In battle over biennial World Cups, FIFA isn't the villain you think it is

·7 min read

Let's begin with the obvious. FIFA, as full of it as ever, with customary disregard for women's soccer, has launched a ruthless campaign to increase the frequency of World Cups.

Its origins, supposedly, are a Saudi Arabian proposal, which led to a "feasibility study," which has been dreadfully opaque. It's clear, though, that no matter the feasibility, FIFA has decided that biennial World Cups would be desirable.

So it enlisted soccer legends to shill for a plan woefully short on detail. They met resistance every step of the way, from players and FIFPro, the global players' union; from managers and massive clubs; from many in the women's game, who feel their World Cups would be overshadowed; and most of all, from the European soccer governing body, UEFA.

UEFA, in a statement last week, blasted the plans yet again, saying they would "damage all forms of football, devalue the [World Cup] itself, disadvantage fans financially and stunt the development of women's and youth football around the world." It cited player health. It said that "any perceived attraction is shallow." More than a dozen European nations have reportedly considered splitting with FIFA, or boycotting the World Cup, if FIFA tries to force the changes through.

Fans and Western media have largely sided with the Europeans, framing this intensifying fight as good vs. evil, as nobility vs. FIFA greed. And they have a point. The chief motive here is money. FIFA rakes in billions from the men's World Cup. Playing it twice as often might devalue it long-term, but would immediately boost FIFA's bottom line.

This fight, though, is not good vs. evil. It's a battle for control. It's a global organization that represents the interests of global soccer vs. a European organization that represents the interests of European soccer. And the Europeans are winning. They're tightening their grip on power. The biennial World Cup is FIFA's desperate attempt to wrest some back.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 20: FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during the FIFA Council meeting at the Home of FIFA on October 20, 2021 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Harold Cunningham - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
FIFA president Gianni Infantino speaks during Wednesday's FIFA Council meeting. (Harold Cunningham/FIFA via Getty Images)

FIFA vs. UEFA, greed vs. more greed

FIFA and UEFA are driven by a singular force. Each wants to organize games and tournaments between the world's most popular soccer players. They want to sell sponsorships and broadcast rights to those games, and distribute profits among their members, who use the handouts to buy or develop more popular soccer players, whom FIFA or UEFA will eventually monetize too.

And for a while now, UEFA has done this more often and more profitably than FIFA has. The global governing body reported $5.7 billion in revenue from 2015-2018. The European governing body, over that same period, made roughly $14.3 billion.

UEFA is winning because its premier competition, the Champions League, runs annually, four times as frequently as FIFA's. And because, although the entire world supplies the Champions League, only European clubs and associations benefit from it. All the best players from Asia, Africa and the Americas play for a handful of elite Western European teams. So the biggest companies from Asia, Africa and the Americas want to sponsor those teams, their games and the tournaments they contest.

So the money flows, and the Europeans consolidate their power. Argentina, Senegal and South Korea develop players. European leagues, European clubs and European soccer federations (via UEFA) profit off those players. They turn profits into infrastructure that ensures future profits for themselves. Club owners — American billionaires, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks — pocket cash or goodwill along the way.

The pattern, which reinforces itself, is backward at best, colonialist at worst, and the organization best positioned to disrupt it is ... FIFA.

What FIFA posits, essentially, is that players developed by Argentina, Senegal and South Korea — or by Guatemala, Tanzania and Oman — should play more often in competitions organized by a governing body that represents those countries. And FIFA, for all its corruption, sleaziness and incompetence, still does that. It shares its revenue with all 211 member associations. Yes, it pays president Gianni Infantino and other privileged executives millions of dollars, and constantly undermines its own credibility. But it does funnel revenue from World Cups to Sri Lanka, and Uganda, and Dominica, funding soccer in countries where the resources of Western European life do not exist.

Many of those countries crave a biennial World Cup because if FIFA's revenue soars, theirs will too. FIFA's solidarity payments are their main source of income, their youth players' main source of opportunity. One-hundred sixty-six of them supported the "feasibility study." If all or most of them were to vote in favor of the biennial plan at a special congress or the regularly scheduled FIFA Congress on March 31, the plan would become reality.

European media have rued FIFA's democratic structure, rightly pointing out that it gives no say to players. They've whined that it gives as much say to a country that wins World Cups as it does to one that will never sniff a prestigious tournament. But the latter isn't inferior by choice. Many developing countries adore soccer. They simply struggle to build professional leagues or competitive national teams because countless decks have been stacked against them. Historical forces have diverted resources elsewhere. And now, a European-centric soccer system has left them behind.

What UEFA posits is that the powerful men who rule that system should remain powerful. That the system produces entertaining soccer as is. That fans enjoy it, and players tolerate it, and money keeps rolling in. That the status quo is fine, and preferable to FIFA's flawed plan.

And in some ways, UEFA is right. Much of the pushback is legitimate. FIFA's initial focus on the men's game and neglect for the women's game has, in some eyes, left the biennial concept doomed from the start.

But UEFA's mission here isn't altruistic. It isn't a soccer savior fighting a corrupt villain. It's a four-letter acronym representing an establishment and fighting on behalf of its own members' interests. You know, just like FIFA so often is.

Why the biennial World Cup battle will end in compromise

FIFA's problem is that it can't make this argument because the argument frames players as products rather than humans, and feeds suspicions that the fuel behind the plan is financial. Instead, FIFA has relied on empty logic and pleas about "the future of football," because without more regular World Cups, apparently, according to Infantino, "football is risking to lose its appeal" among Gen Z. It also attempted to attach the biennial World Cup proposal to a rejiggering of the international match calendar, which is necessary and rational but mostly unrelated.

The arguments were easy to rebut. And European powerbrokers have, relentlessly. Even the International Olympic Committee joined the resistance last weekend. This week, with the narrative largely controlled by European media, FIFA's resolve began wavering. Rather than push for a vote in December, Infantino announced Wednesday that FIFA would hold a virtual “global summit” on Dec. 20 and “try to reach a consensus.”

A consensus, of course, will never form around a biennial World Cup. CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, has also opposed the plan. And while it could technically be voted into bylaw without any European or South American support, the Europeans and South Americans could just as easily jump ship, arrange their own lucrative tournament, and detonate the World Cup's appeal.

All of which is why Infantino's words at a 45-minute news conference Wednesday hinted at eventual compromise. "I’m here to unite," he said, after acknowledging vehement criticism. "I’m not here to divide."

The path to common ground could be rocky. Collisions along the way could be explosive. They often are when two powerful, self-interested bodies clash. The result could be a global nations league, or a second, diluted quadrennial competition. UEFA's power, though, which in some ways outweighs FIFA's, should prevent a true biennial World Cup from materializing.

That isn't cause for celebration. It isn't a win for the everyman over the powerful elite. In fact, if you squint, you could see it as the opposite. You could see FIFA, despite its sinful past and seedy present, as a voice of the voiceless, fighting to reclaim the world's game on behalf of the world.

“They all must be listened to," Infantino said Wednesday of his 211 member associations. "And my role is exactly to listen to everyone, to listen to every side, to give a voice to those who are never heard.”