By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 16, 2021) US Soccer Players – The mere sight of Arsene Wenger can convey powerful imagery to people around the world, even those who don’t support Arsenal.
For anyone paying the slightest attention to the sport during his long heyday at the London club, the professorial Frenchman was the epitome of evolution and innovation in what became by many measures the world’s most popular league. He modernized and globalized philosophy, tactics, recruitment, even diet to create one of the most memorably dominant club sides in modern history. Those Gunners helped set the stage for 21st-century soccer as we know it.
Today Wenger has made himself the avatar for another sort of brave new world. His current project is not a team but an idea and a contentious one. As FIFA’s “Chief of Global Football Development,” he’s the point person for the governing body’s ongoing “feasibility study” of staging its World Cups every two years instead of four.
This rather revolutionary suggestion is the headline item in a set of international soccer calendar reform concepts rolling out this month. In May, FIFA’s membership voted, via a hefty margin of 166-22, to explore a Saudi Arabia-led proposal to that effect. The seemingly long-range, theoretical exercise quickly turned into a public-relations push featuring dozens of top current and former players and other figures. Wenger has stated a desire for forward movement by year’s end. The current structure is part of FIFA law. Its next congress, currently set for spring 2022, would seem the earliest possible date for action.
It’s not just that the world’s most beloved sporting event would happen twice as often. Its qualifying mechanisms would be compressed into fewer and longer international windows than the current norm of five per calendar year. Wenger seemingly prefers a plan of just two month-long windows a year, one in Northern Hemisphere summer for showcase events and a second in October for qualifying. An alternative framework offers three, adding another in March to spread out the national team duty. The plan would cut player travel between club and country in half, according to its backers.
Regional events like the European Championships, Copa America, and presumably Concacaf Gold Cup would take place in odd years. Each major summer tournament would be followed by a mandatory player rest period of 25 days. Newer or smaller competitions like the Nations League would seem to be out, possibly even FIFA’s revamped summer Club World Cup, too. Overall the schedule would allocate 80% of the players’ time and focus to club ball and 20% to national team activities, which looks reasonable on its face coming from FIFA.
It’s supposed to offer us more of the games, tournaments, and settings that are most loved. Fewer of the meaningless or uncompetitive matchups. Less wear and tear on players’ bodies and minds. Remarkably, it would effectively usher in three times as many World Cup slots as were available at USA 1994.
“I am 100% convinced it is the right solution,” said Wenger, whose purview is said to be so wide-ranging as to even factor in the sport’s carbon footprint. “In football, if you don’t play big competitions, you will play small competitions – don’t think we won’t play. Because this proposal respects the current 80/20 balance between cluba and international football, I would sign with two hands if I was in a club.”
The clubs themselves aren’t so thrilled, starting with the traditional power base in Europe. UEFA is up in arms about not only FIFA’s idea but how world soccer’s governing body is promoting it. Europe’s clubs, unions, and supporter groups seem to agree. That confederation could go so far as to lead a boycott of its member nations, including many of the world elite.
This week players union FIFPRO called Wenger’s plan “inadequate in the absence of solutions for existing problems” in a statement, adding that “without the agreement of the players, who bring all competitions to life on the pitch, no such reforms will have the required legitimacy. The current debate once again follows a flawed process and approach.”
Yet FIFA president Gianni Infantino seems confident of widespread support among the rank-and-file of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Many of those federations feel stuck on the sport’s periphery, with no love lost for the wealthy Europeans. They might like the idea of a more attainable World Cup and the share of the proceeds FIFA would supposedly distribute in their direction.
Money, unsurprisingly, is at the heart of all this. The Athletic’s Matt Slater reports that FIFA currently makes about $5.5 billion per World Cup cycle, most of it the year of the tournament with deficits in the other three. Meanwhile, UEFA reaps nearly triple that in the same time period thanks to its Champions League and Euros flagships. It’s not hard to guess how that might shift under Wenger’s vision.
So FIFA’s “exploration” suddenly looks more like advocacy, or perhaps a freight train barrelling downhill. Just days ago Wenger and Infantino gathered a bevy of legends, among them Roberto Carlos, Jared Borgetti and USMNT icon Alexi Lalas, for a luxurious junket in Qatar to pitch them on the merits of the biennial idea. Several seemed to be won over almost instantly.
“The current calendar, as far as the World Cup is concerned, was conceived almost 100 years ago, and so the world has completely changed since then,” Brazilian great Ronaldo told FIFA.com. “I believe that the moment has come for us to evolve with them, with the new generations, the fast-paced information – this is very important for us.”
In an interview with The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer, Lalas said, “I made it very, very clear, I was one of the first ones to speak, that I was coming with an open mind, that I wanted to see the data, I wanted to see why Arsene Wenger and FIFA believe that this is the way to go. I also made it very very clear that I needed to get opposing viewpoints.”
While the world was far less interconnected in the tournament’s early decades, there’s limited precedent of other sports adjusting their own centerpiece events in response. Baseball, basketball, cricket, rugby, and the Olympics have generally embraced quadrennial rhythms for their international championships, in many cases directly inspired by FIFA’s. Going biennial would probably also amount to a setback for women’s soccer just as it forges further into the mainstream.
A potent blend of self-interest and mistrust among soccer’s squabbling factions complicates this matter. The nuances of the issue make it even trickier to get a handle on. Wenger and Infantino are helped by the widespread recognition that the patchwork quilt of windows, call-ups and club-country splits isn’t working particularly well at present. That’s been pushed closer to breaking point amid the compressed schedules inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can we have a constructive dialogue on that problem without mandating a rushed embrace of this drastic and far-reaching change? As both sanctioning body and interested party in this case, FIFA and its leadership don’t exactly inspire widespread confidence. Who knows? Perhaps Wenger still has another irresistible innovation or two up his sleeve.
More from Charles Boehm:
- CBS reworks the Concacaf qualifying experience
- MLSPA enters “a new phase” as players’ commercial opportunities blossom
- 5 questions about the USMNT’s September window
- Major League Soccer’s autumn chill approaches
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