Why does FIFA have a bad reputation
The gap between Europe's top clubs and the rest of the world is too great
Fifa President Gianni Infantino is critical of the state of football and wants to increase global equity. For once he is right - and the European clubs could even benefit from his ideas.
It's easy to get indignant at Gianni Infantino. The president of the world football association Fifa allowed himself business trips in private jets, removed critical ethics commissioners, brought Swiss federal prosecutor Michael Lauber into distress through undocumented meetings and accused independent media of spreading “fake news”. Infantino has honestly earned its bad reputation.
And yet it is evidence of laziness to deny the Swiss official that he might be right one day. Anyone who reacts to every statement by Infantino with knee-jerk indignation is making himself too comfortable.
Lost the connection
Shortly before Christmas, the FIFA President made a surprising statement on the sidelines of the World Cup in Doha. No one is happy with the state of world football, said Infantino. In many conversations, he hears complaints that the national leagues have become too predictable, most international matches are too uninteresting and the calendar is too full. 10 to 12 clubs, all from Europe, would have a global reach. But the rest of the world has lost touch.
Infantino, who has made so many enemies, suddenly said: "We have to talk."
Too much inequality, too many games, increasing boredom: In principle, Infantino's analysis coincides with the fears of some football watchers who warn of oversaturation or even of a bubble that could one day burst. From the mouth of the FIFA President, it is new - and should be taken all the more seriously.
The enormous commercial success of the Champions League has created an imbalance. Clubs such as Liverpool FC, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have long since lagged behind the weakest clubs in their national leagues. But something else is more remarkable: They bundle global interest. In Nairobi, it might be easier to find a pub that broadcasts the Champions League live than one that shows the Kenyan Premier League. If you are looking for a small talk topic in Thailand, you probably have better chances with the Spanish Clasico than with the duel Chiangrai against Buriram, the last two national champions.
Talents from all over the world dream of making the leap to Europe, and big money also habitually flows in this direction. Investors from the Middle East, Russia or China tend to hold shares in the well-known traditional clubs, whose value continues to rise, than to support clubs in their own country that are increasingly losing touch.
Football is the greatest sport in the world. But despite all globalization, it is becoming more and more European. 12 of the last 13 winners of the Club World Cup come from Europe.
The development is not positive for Swiss football either. The financial gap between the best local clubs and Europe's top is huge. Success at the continental level would have been more likely a few decades ago. Investors now refer to the Super League as a training league. If you can, move on. That does not offer rosy prospects.
50 clubs on an equal footing
But something is in motion. In Doha, Infantino reaffirmed its vision of at least relativizing the supremacy of those 10 to 12 top clubs that dominate world football today. He thinks it is desirable that 50 clubs from all continents are on an equal footing in the future. Each of these 50 clubs should have the potential to win the Club World Cup.
In summer 2021 the competition will get bigger. Then 24 clubs will play for the title in China for the first time. That probably only marks the beginning of a larger development. In response to a tender to be allowed to market the Club World Cup in the future, 9 companies applied to Fifa by the end of the deadline on December 19. The companies were asked to be creative: The application dossiers included suggestions as to how often and in what format the tournament should take place in the future.
It is already rumored that a global super league could emerge in the near future. Fifa representatives weigh down. You describe this as pure speculation and also deny wanting to displace the Champions League. But far-reaching changes to the football calendar are quite possible. Especially since Infantino has apparently recognized that the ever increasing number of games is problematic. Wherever something new is created, something old has to be dropped.
It is remarkable how differently the new Club World Cup is received. "Football is not just a European game, and the expansion creates massive opportunities for clubs in other parts of the world," commented a journalist from Fox Sports Australia a few days ago, almost euphorically. The football expert expects the Asian Champions League counterpart AFL to experience an upgrade in the wake of the Club World Cup from 2020. Because that is where the starting places will be allocated. So far, the AFL has been a moderately interesting competition in which the participants often even lost money, according to the commentator. From 2020, the incentive for Sydney, Perth or Melbourne to shine at the continental level will increase. The reasoning applies equally to clubs from Africa and North and South America. In many places there are great hopes for a boost.
In Europe, the development is officially hostile. When the Fifa Council met last March, the European representatives voted against the expansion of the Club World Cup, and Uefa President Aleksander Ceferin protested as loudly as ever when he hoped to gain sympathy as opposition leader against Infantino.
But the resistance began to appear in March, and it is now clear that Europe's top clubs are also starting to look forward to the new mode. A working group of the European Club Association (ECA) is now lobbying for the number of European starting places to be increased from 8 to 12. The group includes representatives from Barcelona, Liverpool, Dortmund and Amsterdam. The haggling over the participation modalities has long since begun at the highest level.
The view is prevalent that competitive games against non-European clubs do not pose a threat to the top clubs, but are in their own economic interest. The stars from Europe are already being flown to China or the USA during the season break in order to stage plays there for marketing reasons. A trial of strength at eye level with local clubs would create a completely different level of attention: With this argument, Fifa has drawn the leading clubs on their side.
In July 2019, Juventus played against Inter Milan in the Chinese metropolis of Nanjing. The Chinese fan base is almost worth every effort for the Italian clubs. It would take on other dimensions if open duels against a club from Nanjing were possible. Not only Infantino thinks that way.
Many may be put off by the scenario. Football thrives on its local roots and on its traditions, which include national duels. Constant intercontinental travel would be a logistical nightmare, not just for the fans. It would be fatal to ignore the needs of the old supporters in favor of profit. Whether the diverging interests of fans and owners can be reconciled will be a crucial question.
Another possible stumbling block: The Champions League has increased the financial gap between the clubs within Europe, not decreased it. A repetition of this phenomenon on a global level, i.e. the emergence of a new, closed grouping of top clubs, simply a little bigger, would be counterproductive for the development of football in the long term. New tournaments must be supported by the grassroots and be permeable.
Anyone who wants to promote football in Africa or Asia cannot simply distribute money according to the watering can principle. This approach has all too often failed in development aid. Instead, it is important to arouse the interest of private investors.
Infantino at least shows sensitivity to the dangers. In November, on the occasion of a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he addressed the lack of modern stadiums in many places. The world football association wants to win over companies and entrepreneurs to finance construction projects in Africa worth a billion dollars. The goal must be for every country on the continent to have at least one stadium that meets the FIFA criteria. New and better competitions could also help prevent talent drain. If there were a league of the best 20 African clubs, according to the Fifa president, it could generate a turnover of 200 million dollars. It would then be among the 10 largest leagues in the world.
The impulses and ideas are worth considering. Infantino is measured by his words.
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