“The negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners.” Adidas statement, June 2014
Adidas has claimed that football is “the DNA of our company”. So when FIFA’s longest-serving commercial partner remarked publicly about the threat to football’s image presented by the many corruption allegations swirling around its governing body, Adidas revealed fears that its own reflection might become haggard.
Its words echoed those of several other sponsors back in June, when the Sunday Times released a slew of corruption allegations around the Qatar World Cup bidding process. Even so, this column has explained before how it is very unlikely that FIFA’s partners will cut their commercial ties. It would be a Van Goghian act of futile self-harm. Alternative sponsors would quickly fill the void of the empty sponsorship “sector”. To make matters worse, this slicing and dicing of the overall commercial offering into industry-specific sectors means the new guys are always competitors to the brand that vanishes from the public eye in a puff of scrupulous pique.
So it has proved, with Qatar Airways widely expected to shuffle up the aisle and take over the airline-partner seat vacated by Emirates airlines. (Indeed it would seem the departure of UAE-state-owned Emirates had more to do with the mere fact its Gulf regional-political rival won the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup than being a moral stance over the alleged circumstances in which they were awarded.)
And so the commercial imperative to pay collectively $900 million a year to remain with FIFA remains. For that sponsors get to enjoy exclusive access to FIFA’s World Cup advertising hoardings and its preferential access to broadcast-ad slots. These considerations are what pragmatically prevails. They more than compensate for the moral maze of being associated with an organisation frequently perceived as hopelessly corrupt. But this hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach will only endure for as long as the FIFA World Cup is football’s preeminent international competition. So it has been for 84 years, but there can be no guarantee it will continue to be so for the next 84 years – nor indeed even for the next eight until Qatar 2022.
In this column I revealed in July that on August 1 this year, the clause relating to player release for FIFA competitions in the memorandum of understanding between UEFA and the European Clubs Association would expire. And so it did, without fanfare or fragmentation of the world football order.
But what that meant was that the first fracture between UEFA and the world’s richest clubs – the employers of 75% of the players who took part in the 2014 FIFA World Cup – had opened. This seems now to be widening. Reinhard Rauball, the president of Germany’s football league, the DFL, has suggested it is time for UEFA to break away from FIFA altogether.
Many commentators dismiss this as nonsense, on the basis that the players would not then be able to play in the World Cup. FIFA would naturally take retaliatory action and expel UEFA nations from its competitions. This might seem like mutually assured destruction. What would the FIFA World Cup be without Germany, Italy, Spain, France or, dare I say it, even England?
But it is the damage to FIFA that would most keenly be felt. Given that three-quarters of all players at the last World Cup were at UEFA-licensed clubs, the competition would be without many of its superstars – the sublime football of Lionel Messi, Neymar and James Rodriguez would be lost, so too the ridiculous notoriety of Luis Suarez.
What of UEFA and the ECA clubs? Many have postulated that players would ignore the confederation and clubs’ withdrawal from FIFA competitions to play in it anyway. The players who might do so currently have a contractual right to do so through a clause in Standard Player Contracts safeguarding their participation in FIFA and international competitions. But if the ECA clubs through leagues like the DFL consider it is in their mutual interest to introduce something standardised and binding that removes this clause, then even the biggest superstar players will have a stark choice. Either they accept it and continue earning £10m-plus per year at the biggest clubs in the world or they insist on playing in FIFA competitions and move to a team outside of Europe for substantially more-meagre rewards.
Where UEFA’s position is weakest in this analysis is that there is nothing they can offer to rival FIFA’s preeminent tournament format – the one that every young footballer from South America to Europe via Asia, Australasia, Africa and North America wants to play in. But there is nothing at all to stop UEFA setting up a rival tournament. In March, UEFA released details of its new Nations League tournament, which will provide a format in which there will be regular matches between Europe’s top football nations as illustrated in the graphic below.
The purpose of UEFA’s tournament-format reforms is clear. “The rejuvenation of national team football and the UEFA Nations League stems from the desire of UEFA, and especially the UEFA President, to improve the quality and the standing of national team football,” it said in a statement.
“There is also the desire from the associations for more sporting meaning in national team football, with associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams.”
This is a view that commercial sponsors and broadcasters will no doubt share, generating greater returns for the bulk of the participant nations than in previous iterations of UEFA’s international calendar. Now the eagle-eyed among this column’s readers will notice that the format UEFA proposes is pretty unbalanced. There are 10 groups of three and six groups of four to comprise the 54 UEFA nations.
A much better equilibrium would have been achieved were there to be 64 nations, permitting 16 four-nation groups. But there are not enough member associations within UEFA to accommodate it. However, if the commercial returns from the 2018-19 Nations League tournament prove sufficiently robust, then it raises the tantalising prospect of the inclusion of the world’s best non-European players through, at first, invitational teams. Indeed if, like their European counterparts, Neymar and Messi or their equivalents become prevented from participating in FIFA competitions under new Standard Player Contracts then there will be nothing to prevent them from playing in a national-team shirt, provided it is not the one that carries the marques of their Argentinian or Brazilian federations. With 75% of the 2014 World Cup players already at the top European clubs, the faces would not be hugely different if UEFA and the ECA took this step. A new World Cup – albeit under a different name and marketing skin – would be born.
Sure, breakaway sports tournaments have never worked in the past. From Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket to the Indian Cricket League more recently, attempts to set up rival formats away from the status quo have fallen on their faces as surely as a striker whose heels have been clipped in the penalty area. But this has been due to the unsanctioned nature of such tournaments: the full contractual and commercial weight of the status-quo-incumbent organiser and regulator has always proved too heavy on the players who subscribe to take part.
But in UEFA’s case it is different. It removes the start-up risk. It has its own commercial relationships and its own sophisticated broadcast networks. Adopting an extra-European ambit, particularly if allied with meaningful football-development funding for nations around the world, would merely strengthen its proposition and attractiveness to those broadcasters and commercial partners.
As the only truly global football tournament comprising European teams and the best of the rest of the world, football’s existing commercial suppliers and their rivals might very well bid up the new product beyond the $900 million a year they are currently paying FIFA.
Michel Platini, UEFA’s president, has surprised many by declining to contest Sepp Blatter for the top job at FIFA. Perhaps as the negative tenor of the public debate around the incumbent World Cup organiser intensifies, he knows where the power in future will lie.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.