By J Hutcherson (Dec 15, 2016) US Soccer Players – Gianni Infantino moving from UEFA secretary general to FIFA president carried with it the idea that more is always better. Infantino was one of the prime movers behind the expanded European Championship. 2 billion people might have watched some of Euro 2016, but few of them should remember it as a classic. Still, big numbers normally means big money. The expansion to 24 teams was step one. Next up for Euro 2020 is staging games in multiple countries.
At FIFA, Infantino made it no secret that he wants a different version of the World Cup. With the format locked in for 2018 and 2022, Infantino is now proposing a 48-team tournament. With the 2022 World Cup moving to November and December, the European leagues and clubs were already on edge. Advocating a larger World Cup might be enough to push them over.
In fairness to FIFA, that’s nothing new. The clubs, super and otherwise, have balanced on that edge for a couple of decades. There’s always a pull back just before they make a decision that would alter the game as we know it. There’s always a bargain, some way to keep the governing bodies in charge and give the clubs some of what they want.
Predicting when that ends is also nothing new. There have been shadow super league plans. There was a lobbying group, the G-14, that just happened to represent the interests of the likeliest super league clubs. UEFA adapted and altered the Champions League to give those clubs what they wanted, but most observers saw that it would never be enough. If what the clubs want is their own league, UEFA is probably going to end up out.
Amid all of this was a problem. Professional soccer players can physically only play so many games. Fixture congestion issues started before a lot of us were born. Midweek soccer became a goal, whether it was domestically or in Europe. The traditional match day became one of several days to play in the biggest leagues. Add in the demands on the top players to represent their countries, and the games began to pile up.
Take any international player appearing regularly for his country, and over a career those games equal seasons of a club career. What should take priority was clear when the leagues fought off a FIFA mandate to reduce the number of clubs in domestic topflights. FIFA wanted 16. Though some including the Premier League made the initial move to drop a couple of clubs, their enthusiasm stalled.
Looking back, that moment in the 1990s should’ve shifted the conversation. Those in power at the time could have done more. It wasn’t just recognizing the expanding influence of the elite clubs. It was needing to realize that without safeguards club vs country would become a definitive issue and acting then.
The risk was the same then and now. Those elite clubs could’ve said goodbye. They could’ve flipped the switch on a breakaway that began to make sense in the mid 90s and onward. Lots of people over lots of years have predicted that breakaway. Instead, soccer’s bureaocracy hung on. An easy explanation for that was money. Even if the elite clubs could make more on their own, by the mid-2000s they made so much it wasn’t as compelling. The governing bodies increased their wealth right along with them.
So here we are. The European Club Association is urging FIFA to vote down Infantino’s proposal for World Cup expansion.
“We have to focus on the sport again,” European Club Association Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. Politics and commerce should not be the exclusive priority in football. In the interest of the fans and the players, we urge FIFA not to increase the number of world cup participants.”
This isn’t the elite clubs anymore. It’s 220 clubs, all operating with the idea that they have shared interests. One of them is stopping what amounts to soccer scope creep from the governing bodies. Another is preserving their own version of the soccer schedule.
Whether or not this is good for the sport takes a back seat to the financial implications. All involved are playing a money game here first, with FIFA once again playing soccer politics second. Even if you reverse the order, player health and the longevity of their careers isn’t going to top the list. Credit the ECA for addressing that, but remember that all involved have their own visions of soccer’s immediate future.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson: