What exactly is the game world football is playing?

April 24, 2018 09:02
Brazil fans celebrate after the team's 2014 World Cup semi-finals victory against Germany. The World Cup is a cash-cow for FIFA, which is under pressure to generate more consistent revenue flows. Photo: Reuters

Recently, in the space of one week, two reports emerged about FIFA-related developments that could profoundly affect the future direction of world football. The first report concerned proposals for an extension of the Club World Cup, and the creation of a new league competition for national teams. In the second, details were revealed of a CONMEBOL (the continental association representing South American football) request to increase the number of teams participating in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

In themselves, both stories can be explained rationally and logically. However, the coincidental timing of their appearance rather suggests that all may not be what it seems.

Plans for the Club World Cup and a nations league are apparently being financed by Japan’s SoftBank, seemingly in conjunction with investors from the Middle East and Asia. Sources suggest the package could be worth US$25 billion, with FIFA retaining a 51 percent stake in the new venture.

Such developments are hardly surprising. After all, FIFA’s cash-cow, the World Cup, only takes place every four years, hence there is constant pressure on football’s world governing body to generate more consistent revenue flows during the cycle between tournaments. And Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, would seem the ideal man for managing the evolution of these competitions, having been the intellect and strategist behind the throne when Michel Platini was president of UEFA.

Yet one suspects there’s more to this development than simply plugging holes in FIFA’s recently leaky finances. When Alibaba (via its E-Auto business) signed a deal with FIFA to sponsor the Club World Cup back in 2015, rumors were rife that China would use the deal as a springboard to seize control of organizing and managing the competition.

The logic was that this could then serve as a platform for China to mount a World Cup bid while extending the country’s influence over the global game.

At the same time, the Saudi Arabian government has recently launched a national program that will see it spending on sport, most notably football. This is partly a competitive response to the prominent positions that neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have built in football. Furthermore, the Riyadh government is engaged in a feud with Qatar, which has resulted in it seeking to undermine the 2022 World Cup hosts at every opportunity.

It would therefore be unsurprising if, ultimately, the countries behind these latest developments prove to be China and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, further investigation reveals that SoftBank is already engaged in a strategic partnership with the latter’s Public Investment Authority. Likewise, Alibaba has close connections with SoftBank and is working with the Saudi government on the world’s biggest solar farm. Meanwhile, the issue of buying and selling oil and gas always helps add some context to bilateral relations between Beijing and Riyadh.

When it was first announced by Infantino that FIFA would be increasing the number of competing teams at the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48, there was a general uproar across the global football community. Even so, it personified the president’s approach to doing business: commercial opportunity cast as democratization, something Infantino proved adept at accomplishing during his time working for UEFA.

The basic model is: enlarge a tournament with a view to selling more television contracts, sponsorships and so forth – thereby keeping the bigger national football associations happy. Then sell the idea to relevant parties that it is a way of enhancing the opportunities for smaller or weaker teams to qualify for major competitions.

One could marvel at what seems like, yet again, an Infantino masterstroke, but there’s something different this time. Most notably, that he did not propose the change for an enlarged World Cup in 2022. Instead, the advocate was CONMEBOL (under whose influence?), which is mysterious and raises some very important issues. Not least of these is that Qatar, with its population of less than three million and a land mass of less than 12,000 square kilometers, would probably be unable to cope with a bigger World Cup.

This instantly raises the prospect that Qatar would either have to relinquish hosting rights for the tournament, or else share their hosting with one or more other countries. The ramifications, especially for FIFA, of Qatar losing hosting rights would be extremely serious. In simple terms, it is easy to imagine a subsequent legal case the outcome of which would be that the Doha government effectively bankrupts FIFA. Consequently, the sharing option becomes a more likely outcome, should the enlargement go ahead.

So who would benefit from this? Most obviously, Saudi Arabia: Qatar’s arch antagonist; the region’s biggest power; and a nation seeking to garner soft power influence via its investments in football. Realizing the elegance of this solution would not be easy, not least among members of the Qatari government. However, the country has begun to struggle economically after a year of being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Anyway, its officials have always stressed that 2022 is a tournament for the region.

As such, this scenario would enable Qatar to extricate itself from current geopolitical difficulties, while at the same time enabling the country to assert Arab solidarity with its neighbors. In this case, FIFA too would no doubt claim victory presumably by positioning itself, and football, as peace brokers. Some people have wittily suggested that Gianni Infantino might even win a Nobel Peace Prize if 2022 goes ahead as a jointly hosted tournament.

The shifting sands of world football’s politics have changed the football tournament landscape in recent times. Over the last two years, China has stepped up its game in dramatic fashion and is now being taken seriously as a future World Cup host. But as Beijing has sought to curb its overseas currency flows, so Saudi Arabia has taken the decision to increase its spending on football.

Hence, the landscape has begun to contort once again, though it appears that convergent interests between East and West Asia could bring still further changes.

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino is playing a major role in managing the evolution of the football governing body's competitions. Photo: Reuters
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son. The Japanese conglomerate is a major backer of proposals for an extension of the Club World Cup, and the creation of a new league competition for national teams. Photo: Reuters
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba. The e-commerce giant signed a deal with FIFA to sponsor the Club World Cup back in 2015. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.