception has been 100% favourable. It’s an idea which initially evokes some reticence, but once we’ve explained it the guys go home thinking: ‘in the end, it’s not a bad idea’. They change their minds.”

The conversation gained serious momentum in May after a formal request by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation for FIFA to carry out a feasibility study on biennial World Cups. FIFA insists that is all it is: a consultation process with “no predetermined objectives”, while Wenger is adamant there is no financial incentive behind it.

I may as well declare my bias upfront and affirm that I don’t care about soccer or its traditions. It seems weird to me to be welded to a four year cycle because that’s what the Olympics does and that was decided on by ancient Greek mystics some time in the eighth century BC. I don’t run to people like that for advice on how to live my life1, so I’m not sure why the world’s second biggest sporting event (or even the biggest!) should do likewise. Then again, maybe I’m the idiot for expecting there to be a degree more rationality about it, other than a default to tradition.

It will only take a basic level of analysis to figure out what is happening here2. FIFA is expanding to a 48 team World Cup because it makes more money. Having a World Cup every two years will also make more money and eliminates the need for pointless friendlies that don’t commercially optimise the use of national brands and star players. Given FIFA exists to propagate itself and siphon money from oil dictatorships and dumbasses like Australia into private bank accounts in the Carribbean, all of this conforms to a certain cynical logic. I, personally, admire the naked ambition of it.

I can see why fans will hate it, as having it twice as often makes it half as special. FIFA can deny there’s a financial incentive and hide behind (weak) player welfare (excuses) but that assumes good faith and FIFA do not deserve it.

If the supply of World Cup sponsorship opportunities is doubled, then unless the pool of sponsors grows commensurately, the value of the sponsorship drops. The increase in opportunities might offset the drop in value, so maybe FIFA comes out ahead in the aggregate while reducing their margin. Again, maximising money while making the product worse is almost certainly the defining characteristic of professional sport over the last five years, if not forever.

It seems possible that other events in that tier of international sport might feel the pinch more, which could have interesting ripple effects in the unlikely event the change makes it through the legislative process.

Scheduling is an issue too. With the Winter and Summer Olympics operating in even years, that means (presumably) the odd years will be run for the men’s World Cup. Assuming that FIFA isn’t enormously stupid, they will continue to run the women’s event separately, which would then force that tournament into Olympic years, smothering opportunities for growing attention and sponsorships. If that’s the case, then FIFA is still enormously stupid.

Sometime more recently, it got worse:

During Tuesday’s UEFA call, no country spoke in favor of the plans… Opponents also cited the impact on player welfare of having more frequent tournaments and the potential damage caused to the growing profile of the women’s game by having more men’s competitions.

Scottish Football Association chief executive Ian Maxwell highlighted the limited regard for the lifeblood of the sport — domestic club matches — in the FIFA vision. Maxwell also asked Infantino to consider the “potential impact on sponsorship and potential impact on spectator attendance with a month-long international window.”

It seemed Infantino was so unnerved that he ended up giving credence to a suggestion that would undermine the revolution he is championing. Tiago Craveiro, the general secretary of the Portuguese federation, proposed that FIFA explores the possibility of not allowing teams to compete in consecutive editions if it pushed ahead with biennial World Cups.

The rather radical notion of not allowing nations to enter consecutive World Cups is what really perked up the patented Sick+Sad-o-Meter. This is painted by the AP as a move of desperation, a man who has run out of tricks to play and is throwing anything out there to see what sticks.

A move like this would either mean effectively splitting the World Cup into two tournaments of 24 nations each or, if FIFA maintain 48 nations per tournament, then 96 nations would have to qualify for the World Cup each four year cycle. There are currently 211 members of FIFA while Google cites slightly fewer than 200 nations in existence. 50% of the membership would play each cycle which I guess means the World Cup does what it says on the tin.

Perhaps the winners of each tournament would play a Super Bowl-like championship for the real World Cup? I’m sure they can find time for that between World Cups, continental championships, 80 match club schedules without clashing with any other major event.

Naturally, this suggestion attracted the most attention on social media, even though it’s the rest of the boring stuff that actually matters. The member federations identified many of the same problems that I have and given I am a simpleton and I doubt any of them are rocket surgeons, that does not bode well.

Underlying the elementary, it’s-all-about-the-money-innit-level analysis, the real battle seems to be being fought between FIFA, the world governing body and owner of the World Cup, and UEFA, the confederation that represents the most commercially lucrative parts of soccer, including the Champion’s League, the Euros and all of its biggest domestic markets, presumably less for control of the sport and more for who can line their nest with the most euros.

A similar proxy battle is being fought over the nature of the FIFA Club World Cup, which will expand from seven to 24 entrants sometime after this year’s edition. If anyone ever takes an interest in this tournament, it might supplant the importance of the Champion’s League and associated Byzantium of European club tournaments, reducing potential revenues and ensuring that the Iron Law of Institutions kicks in3.

It seems the craveness will continue for some time. UEFA is forced to fight this battle on two fronts: one with FIFA above and one with its own clubs below (see: Super League). I’m sure the Europa Conference League will provide the decisive blow. FIFA must reckon with the fact that everyone doesn’t just think, but knows, they’re a bunch of greedy dipshits and automatically distrusts anything they propose. Maybe climate change will sort them all out.

And on a final note:

“I believe as well that the enemy of football is not the World Cup or is not FIFA but it is other activities that young boys and young girls are running after today,” Infantino said in closing remarks. “And we need to see how jointly and together we can bring them back to be interested in football. And we want to, as far as I’m concerned, do this all together as we have always been doing in the last few years.”

I don’t have time today to drill into the sports management obsession with Kids These Days but a bunch of corrupt old men sitting in a room in Switzerland probably shouldn't spend so much time thinking about how to attract children.

The grace, the beauty of sport

Mailbag

Reader Raimonds Sofiya of Khilok, Russia, writes:

Braves vs Astros, who would have been the superior moral victor?

Great question, Raimonds. The answer is there is no way for there to be a moral victor in that situation or, indeed, any World Series, however, a last minute collapse from a unloseable position for the Braves would have been the funniest outcome.

Mail in your questions with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Sick, Sad World of Sports, Locked Bag 6969 in your capital city.


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Thanks for reading.

1

Unless it’s about speaking ancient Greek, oracular prophecy or haruspicy.

2

All the more transparent because they specifically denied it was about money.

3

People are more concerned about maintaing their place in an organisation, rather than the health of the organisation itself.