Soccer  

Will Europe-South America plan to curb FIFA’s World Cup revamp do more harm than good?

The tectonic plates of world soccer are shifting again. South America is now back with Europe — a new alliance symbolised by the idea of a Nations League involving both continents. This, of course, is a reaction to FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s plan to stage the World Cup every two years. And this new Europe-South America alliance threatens the very foundations of FIFA.

Why? UEFA (Europe’s governing body for the sport) has been against the idea of a biennial World Cup from the beginning — fearing that it is an attempt to grab some of the revenue normally generated by the continent’s club football. And initially, CONMEBOL (South America’s governing organisation) appeared interested in the new idea. Further thought brought about a dramatic change of heart, with the continent deciding it had more to lose than to gain from the biennial proposal.

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South America has the most competitive World Cup qualification campaign on the planet, which already serves as a source of income and as a driver of quality. Since the current marathon qualification format was introduced in 1996, the less traditional teams have shown a considerable improvement. The continent is also proud of the Copa America, the world’s first continental competition. The biannual World Cup has been seen as an attack on the qualification process — which would have to be much shorter — and a threat to the future of the Copa America.

It is not as yet clear how a Nations League involving both Europe and South America would work. But that is hardly the point. It would appear to be a bargaining ploy. The objective at the moment is to form a block of football’s two most traditional continents in opposition to the biannual World Cup.

UEFA and CONMEBOL partnering together is the latest chapter in an previously tense relationship. Europe and South America started to go their separate ways in the late 1960s. South America came away from the 1966 World Cup, staged in England, with a bitter taste in its mouth, complaining that the tournament had been loaded against them. There was already discontent in Africa and Asia, which had had one slot between them in the 1966 edition, and only one each in the next competitions.

That spurred Joao Havelange, then-president of the Brazilian football association, to put together a new alliance — South America with Africa and some of Asia. In the 1974 FIFA Congress, for the first time, Africa had more votes than Europe. And they voted for Havelange, who became FIFA’s first non-European president. This led to massive changes. The World Cup was expanded from 16 teams to 24 and then to 32, with more places for nations in the new confederations. He set up at Under-17 and Under-20 levels, which could be staged in football’s less traditional nations. Despite South America having only 10 voting members, the intercontintenal alliance that Havelange put together held firm, and was inherited by successor Sepp Blatter.

So why would any of this pose a threat to FIFA? Their monopoly control of the global game is, if and when tested, a legal fiction, a collective illusion. It only functions because everyone involved agrees to accept it. But they don’t have to. There have been regulatory breakaways in many other sports. It could easily happen in football. In the early 1970s the Belgian FA president Louis Wouters was arguing in favour of a European breakaway. The threat is surely more serious now — Europe and South America could decide to organise their own separate competition, which would contain all the big hitters and would be worth incalculably more than any competition that Infantino could dream up in their absence.

There is one promise that Havelange was not able to keep — that of setting up a genuine Club World Cup. Since 2005, FIFA has organised a quick competition, and there are always plans to introduce an expanded version. So far all of this is foundering on European indifference. Perhaps the price of peace to all of this posturing would be as follows — FIFA takes the biennial World Cup off the table, in return for a European commitment to give full cooperation to a Club World Cup. That would certainly please the South Americans, who already place an extraordinarily high importance on the yearly competition. And it could aid the global distribution of resources generated by the club game.

The alternative — FIFA forcing a two-year World Cup and Europe and South America going their own way — would surely not be in the best interests of the game.