By Andrew Warshaw
March 15 – Hailing what he described as a “milestone in the history of FIFA and worldwide club football”, Gianni Infantino triumphantly announced today that he had won his battle to introduce a ground-breaking 24-team Club World Cup in the summer of 2021 to replace the Confederations Cup.
“Now the world will see a real Club World Cup where fans will see the best teams in the world compete to be crowned the real world champions,” Infantino told reporters, bullishly declaring Sepp Blatter-style he was a “happy president” after the all-powerful FIFA Council backed his controversial plan to totally revamp the existing but generally unloved seven-team version of the competition.
“It’s our duty and responsibility to make sure we encourage professional club football all over the world. What better than to have a really exciting, prestigious, inclusive tournament instead of what we have now,” Infantino added.
Infantino has been pushing for approval to beef up the Club World Cup ever since FIFA negotiated a secret $25 billion deal with a (still not fully identified) group of international investors, money the FIFA president needs to fulfil his election pledge to massively increase funding to FIFA’s member nations.
The revamped tournament would comprise eight clubs from Europe, six from South America, three each from Africa, Asia and the Concacaf region, and one from Oceania.
Yet just as Infantino was banging the drum for his pet project, it emerged European members of the FIFA Council had voted against the idea, leading to the very real threat that European clubs will refuse to take part, seriously devaluing the entire project.
“There was a vote and UEFA didn’t agree,” admitted Infantino despite, he said, there having been “some very positive discussions”.
A possible European boycott was given further credence by the European Clubs Association, which represents over 200 clubs, threatening to pull its participants out rather than have the already established European calendar disrupted by fixture congestion.
“[We are] firmly against any potential approval of a revised CWC – no ECA clubs would take part,” said an ECA letter leaked to various media organisations and signed by ECA chief Andrea Agnelli and 15 board members.
Infantino responded to a reporter’s question by suggesting the ECA missive was misplaced and that FFIA had consulted every single group of stakeholders.
“This is a tournament that actually replaces five other tournaments globally and takes place once every four years,” he argued. “We are actually reducing, not increasing, the number of games. Two weeks every four years replacing other tournaments. This alone shows it has a positive impact on the international calendar. We are not creating a new slot, we are putting it in a slot that already exists. Two thirds of those taking part would play only two games, the winner only five. How can anyone say this is a big additional burden? It is not.”
As anticipated, the idea of expanding the Qatar World Cup from 32 to 48 teams – the other item on the agenda that drew a large continent of international journalists to Miami – was kicked down the road, to use political jargon, until the FIFA Congress in June even though, said Infantino, 90% of the FIFA membership was in favour of adding 16 more finalists.
He acknowledged that Qatar would have to share with at least one of its Gulf neighbours to accommodate the change, a situation complicated by the ongoing diplomatic, trade and transport blockade of the tiny host nation by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
“It’s feasible provided certain conditions are me.,” said Infantino who tried to put across that he would be happy regardless. “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, great also. “
“What is clear is that if we do increase, then some games would have to be hosted by some other countries. We are working very closely with Qatar to see what arrangements can be made. We all know the situation in the Gulf region.”
While Infantino presented the summit as a personal triumph in getting his $25 billion overhaul of world football off the ground, his critics might interpret the reality as somewhat different.
Not only did Europe oppose a pilot upgraded version of the Club World Club but Infantino’s hopes of creating a new, money-spinning global Nations League – the other main part of the proposed package – was dropped from discussions after a task force which he himself chaired found there was no consensus for such a tournament.
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