Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

ATW90Political Footballs

Infantino in a hurry

It seems that Gianni Infantino is a man in a hurry, determined to make his mark on World Football. He was catapulted into a job that he could never expected to take, because his boss at UEFA was caught up in the corruption scandals before he could take over at FIFA himself. Platini’s fall from grace, over a payment from Blatter that he protests was legitimate comes with the feeling, as when Al Capone when jailed for tax evasion, that the whole story was not out in the open.

Infantino is armed with a gift from the gods, a promise of a $25 billion windfall that FIFA can then distribute to countries and clubs at their discretion. The actual sources of the money are less than clear, forcing FIFA to deny suggestions that the money was coming from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. They still have not revealed what the actual source of funds will be.

These phenomenal sums are not meant as a gift for the good of football. The consortium promising the money will claim the broadcast rights and other privileges in order to recoup their investment.

In order to unlock the money, Infantino there needs to be something new to show for it. Something that can be broadcast to billions across the world and allow the investors to recoup on their investments. Much of the rights to the World Cup itself are already tied up, so this cannot be gifted in this way.

While FIFA has a number of tournaments under its belt, only two types can really bring in the cash – because only two types of tournament bring together a large number of the star players. One of these is the World Cup, while the other should be a World Club championship. The variety of youth and women’s tournaments are actually more for the good of the game than the love of money, although you could wonder about add-ons such as Futsal, Beach Football and even e-Sports being under FIFA’s ever larger umbrella.

FIFA has been tried before to increase the frequency of the World Cup, so as it would be every second year, rather than every four years. Despite the obvious income this could make, especially for countries from the smaller confederations, it has been knocked back. It appeared that many of FIFA’s members actual see the benefit in the gap between competitions, which creates a greater amount of excitement each time the tournament comes around. Also, it has to be remembered that the preliminaries in some continents start three years before the final tournaments, which would clearly create a problem for a more frequent competition. You might get the case that some teams were already out of the qualification competition for 2024 before the finals in 2022 commenced.

FIFA does have its mini World Cup, the Confederations Cup. The last of these took place in 2017 as a preparation tournament for the full World Cup in Russia a year later. It is ignored to a great extent by those who are not involved – I cannot recall the 2017 final from memory at all, while I was glued to the TV for the World Cup final a year later. One can be sure, that even if England are defeated in the semi-final, the final of the new European Nations League in June will get a greater TV audience in Britain than the 2017 Confederations Cup final managed. For 2021, it appears impractical to play a Confederations Cup in Qatar with the switch to a winter World Cup and so it appears that there will not be a 2021 version. If FIFA decide that it will in fact take place, it is likely to be played elsewhere.

FIFA have got agreement to extend the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, (23% of membership), despite their amazing decision to still only give the strongest confederation, UEFA 16 places in this set up (UEFA have 29 clubs ranked in the top 48 of FIFA rankings).

The comparative number of slots agreed for the 48-team World Cup is (with those in the 32-team cup in parenthesis). UEFA 16 (13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8 (4.5), CONCACAF 6 (3.5), CONMEBOL 6 (4.5) and Oceania 1 (0.5). The 0.5s in the old list refer to the two intercontinental play-offs, while the old total adds up to 31 – the last one being the host, which is outside the slots’ allocation. In other words, for 2018, UEFA actually had 14 as Russia is a UEFA member. Despite the fact the hosts will come out of the continental allocation, the new total is only 46. FIFA had to think up another gimmick for the final two places. One team from each Confederation, except UEFA, plus one from the host confederation will take part in a simple competition to decide the last two places. This has provisionally been planned to be played in the host nation about 3 months before the finals (in the March international window). There is a precedent for holding a neutral qualifier in the host country. When FIFA decided to accept a late application from the USA for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, the qualification has already been completed. Mexico having beaten Cuba three times, all at home. FIFA decided that a Mexico v USA game would take place in Rome on 24 June 1934. The USA won 4-2 with Aldo Donelli scoring all the goals. The 1934 World Cup was a straight knock out competition, and three days after the Mexico game, Donelli scored again for the USA in Rome – but on this occasion his team lost 7-1 to Italy.

FIFA do not consider (or at least publish) a comparative table of federations, in the same way as UEFA maintains a table of the comparative performances of club teams from each country in their competitions. Using a formula similar to that used by UEFA, with a bonus point added for the winner of every knock out game, (but not the 3rd/4th play-off), the comparative performances are shown in this graph for every word cup from 1950. The FIFA line shows the average of all countries – so those federations with scores consistently above the line (i.e. UEFA and CONMEBOL) should have more entries, which would push their relative score down, assuming that extra entries ae comparatively weak. Those below the line (i.e. the rest) will not improve their lot by having more teams involved.

FIFA can argue that increasing the number from each continent gives more impetus to develop the game in these regions, but this study shows no evidence of this having an effect. The African line reached a peak with two countries in 1990, and increasing numbers since have not seen a gradual rise back towards this level. The African line should be particularly disappointing, as the number of players qualified to play for African nations, but playing in major European leagues has increased massively since 1990, but this has not reflected back on their national teams.

The counter argument could be that increasing UEFA or CONMEBOL would boost the game in the less developed football nations (and Scotland) in those federations. This is open to debate, with 52% of the players in the World Cup 2018 plying their trade in football competitions in just five European countries. In order of number of participants, the five are England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

At the March meeting, FIFA deferred the decision on whether Qatar 2022 would be a 32 or 48 team competition, allowing Qatar to talk to potential joint hosts to obtain additional stadia. Infantino really wants to increase the numbers for 2022, despite the fact it is neither sensible or practical. Asian qualifying was scheduled to start on the same day as the decision is now to be made, and it is unclear whether this first round will go ahead as planned.

Beyond the World Cup, the latest idea for a new World Competition would be to extend the Nations League from Europe (where it has had one edition) and CONCACAF (where it is due to start later this year), so as it became a Worldwide festival. Infantino was involved (mainly as administration) in setting up the Nations League in Europe, but when it came down to it, no one has been able to explain how a World Nations League would work. The most likely and plausible format would be to create a Premier Division with worldwide groups. The teams in these groups would not play a similar competition within their own confederation.

At four groups of four, this could be lucrative. It would, of course (if based on current rankings), only involve teams from UEFA (11) and CONMEBOL (5). An alternative would be eight groups of three. The top 24 rankings currently include 15 UEFA teams, along with 6 from CONMEBOL, and one each from CONCACAF (Mexico, 17), Asia (Iran, 22) and Africa (Senegal, 24). So, it is probable that only Oceania would miss out. The real difficulty is how to arrange the continental Nations Leagues to create a fair promotion and relegation structure, and how to fit in these matches into the busy football calendar.

The other point is that not all Federations have taken the Nations League idea on board. The European formula is not a practical proposition in CONMEBOL (because it only has ten members), or Oceania (11), while both Africa and Asia may see it as impractical, giving the logistics of travelling around their continents. Even within CONCACAF, travel can be a problem. Many Caribbean Islands do not have direct air links to each other. When I travelled from Martinique, after seeing them against Antigua and Barbuda, I found that there was a group of CONCACAF officials returning to base on my flight. I was heading to Sint Maarten, and although I did not have to change planes, I suffered the inconvenience of a 90-minute stopover in Guadeloupe, where we had to deplane and wait in an area with no facilities. The CONCACAF group also had a short stop in Sint Maarten, before the plane continued to Puerto Rico, and then had to change planes to get to CONCACAF headquarters in Miami.

The World Club Championship is also an idea that has not yet been realised. Certainly, there is a seven-team festival every December, scheduled in such a way as to make sure the bigger teams do not get to play too many matches. So not only did the big two, River Plate and Real Madrid only play two games each, but with this squeezed into a busy schedule of matches. As a result, River Plate decided to start their semi-final with only four members of the team that played the final of the Copa Libertadores nine days earlier. It was a mistake and they fell to defeat on penalties. Real Madrid made no mistakes with wins over Kashima Antlers and Al-Ain to take the trophy.

The current tournament was born of an original series of matches between the European Cup/Champions League winners, and the equivalents from the Copa Libertadores. Spanish teams have taken exactly half the titles since the current series started in 2005, (Real 4, Barca 3), which in turn demonstrates Spanish dominance of European competition in that time. European teams (Bayern, Inter, AC Milan and Manchester United) have taken four more titles, leaving only three for the South Americans, all heading in the direction of Brazil (Sao Paulo, Internacional, Corinthians).

The revised format for the tournament is to have 24 teams. Eight from UEFA, six from CONMEBOL, three each from Asia, Africa and CONCACAF and a single entrant from Oceania. Although one can question the allocations, one always can with FIFA, the actual idea is sound. At the March meeting, FIFA decided to bring this competition for 2021, squeezing it into an already busy schedule for the summer, even if it is without a Confederations Cup. UEFA have objected vehemently, and have said that no European team will take part. The mysterious consortium putting up the money must be aghast at this prospect. Eight clubs from Europe are required to make this project work, and the investors would really like more Europeans. A good few CONMEBOL clubs are needed in the mix, but they want Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Juventus, plus some top British clubs to make it a success. If the Europeans do boycott the whole affair, then they are not going to be able to recoup their investment at all. After all, how big a TV audience is going to tune in to see how easily Sao Paulo can beat Auckland City?

UEFA themselves are not entirely against the project, but they do not think it should start until 2025, allowing for a completely revised calendar to be drawn up. As it is, there are international dates in the first week of June, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup scheduled throughout July. There is an African Cup of Nations that summer as well, although dates have not been fixed as yet. The African championships were switched from January to the summer from the 2019 tournament, under pressure from FIFA and UEFA. This leaves Asia as the only confederation that uses the January dates, and they are changeable. The last three Asia titles, UAE 2019, Australia 2015 and Qatar 2011 were all in January, while the two before that, South East Asia 2007 and China 2004 were both in the summer. For the next tournament, AFC has not yet chosen between the Chinese and South Korean bids, but either way, there will be a return to a summer tournament for 2023.

At the moment, both FIFPro (the players’ union) and the ECA (European Clubs Association) have come out against the idea. FIFPro’s plea that new tournaments should only be considered as part of a reorganisation of football’s calendars. The dislike of the idea is not unanimous. La Liga president Javier Tebas has publicly welcomed them, although this was part of a tirade against what he believes is a secretive plot by UEFA and the ECA to change the format of the Champions League, so as groups are of eight teams and matches take place at the weekends, as opposed to mid-week. Now UEFA and the ECA have just agreed on a change in European competitions, for the next three-year cycle (starting in 2021). This is the plan to move to having three, rather than two competitions with group stages. Tebas is right in saying such a plan would badly affect national leagues, and it would be surprising if the ECA is in favour of a move that would be against the interests of the majority of their members.

The ECA was set up in 2008 as a replacement for the ultra-elite G-14 group of clubs. At the time, it appeared that UEFA was frightened of the influence that the small grouping of clubs could wield, and was trying to avoid the idea of a European Super League. At this time, Michel Platini was a relatively new leader for UEFA, and his stewardship started with a promise to help the smaller clubs and leagues in Europe. He only partially succeeded in his goals. The smaller clubs did get a bigger take, but the big clubs found their take rising fast as well. Still, it seems the opposition to the weekend rounds of European competition may be enough at the moment to make sure the idea is side lined, at least until 2024.

The reason for moving European games to weekends is supposedly increased rights sales in the Americas and Asia. Not that there is any common time that suits both anyway with a 12 or13 hour difference between the time in New York and that in Beijing. European mid-week games take place in the early hours of the morning, as far as East Asia is concerned, and in the middle of the working day in the Americas. A move to weekend fixtures in the European competitions would inevitably lead to a move to midweek fixtures in domestic competitions, and hence a decrease in the value of the TV rights from these. More of the clubs in the ECA benefit from domestic TV rights than from European competitions, so surely it is not in their interest to change this.

While there has long been talk of European Super Leagues, such competitions are still pipe-dreams that sit better in marketing departments and TV executive offices than they do in Football Club offices. The truth is that in many European Leagues, the domestic market is king, especially for the bigger clubs. Hence while the idea of Manchester United and Barcelona meeting on a regular basis in league games may well sound good on paper or a plasma screen, clubs such as Crystal Palace and Real Betis are still the regular opponents. England is a now a bit of an oddity compared to the other major European Leagues, where the money has led to six clubs currently competing at the top of the division, while many of the others can shock the top six on occasion. In most of the other competitions, the titles have been reduced to two or three contenders, and for the most part the other games are a procession of fairly easy victories. But while such leagues for all their lack of competitiveness can come close to filling the stadia, and while the TV audiences will still pay to consume this.

The problem with a Super League is it is not so easy. When the Champions League matches are the highlight of the season, the defeat can be accepted – but if we have the Super League, some teams have got to finish near the bottom, and with no Crystal Palace, Levante or Augsburg in the league, the struggling teams are going to come from the elite. Even only the elite is in the league, it is inevitable that not everyone finishes at the top. Just in the same way as Augsburg v Freiburg cannot draw the TV and live audiences that Borussia Dortmund v Bayern can muster, so Seville v Chelsea will not be a big draw if it is settling who finishes next to last in a league that (if the clubs get their way) will not even have the threat of relegation.

The threat of a European super league will remain, for the time being, a threat used by the bigger clubs vying for larger shares of the cash from domestic and European competition. Only if interest in these pales, do I see a change from threat to reality

In the end, despite European opposition, I think the new Club World Cup will get the go ahead in 2021. For clubs outside of Europe, the promise from FIFA of a minimum US$50 million in appearance money is a no brainer. Hardly any club outside Europe has a turnover in excess of $50 million per year and some for some of the competing clubs, the income from this competition will dwarf the rest of the income over a four-year period. The Europeans will want more for the appearance, even though this fee is already more than they get from the numerous friendlies not really competitive tournaments. For these clubs, which can easily offer more than $50 million on a single transfer, and with income exceeding $2 billion over a four year period, the sum raised is not so important. FIFA will have to understand what the tournament needs to be worth to them, to get their participation – as without it, this while competition is dead in the water. Within an edition or two, I expect the numbers competing will be raised from 24 to 32. Unlike the National competitions, where FIFA can get away with its anti-European agenda, a club competition is driven by money and European clubs are essential.

The Confederations Cup apparently has already breathed its last, so FIFA will be searching again for its mini-world cup to bolster its finances. Once again, the main opposition will stay in Europe, as apart from the absence of South American teams, the Euros are as good a tournament as the other quadrennial jamboree. There is a desire shared by clubs and the players’ unions for changes to the International calendars. This would not increase the number of international dates per season, but more likely change the grouping.

The March international break is the least popular with the clubs, coming as it does at such a crucial period in the European season. This can surely be lost resulting in an earlier finish to the season, followed by a longer international series in June. This would gain the approval of both clubs, and also of national coaches who would then have their players together at a time. This one is a no-brainer and it is a surprise it has not happened yet. The only problem with the plan is that both UEFA and FIFA are now promoting the idea of play-off matches for international tournaments in this period, barely three months before the finals commence.

UEFA would greedily look at any dates freed up in the international calendar to further expand the club competitions, forgetting the fact that they are not reducing the number of matches played and hence domestic games should be played in the time freed up. UEFA may push for a limit of 18, rather than 20 teams in the top leagues, (England, France, Italy and Spain all currently run at 20). This would see favour with the bigger clubs who could replace the dates with larger European groups, (six teams in Champions League groups and the maximum number of teams per country increased). Naturally, the clubs that could lose their place at the troughs will be unhappy with this. UEFA are still keeping their plans for a third competition under wraps. It is suspected that the Europa League will be reduced from 12 groups of four to eight groups, mirroring the Champions League, and that the new E3 tournament will also end up with 8 groups of four. There is a promise that the number of countries represented at group stage games will increase. The real big thing is whether or not the top countries will be excluded from this competition altogether.

To get back to Infantino, he needs his new world in order to secure the funds, and hence the votes to keep him in power for the full 12 years that he is allowed thanks to FIFA finally adding term limits for the president. It all comes down to money and politics. His back-room team really need to give more consideration to how the football calendar is arranged in order to achieve this. Most of the clubs, nations and confederations will give way to FIFA money, so its going to carry on as FIFA v UEFA for years to come.