KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- When FIFA launched its reform process back in 2015 one of the outcomes was the creation of a 37-member council which appeared more of an oversize talking shop than body of influence.
But on Friday in Miami the opinions and decisions of council can design the shape of the international game for perhaps the next two decades.
Gianni Infantino, president of the world football federation for the past three years and due to be re-elected in June for a further four, has travelled the globe relentlessly over the last 12 months in pursuit of agreement for pet projects which will support his promises of a multi-million-dollar investment in the worldwide game.
Five of the six regions are in favour of Infantino’s cash-friendly vision. The one opposing force has been also the most powerful: UEFA.
Two major issues are up for debate in Miami:
1, the possible expansion of the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar from 32 to 48 teams and consequent need or feasibility of roping in a neighbouring state to help out; and
2, revamping the Club World Cup and introducing a Global Nations League to capitalise in a $25bn commercial offer which may, or may not, still be on the table.
Whatever council rules, the validity of its decisions may be questioned. Absent, for a variety of reasons, will be the presidents of the African and Asian confederations, Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, along with Europe’s Russian representative, Alexey Sorokin.
These three are certain absentees. There may be more – nervous of placing themselves within easy reach of the United States justice system which is still wading through its FIFAGate corruption investigation.
An expansion and extension feasibility report has forecast a 48-team tournament generating an extra $408m. But a political phoney war in the Gulf region means that, of the five possible neighbour nations, only Kuwait and Oman could be considered for a co-host role and Oman does not even have a stadium with the minimum 40,000 capacity.
In any case, neither nation has indicated whether it is willing to share with Qatar. Indeed, their governments may be extremely reluctant to upset the powerful Saudis.
FIFA has said that the Qataris, building their facilities in the expectation of a 32-teams finals, will have the last word.
It would be surprising if, for all their diplomatic fence-sitting, they would be happy to see a Johnny-come-lately neighbour grabbing a share of their hard-earned glory.
FIFA has not said so formally, but the Confederations Cup is dead. It served as a year-out warm-up tournament for the next World Cup host but its staging is a calendar impossiblity 12 months ahead of the winter (November/December) hosting of the 2022 finals.
Hence the need for more competitions both to satisfy sponsors demanding maximum visibility for their millions and satisfy national associations demanding an ever-bigger slice of the FIFA revenue cake.
A revamped Club World Cup is one option. The current tournament, every December, is a sporting and rights-earning failure. Hence the idea of replacing it with a proposed 24-team summer tournament every four years.
UEFA opposed this initially, for fear of a draining effect on their high-prestige, high-earning Champions League. But UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin may be won over by the consideration that such a tournament would block the commercial circus wrapping in Europe’s leading clubs around the world every July and early-August.
Then there is the Global Nations League against which UEFA also railed.
However Ceferin again may have been mollified by the recent words of Zvonimir Boban, the former Croatia captain who is now joint deputy secretary-general at FIFA.
Boban has suggested that each region would stage its own nations league – as UEFA already does – and then send the winners on to a short world play-off series.
A positive straw in the wind for Infantino was an obvious softening of attitudes by Reinhard Grindel, as illustrated in an interview with Deutsche Welle. However the entire project is hedged about with TV rights hurdles.
Even if UEFA does agree, reluctantly, it will not want to see any new competition before the next international calendar is formulate from 2024.
The international players union FIFPro has its doubts about everything.
It refused to join UEFA and the European Club Association in coming out against FIFA’s original proposals.
However its own doubts were set out in a statement of concern about “a crowded match calendar at the top of the game which is having an impact on the heath and performance of players.”
FIFPro added: “Any further amendments to international tournaments should only be introduced after a comprehensive review of the match calendar has been undertaken and mandatory standards for the rest and recovery of players have been introduced.
“There must be compulsory mid-season and off-season breaks, and the amount of matches and international travel each season must be limited. At international competitions like the World Cup, the minimum rest period between matches must be maintained at 72 hours.
“Finally, the potentially enormous economic benefits of the new competition proposals should benefit all of football and address many of the historic failings that continue to affect players such as unpaid wages, inadequate career transition guidance and minimal investment in the women’s game.”
Not all the details of the above will be agreed in Miami. Further refinements regarding both the 2022 World Cup and new competitions may be pushed on down the council road to for further assessment on the eve of congress in Paris in June.
But Infantino is likely to feel he has obtained much of what he wanted – just not as quickly as he would have liked.