David Owen: The FIFA statutes and the battle over a biennial World Cup

October 19 – It is hard to think that the FIFA statutes will not at some point come into play in the ongoing manoeuvrings over a two-yearly World Cup.

The key fact in this regard is that, while proponents of doubling the frequency of the tournament appear fairly comfortably to command a majority among FIFA voters, a change in the statutes requires the backing of “three-quarters of the member associations present and eligible to vote”.

If all 211 member associations are present and eligible, that puts the minimum required vote to adopt an amendment at 159, and to block it at 53. Europe/UEFA (55 associations) and South America/CONMEBOL (10 associations) could comfortably muster the firepower for a blocking minority, even if they failed to command out-and-out unanimity among their ranks.

Now you might well imagine that the desired frequency of a tournament accounting for an overwhelming proportion of the revenue FIFA generates would be stipulated by said statutes. Having read and re-read the September 2020 edition, however, I can say that this appears not to be the case.

But it is in the nature of such texts – certainly when they govern institutions as old as FIFA – that they are not immaculate conceptions, perfectly formed in every way. They are, rather, analogous to a rambling old stately home that has been restyled and added on to by successive generations, with results that are not always harmonious or completely clear.

While it is nowhere spelt out that the World Cup takes place once every four years, I noted at least two occasions – in paragraph 33 sub-paragraph 2 and especially in paragraph 62 sub-paragraph 1 – where this is clearly implied.

Unfortunately for opponents of a switch to a biennial competition though, while it would plainly be preferable for the wording to be changed if the tournament’s frequency were doubled, I doubt that a threat to block the requisite rephrasing would torpedo the reform. To pick up on paragraph 62, “the financial period of FIFA” could at a push remain four years even if a reformed international calendar made this seem illogical.

Most of the world’s top players are employed by European and South American clubs. What if they simply vowed to ignore any radically revamped international calendar?

Well I suppose you could end up with a breakaway, with much of the sport’s on-field elite seeking to operate outside FIFA’s authority. Before that happened though I imagine FIFA would litigate, which brings us to paragraph 70 and 71 of the statutes, dealing with international matches and competitions.

Paragraph 70 confers the duty of compiling a binding international match calendar clearly on the FIFA Council – albeit “after conferring with the confederations”. According to paragraph 71 sub-paragraph 1, meanwhile, the same FIFA Council “shall be responsible for issuing regulations for organising international matches and competitions between representative teams”. It goes on: “No such match or competition shall take place without the prior permission of FIFA, the confederations and/or the member associations in accordance with the Regulations Governing International Matches.”

I was just about to draw a deep breath and reach for this doubtless voluminous set of regulations when I noticed sub-paragraph 4, which seems to override much of this previously-quoted sentence. It states: “Notwithstanding the authorisation competences as set forth in the Regulations Governing International Matches, FIFA may take the final decision on the authorisation of any international match or competition.”

If push came to shove, this seems to me to offer something for lawyers to get their teeth into, since the question of how FIFA would take this final decision is not addressed. I suppose that the FIFA side might argue that this is unimportant, since the matter at issue is not the authorisation of a new competition, but adjusting the frequency of one that has existed since 1930. I would say that the statutes on this point could definitely be clearer, however.

There is another way in which having the voting power to block statute changes could give those opposed to a biennial World Cup extra leverage. This is if they played hard ball and threatened to block future statute changes that have nothing to do with the World Cup issue, but which they judge the FIFA leadership might wish in time to implement.

For example, paragraph 1 of the statutes states that FIFA “is an association registered in the Commercial Register of the Canton of Zurich in accordance with art. 60 ff. of the Swiss Civil Code”. Moreover: “FIFA’s headquarters are located in Zurich (Switzerland) and may only be transferred to another location following a resolution passed by the Congress.”

For all that the biennial brigade might look to hold the whip hand on the World Cup issue, there is so much at stake for other football and sports bodies that I suspect this particular card game could still go either way, or indeed end up in some uneasy and as yet undefined compromise.

There is no doubt that a biennial World Cup would create more revenue for FIFA. A more interesting question is whether it would create net additional revenue for a) football and b) sport, or whether on the contrary it is essentially a zero-sum game that would merely channel a bigger chunk of the sector’s income to FIFA House.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938. Contact him at moc.l1638369992labto1638369992ofdlr1638369992owedi1638369992sni@n1638369992ewo.d1638369992ivad1638369992