Friday, December 01, 2023

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Gianni Infantino: A Threat to Football?

Gianni Infantino (via has been a little over 3 years since Gianni Infantino became the 9th president of FIFA, on February 26th 2016. At the time there was a general air of hope and relief about his appointment, not so much because of his own campaign to become the leader of world football, but more because his predecessor, Sepp Blatter, had become such a toxic and disparaged figure.

As a result, Infantino was blessed with a relatively long honeymoon period, whilst most of those invested in football were simply thankful that Blatter was no more. Back to the present and Infantino is due to win a 2nd term as president when the 69th FIFA congress convenes on June 5th, in Paris. Not because he's done a great job, but because there will be no candidates to oppose him. Is this welcome? I'm unconvinced, Infantino may not be corrupt (as it stands) but here's why some of his key decisions are a threat to football...

So far during his presidency, Infantino has helped to drive forward 3 major proposals, these have been:

(1) Expansion of the FIFA World Cup from 32 national teams to 48.
(2) The FIFA Club World Cup will no longer be held annually, but rather every 4 years, beginning in 2021, with no tournament taking place in 2019 or 2020. This includes expanding the competition from 7 teams to 24.
(3) The rolling out and increased use of VAR

The introduction of VAR, and the impending use of it on a more widespread basis, is now generally accepted. The system still has its detractors, but on the whole there's a recognition that the use of video replay is reducing controversy in football and that there isn't an over-reliance on it. Plus, it had become increasingly ridiculous that the biggest sport in the world was stubbornly resisting VAR when the likes of cricket, tennis and rugby were years ahead on the matter.

The use of VAR contributed to the 2018 World Cup in Russia becoming a near universal success. The refereeing was as well-balanced as we've seen for some time, with just 4 red cards issued (the fewest since the 1978 tournament) and a welcome focus on punishing shirt-pulling in the penalty area. So, as the man in charge, Infantino deserves to get some of the credit for the lasting impression that Russia 2018 left on us.

However, it is the first 2 proposals in my list that have led me to be wary of the FIFA president and his motives.

FIFA World Cup Expansion

The pursuit of a change to the World Cup format makes little sense beyond the insatiable thirst for profit. As things stand the 2026 World Cup, in USA, Canada and Mexico, will definitely include 48 teams. But, if Infantino gets his way, the expansion will be brought forward and implemented for Qatar 2022, with Kuwait being suggested as co-hosts.

This is despite FIFA itself having apparently recognised that the current format produces the best quality of football. The new system will see 16 groups of 3, with 2 qualifiers from each leading to a last 32 knock-out round, before settling into familiar territory. This at least means that individual teams will not play any more games than usual, although the overall number will increase from 64 to 80. It remains to be seen if initial opposition from the European Club Association has been placated.

Despite many of the concerns that were built up in anticipation of the last World Cup, the competition more than delivered. Russian authorities cracked down on threats of hooliganism in the wake of the trouble that flared up during Euro 2016, and the country generally embraced the huge influx of foreign visitors.

The football on show was often of a high standard, and there were few dud matches across the whole of the competition, with only the one 0-0. The World Cup is therefore in rude health and far from broken, and yet FIFA are set to repeat the same mistakes as UEFA made with the Euros, where the overall calibre was diminished.

Infantino defends the decision to expand to 48 teams, by saying that "the football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the biggest promotional tool for football you can have." And whilst this may be true, will it really have the same effect if 16 nations are going to face an easier path to reach it? The World Cup is the pinnacle of football, and there has to be a cut-off point before you risk undermining the status and competitiveness of the tournament.

Then we have the issue of money. The strong suspicion is that by providing extra passage to the World Cup for more minor nations, Infantino is securing (flawed) loyalty from the delegates of those football associations. The 2026 World Cup is projected to rake in $11 billion worth of pure profit for FIFA, a monumental leap that is significantly enhanced by the whole expansion plan, and which subverts the goodwill narrative put forward by the FIFA president.

FIFA Club World Cup Expansion

Let's be honest, at least as far as Europe goes, the FIFA Club World Cup has often been ignored over the years, even fans of the teams involved have found it difficult to be enthusiastic.

In this respect, I agree with Infantino that it's not something we want to see every season, so if it has to stay, once every 4 years is preferable. And on March 15th, FIFA announced that this new version of the event will effectively replace the FIFA Confederations Cup, which has now been abolished. So far so good, but of course, this being FIFA, the opportunity to enhance their bank balance has been gleefully accepted, with little consideration for if they should do so.

The new format will see 24 teams competing rather than the usual 7, with the games taking place across June and July, starting from 2021. The financial controversy that accompanied the proposals, came from revelations that an international consortium, led by SoftBank, had submitted a $25 billion bid for a 49% stake in this new version of the tournament, plus a global Nations League (supposedly similar to the UEFA Nations League). This led to speculation that if FIFA and their partners hoped to make a return on these investments, they would ultimately aim to supersede the Champions League, something UEFA are sincerely paranoid about.

Following these concerns, and those from clubs with regards to how much profit the investors would be taking out of football, the deal was dropped and the decision taken by FIFA to only pursue the new Club World Cup (for now). Funds are consequently expected to come from commercial partners, but there are rumours that the same 3rd parties could return with a fresh bid when the dust has settled, closer to 2021. The exact identity of the various investors was never divulged, although there were suspicions that Saudi Arabian money would heavily feature, and that FIFA would try to sidestep the questions around them indirectly funding human rights abuses.

Aside from these reservations, there is also the question of how much the FIFA Club World Cup will impact domestic football. Clubs taking part are predicted to earn £50 million each, although it's still not 100% clear how qualification to the tournament would work, or even if some may simply be invited because of their stature. In other words, there is a very real fear that the FIFA Club World Cup will inflate the disparity between the rich, successful clubs and those that traditionally aren't. This could be a development that fatally erodes domestic competition, for the sake of making the rich even richer.

FIFA Avoid Qatar Human Rights Questions

Last but by no means least, we have the Qatar-sized elephant in the room. For years Amnesty International, and other similar bodies have repeatedly raised serious concerns over numerous labour and human rights issues in Qatar, specifically with regards to the construction workers building stadiums and other infrastructure.

Despite regular, alarming reports of workers' deaths and abuses, FIFA and Gianni Infantino have been consistently absent on the issue. The FIFA president always has time for a photo opportunity with a football, as he sports a hard hat, but try and find his views on Qatar working conditions and you'll struggle, badly.

Rather like Theresa May and her Brexit déjà vu, FIFA churn out the same platitudes about how they take the matter very seriously, and that they are monitoring the situation. But then nothing changes and we go around in circles. It's clear that these are affairs that FIFA find terribly inconvenient, an irritating hindrance to what they promise will once again be the 'greatest World Cup ever', just as long as we disregard those that died to deliver it.

In my mind, football remains the greatest sport there is because of those that play it, love it and follow it. However, on the basis of this evidence, football still has some way to go before it has the best people to lead it.

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