Biennial World Cup?

Barely had the reverberations from the European Super League (ESL) died down when a proposal for a biennial World Cup has roiled the footballing world. Unlike the egregious ESL, which attracted contempt all round, a biennial World Cup has elicited mixed reactions. The powerful Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and its clubs, the acknowledged global epicentre of the sport industry, has reacted with revulsion. Players have not said much yet — in contrast to their vocal disapproval of the ESL. But note that the idea was okayed by some 80 former stars — among them, D.....
Barely had the reverberations from the European Super League (ESL) died down when a proposal for a biennial World Cup has roiled the footballing world. Unlike the egregious ESL, which attracted contempt all round, a biennial World Cup has elicited mixed reactions.

The powerful Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and its clubs, the acknowledged global epicentre of the sport industry, has reacted with revulsion. Players have not said much yet — in contrast to their vocal disapproval of the ESL. But note that the idea was okayed by some 80 former stars — among them, Didier Drogba, the Ivorian who lit up Chelsea, Peter Schmeichel, the Great Dane goalie of Manchester United’s glory years, Roberto Carlos, Real Madrid’s creative Brazilian left back, and Jurgen Klinsman, the ebullient German striker.  

As for fans, a FIFA-YouGov survey shows that more than half are on board. FIFA has every reason to tom-tom these results but that aside, fans have every reason to love the idea.

The originator of the biennial World Cup concept is Arsene Wenger, one of Arsenal’s most successful managers, now FIFA’s chief of global football development. Wenger is known to be a deep and thoughtful student of the game. He was one of those managers who introduced early on the concept of discipline in footballers’ lifestyles — what they ate, drank, how much they slept, how they worked out and so on. So when Wenger comes up with an idea, the footballing world should take it seriously.

Critics of the biennial idea — principally UEFA and Conmebol, the South American federation — say it is “unviable”. Their argument is entirely practical: The plan will require clubs to release players far too often to play qualifying matches, requiring them to travel long distances and raising the risk of injury. The recent controversy between UEFA clubs and FIFA over releasing players for such matches is a case in point. Since this international break required players to sit out Covid-19 quarantine periods, many stars were unavailable for a busy August calendar.

But clubs routinely release players for the biennial African Cup of Nations. There is much grumbling from club managers each time because this tournament coincides with a critical period in the August-May European footballing calendar (usually December but the pandemic has postponed the latest edition to February 2022). Besides, they argue, their footballers will be exhausted from so many matches.   

But Wenger has anticipated that complaint and streamlined the calendar. So all tournaments will be held in June (a November/December World Cup in Qatar could be the first and last of its kind), all qualifying matches played in a consolidated November window, and footballers will get 25 days off ahead of the regular season.  

Critics raise two other objections. First, the tournament will lose the mystique created by a four-year cycle. And, second, that this is just a means for FIFA to make more money.

To tackle the “mystique” angle first. Other international tournaments — whether it is the IPL, the tennis Grand Slams, the golf Masters, or Formula 1 — are staged annually or several times a year according to a fixed calendar without any noticeable diminution of interest. It is hard to see why football, the most popular sport on the planet, would be different.

It could be argued that football is different up to a point because of the number of high-profile local tournaments — league, Champion’s League etc. But that applies to the other sports mentioned above. The Grand Slams, for instance, are punctuated by Masters, WTA and satellite tournaments through the year. If the annual UEFA Champions League can see growing numbers of fans each year, why should they shun a biennial World Cup tournament?  

 
It all comes down to money, honey. This is precisely why UEFA is opposing the idea and FIFA is endorsing it.  The fact is that the World Cup is FIFA’s money spinner, so it wants to juice the tournament for more revenue. But, barring the World Cup years, UEFA routinely earns more revenues than FIFA and it comes principally from the club competitions. A biennial World Cup could potentially overlap with UEFA’s more lucrative tournaments such as the Champions’ League and Europa League.

Equally, European clubs, which hoover up most of the best global footballing talent, anticipate sharply rising costs because of the need to keep larger squads of top players to accommodate the biennial tournament. But that’s the best thing that can happen to footballers. Besides the “mystique”, the World Cup is essentially a giant bazaar for footballers around the world to display their talents for the big clubs. The much criticised expansion of the tournament has helped clubs find stars in unlikely places — Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, Iran and Korea to name a few. These players have made the European leagues truly multi-cultural and even more watchable. A biennial tournament also allows stars who may miss one tournament due to injury, which happens quite often these days, to play for their countries — some may be too old to wait out the four years.  

So as the sage Wenger told BBC, “The risk is to make football better.” What’s not to like?


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