Biennial World Cup unlikely, but change is coming

Football

On Monday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, speaking at a global summit of FIFA member nations, revealed that a biennial men’s World Cup would likely generate an additional $4.4 billion in revenue (an increase of around 60%) over a four-year cycle compared to the current quadrennial tournament. He said that there was probably enough support among members to approve this right now, but that he would hold more consultations in an attempt to make broader, more-holistic reforms.

Many stakeholders — including confederations like UEFA and CONMEBOL, organisations like the World Association of Professional Football Leagues and the players’ union, FIFPRO, as well as clubs and federations primarily in Europe and South America — are opposed to the idea, and some have produced their own studies that reveal that a biennial World Cup would be financially damaging.

So what’s going on here? Are we really headed to a World Cup every two years? Here’s an FAQ to help you make sense of this.

Q: If Infantino is so sure a majority of FIFA members back the biennial World Cup, why didn’t he call for a vote?

A: Well, he did say “probably,” so maybe he’s not 100% certain. More realistically, he understands there is still a ton of opposition, primarily from some of the wealthiest, most influential parts of the world, starting with UEFA and its members. There have even been suggestions that UEFA and CONMEBOL could boycott a biennial World Cup and, obviously, without them, you’re not getting that extra $4.4 billion.

Q: Why are they so opposed? Don’t they want to make more money?

A: Of course, but they also want to be the ones distributing the money. For a start, a biennial World Cup would mean shifting continental competitions — such as the Euros and the Copa America — to odd-numbered years, which in turn would mean there would be a major tournament every single summer. Since the World Cup is the biggest event and there are only so many sponsor and broadcast dollars out there, a biennial competition could cannibalise some revenue that would otherwise go to continental competitions. Maybe the extra $4.4 billion (assuming that’s a realistic projection, opinions differ) would help mitigate that, but know this: If you generate money through your own tournament, you get to decide who gets it. FIFA runs the World Cup. FIFA gets to decide.

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There’s more, though. A biennial World Cup would also mean redrawing the international match calendar, the master document that determines when all football is played, from club competitions to international matches. The latest match calendar expires in 2024, so the game’s power brokers will have to come up with a new agreement regardless of what happens with the World Cup. But it is a delicate ecosystem, balancing the needs of clubs (who actually pay the players and generate most of the revenue) with internationals. And all this at a time when many, like FIFPRO, are warning that top players compete in too many games, risking burnout and injury.

Everybody wants to have their say and committing to a biennial World Cup means cordoning off another big chunk of the calendar.

Q: Still, couldn’t Infantino simply have forced it through if he has the votes? Then, once it’s in place, figure out the master schedule?

A: In theory, yes, but that would have been somewhere between the dictatorial and the reckless. Majority rule is great, but you still have to protect minority rights. It’s always better to rule by consensus, wherever possible.

Plus, CONMEBOL and, especially, UEFA, with President Aleksander Ceferin, not only seem determined to stop Infantino’s plan but they also have a lot of clout. After all, most of the game’s biggest stars are from South America or Europe, and that’s also where the biggest clubs in the world reside — and clubs, naturally, prefer club football to international football. Europe and South America have formed a strong alliance to the point it is likely that South American clubs eventually will participate in the Europa Nations League (you assume it will be renamed if that happens).

Also, right now, following his successful fight to stop the Super League, Ceferin has political backing in Europe among most big clubs (apart from the three who are taking legal action against UEFA over the Super League — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus — though they probably wouldn’t want more international tournaments either).

Q: So if that’s the case, why is Infantino still pursuing this? Is it just about money?

A: Sure, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. I wrote a column about this a while back. FIFA wants to make more money, but, once they do, it’s not as if they just sit on a pile of cash. They redistribute that money to their 211 members around the world. The more they redistribute, the happier the members are and the more likely they are to reelect the FIFA president.

FIFA’s mission statement is to develop the game. That takes organisation and infrastructure, which costs money. Most of the football federations around the world get the bulk of their funding directly from FIFA. And the men’s World Cup accounts for more than 90% of FIFA’s income. So the simplest way they can grow revenue is either squeeze more money out of a quadrennial World Cup or hold the tournament more often.

Q: What about the independent studies about the economic impact of biennial World Cups? Do we know what the impact would really be?

A: FIFA commissioned Nielsen, who came up with that additional $4.4 billion figure if we switch to a biennial World Cup. They also found that if every confederation also hosts a biennial continental tournament (some, like CONCACAF and Africa’s CAF already do), it would generate an additional $6.6 billion every four years. And another FIFA study, this one by a group called OpenEconomics, which focuses on macroeconomic impact, predicts that the world’s Gross Domestic Product would increase by more than $180 billion and create 2 million permanent jobs over 16 years with a World Cup every two years.

Sounds good, right? Well, UEFA also commissioned a report by a company called Oliver & Ohlbaum, which said changing the international calendar to accommodate a biennial World Cup would cost European federations up to $4 billion in lost revenue. And the World Leagues Forum have their own study that was even more doom and gloom. Done by KPMG and Delta Partners, this study predicts $9 billion in lost revenue, matchday income and commercial agreements.

Q: How could these studies be so different in their predictions?

A: Partly because they all measure slightly different criteria. FIFA’s Nielsen study, for example, measured the revenue of the biennial World Cup, UEFA’s Oliver & Ohlbaum study looked at the overall impact on European national associations not just of the biennial World Cup, but the proposed changes to the calendar (necessary to make it possible) as well, and the World Leagues report looked at the impact on club football and domestic leagues.

And, at the risk of being cynical, because when these studies get published they tend to highlight information that supports whoever commissioned the report. I think it’s safe to say a biennial World Cup would generate more money for FIFA at the expense of European club football and European federations. Just how much and whether it’s desirable are the key issues.

Then there’s the fact, like I said, that it’s not just about making more money (considering it generally all gets redistributed), it’s about being the person who redistributes it. So even if it were to net out, I doubt UEFA would be too happy about it.

That said, Infantino is too smart to fight battles he can’t win.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Well, there’s an easy way for him to reframe the debate. Essentially, make it about rich folks in Europe not wanting to share the financial pie with the rest of the world. Then, even if the biennial World Cup never comes to pass, you’ll still get the support of most of the world, because at least you tried.

Q: So what’s the most likely outcome?

A: I don’t think we’re getting a biennial World Cup, but there will probably be some sort of compromise where everybody takes a step back and sacrifices something. It’s the perils of democracy. There are 211 FIFA member nations and, realistically, more than half will only ever experience a World Cup on TV. At the same time, they probably wouldn’t exist without direct funding from FIFA. So obviously, they’re going to want more opportunities to qualify and, even more so, as much money as FIFA can give them. Otherwise, they might vote in a different president.

Which is why FIFA are determined to increase revenue. If it’s not another men’s World Cup, it could be another competition, something that will generate revenue but not require a whole new qualifying process like the World Cup. It could be a resurrected (and expanded) Confederations Cup, with slots reserved for, say, the reigning world champion, the host nation of the next World Cup, winners of continental competitions, Nations League winners and whatever else you need to get to, say, 16 teams. You’d still get many of the heavy hitters there, but such an option would be shorter and less disruptive.

I think another possibility is a Club World Cup held every four years. That would likely be even more lucrative, even if the clubs want their cut. And you wonder how UEFA would feel about it, given it’s their big clubs who would generate most of the cash and interest.

Just as important, though, is reaching an agreement on the international match calendar. There does seem to be broad consensus to reduce the number of international breaks (while making them longer) but how and when you schedule those needs to be hammered out. There’s a natural cliff edge here: If world football doesn’t reach a deal at least nine to 12 months before the current deal expires in June 2024, it will be hugely damaging to the game financially, considering it will be impossible to plan and sell media and commercial rights.

And if there’s one thing that unites football’s powers-that-be it’s that they don’t like to get hit where it hurts … in the wallet.

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