Sports

This biennial World Cup mumbo jumbo is soccer’s next big fight

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (left) and Argentina’s Rodrigo De Paul (right) hold the Copa America trophy.
Image: Getty Images

Last spring, when news of the Super League first started to break, I was pretty dismissive. Heard it all before — that type of leak tended to break on a cycle of every few years or so, and would quickly fade into the background. In reality, it did fade into the background pretty quickly. It just did so a lot more noisily, messily, and hilariously than I or anyone else could have thought. It was a real thing for like a day and a half, not just some backroom talks and emails that others constructed into something that was quickly denied. It lived. A butterfly’s lifespan, but it lived.

So as news piles up about FIFA’s push for a biennial World Cup, I have to fight my first inclination to dismiss it as just the usual test-balloon/spouting/deranged ranting from one of the world’s more fucked up and greedy organizations. The enormity of that statement is Jupiter-sized, I’m aware. Because, as we learned last spring, the things we used to deride as harebrained, unworkable, and fantastical can actually become real in a hurry. Especially with enough people, enough money on the table, and enough desire to claim all that money.

Not that you need the explainer, but no one is buying FIFA’s stated reasoning for pushing for a World Cup every two years, i.e. catering to the fans. The fans are just fine where they are. This is about money. And possibly sticking it to UEFA, but let’s circle back to that in a bit.

The World Cup is worth billions to FIFA. And quite frankly, they’re tired of only getting those billions once every four years. They want them every two years, as well as whatever bounty comes with the even-more giblet-thinking Club World Cup. Money is all FIFA is after. And the thing is, they can get a lot of nations to go along with it, because a lot of them will get twice the number of cracks at getting into the big dance as they have before, and all the money that comes along with those opportunities (especially as the tourney is expanding to 48 teams in 2026, in yet another bit of putting your face in first without thinking). Also more nations would get to host the tournament, and though that’s usually a problem for the governments afterward, all the companies that get to build the stadiums and amenities don’t give a flying fuck about that. Why do you think Saudi Arabia is one of the countries pushing this hardest?

The opponents to this move are clear — CONMEBOL, South American soccer’s governing body, and UEFA, which serves that role for Europe. Because if a World Cup were to happen every two years, it would basically destroy the championships on both of those continents, Copa America and the Euros, respectively. Unless they decide to hold those tournaments every two years in between the World Cup, which would A) basically flatten every player and B) clash with the aforementioned Club World Cup, setting up yet another club vs. country fight on a large scale. We saw what happens with that when Brazilian health officials invaded the field and stopped Argentina vs. Brazil on Labor Day weekend.

UEFA and CONMEBOL don’t want to lose their regional tournaments, because those are multibillion dollar events and, unlike the World Cup, they get to keep all their profits. The problem those two organizations now face is that even if they can remain totally united against FIFA’s plan, they don’t have enough votes combined to stop it. UEFA and CONMEBOL have 65 votes combined. FIFA comprises 211 countries. You see the problem for them.

Which means FIFA might push this through without any support from the South American or European voting blocs, which could very well lead to South America and Europe not competing (USA World Cup champs, baby!)

That wouldn’t really be much of a World Cup. How exactly it would look is a mystery, but we’d probably get the same kind of “we’re not releasing players for this” response that we just saw with the Premier League and South America. UEFA and CONMEBOL are going to have to be placated, which means money.

FIFA released a study this week claiming a majority of fans are in favor of a biennial World Cup, which is always funny when a company releases a study they commissioned which says the thing they really want is liked by people they handpicked to ask about it. But it’s hard to say the fans would really lose out that much on this the way they might have with the Super League (unless, of course, it leads to Europe and South America pulling out of the tournament). Every two years, most soccer fans enjoy a summer tournament, be it a World Cup or European Championships, or Copa America, or all of them.

Would having a World Cup every two years really look that different? It would mean more games for the USA and Mexico, who would have qualifying cycles every two years instead of four, but the qualifying cycles for Europe and South America wouldn’t look all that different — Europe has the cycle for the Euros, and South America’s World Cup qualifying schedule is insanely long already. The fear is that if UEFA and CONMEBOL are eventually mollified, and then jam their regional tournaments into the World Cup’s off-years, you’ll have a saturated market fans will eventually turn away from. And it could turn players into puddles of lost electrolytes.

The real losers, of course, are the players, especially those at the top clubs around the world who might get one summer off in four, if that. Players are already asked to play way too much, and though this might not physically add that many more games, it will add some, plus travel to some far flung destinations they wouldn’t have normally had.

A side bonus of this for FIFA is that by possibly eliminating the regional championships and doubling their World Cup revenue, they can once again seize all the power in the world game. UEFA and CONMEBOL, to a lesser extent, have wielded a lot of power in soccer, as that’s where the game’s biggest clubs and fanbases are. They’ve been able to stymie FIFA a lot of times, and this might be their final ploy to eliminate them as obstacles for whatever it is FIFA wants to do.

There’s also the matter of cluttering the calendar in a way that the Women’s World Cup would get lost or diminished, as it would likely have to take place in the same years as European Championships and Copa Americas, and then vice versa for those women’s regional championships and the men’s World Cup. Yes, the 2019 Copa America final was on the same day as the US’s triumph in France, but CONMEBOL is moving its future tournaments to the same years as the Euros.

The only true plus of this proposal is that qualifiers for national teams would be grouped into either one block in the fall, or two blocks, with one in the fall and one in the spring. Fans and leagues have always been annoyed at momentum being halted every three or four weeks for an international break and players tiring having to fly back and forth between continents so often. This would see them have to do it only once or twice per season.

It’s starting to feel like there’s too much momentum behind this for it to not happen, or at least not get to the real fight stage. Unlike past ideas and attempts, it’s definitely not fading into the background.

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