Football at war with itself: Why the upcoming FIFA council could change the game forever
The FIFA Council, the 37-member board at the head of football's governing body, meets Friday in Kigali, Rwanda. Among the items on the agenda are a revamped Club World Cup and turning the Nations League into a global, FIFA-led event.
But relationships between some of the game's stakeholders are close to a breaking point, with a number of members ready to walk out, potentially threatening the world order of football. We could even end up with annual rival summer tournaments for the world's biggest clubs, one run by FIFA and another that would see UEFA and CONMEBOL partner with Relevent, the company that organizes the International Champions Cup.
Friday may be remembered as the day world football changed forever.
That's a bit dramatic isn't it?
Not really. Not if you speak to the people involved. The main sticking point is that club football generates an enormous amount of money and everyone wants a piece of the action. And while there's not much you can do in-season -- for better or worse, domestic leagues remain sacrosanct -- the summer offers endless possibility. Especially since tournaments are portable: you can stage them where you think it will be most lucrative, like in the United States or parts of Asia.
That's at the heart of FIFA President Gianni Infantino's original plan of replacing the Confederations Cup with a full-blown, 24-team Club World Cup to be held every four years starting in 2021. Along with this, Infantino proposes a sort of "mini World Cup" every two years, the Final Eight involving national teams who would presumably qualify via different confederations. He even secured partners willing to enter into a joint venture with FIFA and fund the whole thing to the tune of $25 billion over 12 years.
To put that in context, FIFA currently make almost all their money from a single tournament, the World Cup. That generated $6bn in Russia the last time around. But, of course, World Cups only come along every four years. So this would be a way for FIFA to more than double their income, most of which then gets redistributed among the 211 member nations.
That's good, isn't it? Why would you possibly be against it?
Several reasons, depending who you talk to, which is why Infantino's proposal was summarily rejected last March. UEFA President, Aleksander Ceferin, told me in Kiev last May that he was disturbed by the lack of transparency. Infantino had said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement and been given a deadline to accept the offer.
"We were elected because we made promises of good governance, promises of transparency," he told me. "Do you think it's transparent if I say that I have an offer of $25bn but I can't tell you who is offering it and I can't tell you exactly anything about the deal but please decide because it's a lot of money?"
Media reports, which FIFA have not denied, said the funding comes from investors in the United States, China and Saudi Arabia (specifically the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund, i.e. the government, funnelled via Japan's SoftBank). But Infantino still hasn't confirmed this.
You can see how folks were uneasy with it. Many felt they were being railroaded into making a decision.
Some of those who back Infantino say there's another factor at play. Most of the opposition comes from UEFA, clubs and leagues; it's not hard to see why. The Champions League is a cash cow for European clubs and for UEFA. That gives it outsized influence globally. Another club competition of similar magnitude -- potentially with more prize money -- would shift the balance of power closer to FIFA and further away from UEFA.
So what are they doing about it?
Well, if Infantino pushes for a vote on the matter -- not on the specifics necessarily, but on the principle of having a regular expanded Club World Championship (as well as a Global Nations League final tournament) -- sources close to UEFA delegates say they will simply walk out of the meeting. Especially, you'd imagine, if the proposal is likely to pass (and you'd expect it will: UEFA have nine seats on the 37-seat council; you need a majority -- 19 -- and it's hard to see where they'll get another 10 votes from).
What will that achieve?
On its own, not much, beyond generating publicity and making their opposition clear, which is why UEFA are hatching another plan.
They have been in contact with Relevent Sports, the company that organizes the International Champions Cup, the summer tournament held in the United States and in other parts of the world. They are studying the possibility of some kind of partnership where they'd add UEFA branding, perhaps involving CONMEBOL too, in order to make it more of an "official" competition with the biggest sides from Europe and South America.
If they make it an annual thing and get their big clubs to compete there, it would seriously derail Infantino's plan.
Clubs would have to choose.
And you think they'd choose the UEFA/CONMEBOL/ICC event?
UEFA feel pretty confident they would. After all, they have long-standing relationships with clubs through the Champions League. The European Club Association (ECA) is very much in lock-step with Ceferin and the clubs love the ICC, otherwise they wouldn't return year after year.
If you have the big clubs on your side, you have all the power. Because this thing becomes a money spinner if the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United are on board. That's true whether it's UEFA's version or Infantino's version. That said, there are several problems with this.
What are they?
One is that Infantino spent 16 years at UEFA. He basically built the Champions League into what it is today. He, too, has relationships, particularly with certain clubs. I don't think it's a given that every big club in Europe is going to flock to UEFA's beefed-up ICC. Not when there's several billion at stake on the other side, as well as the official FIFA stamp of approval.
Another is that any tournament like that is going to be most lucrative if it's held in the United States, like the ICC, and that means getting approval from the United States Soccer Federation and CONCACAF. They may decide not to sanction the tournament and with good reason. Having top clubs come over for summer tours is one thing; having them set up shop semi-permanently in your backyard is quite another. Whether it's the ICC, La Liga with its Miami game or the Copa Libertadores, folks are treating the U.S. market like a big cash cow while leaving little behind to develop the game locally. At least that's how they see it.
The other issue is that even if UEFA "win" and get their way with the tournament, it could mean defeat in the long run. Just as the clubs realize they don't need FIFA to organize a money-spinning competition, they might realize that maybe they don't need UEFA either. And then, it's a short step to a breakaway.
What's more, just as UEFA are plotting their own tournament to mess up FIFA's plans, FIFA are responding with an alternate proposal which seems designed solely to derail UEFA's idea of a branded ICC.
Moving the current Club World Cup -- which is held annually in December, usually in Asia -- to July/August in the United States and expanding it from its format of seven teams to, say, 12.
Wait... how's that going to work? In a year with the Euros, World Cup or Copa America, which is three years out of four, most international players won't be available just as they weren't around for the ICC this past summer, as Jose Mourinho reminded us. Who's going to watch that?
The same folks who watched the ICC, I guess. But yeah, whether its this or UEFA's version, it's only going to be marginally more appealing than the ICC. And possibly not worth it to the investors willing to shell out $25bn. But there's a broader point at play here.
And that point is...
It's more of a philosophical issue. I get it: the top dozen or so clubs worldwide generate most of the money. Do we want them to get even more of it? Do we want them to have even more power? Have we definitively moved into the era of mega-brands and sports entertainment? Because that's the message that FIFA and UEFA are sending here.
Some backers of Infantino say that this is about drawing a line and saying "no more." The biggest clubs have grown gargantuan on the back of all the little clubs and federations around the world. It's their job to make sure that some of the cash flows back to the grassroots. You can see their point though, again, given FIFA's pre-Infantino past, it takes a leap of faith that the money will indeed go back into development and not leak out all over the place.
Equally, the clubs say that they put up the money, they take the risk and they pay the players. If they are going to, effectively, loan them out to FIFA for another money-spinning competition so that the Cook Islands FA can build another training pitch, it ought to be on their terms. And note that most of these clubs are businesses with investors looking to get a return.
Then there's UEFA. They also have a point when they say that Infantino basically tried to bully them into taking his offer while giving them no details and no consultation. And all this to exploit the brands UEFA helped build, through the Champions League.
And what's the upshot to all this? Big clubs will ultimately move the needle by backing one proposal or the other. Which means they'll become even more powerful, regardless of who wins. Which means more polarization and inequality.
And the frustrating thing, I think, is that all this could have been avoided.
If Infantino had been more transparent from day one and perhaps tried to bring the confederations on board, rather than using a take-it-or-leave-it proposition without consultation, maybe we wouldn't be in this mess. I've been told he hasn't had a private conversation with Ceferin in months. From the outside, it looks like its about ego as much as anything.
OK, so what happens Friday?
The presidents of the confederations are meeting the night before and, you'd hope, somebody will attempt some kind of mediation. Hopefully it will work and we'll come up with something reasonable. Or perhaps we'll see a postponement of the vote. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
As things stand, we're heading towards a schism. Maybe even the end of FIFA as we know it.