Biennial World Cup Isn’t The Answer, But International Soccer Needs Reform
FIFA is used to its ideas being unpopular.
There was the decision to allow Qatar to host the World Cup. There was extending the competition to 48 teams. There was the plan for a larger Club World Cup.
The latest brainwave from the world governing body is to hold the World Cup every two years, instead of every four.
There are several reasons this is a bad idea. UEFA, no stranger to bad ideas itself, has already come out strongly against the plan.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said last week: “We think that the jewel of the World Cup has value precisely because of its rarity. Holding it every two years will lead to less legitimacy, and it will unfortunately dilute the World Cup itself.”
Ceferin is right. Reducing the prestige of the World Cup will likely reduce the audience. Reducing the audience will make the competition less appealing to broadcasters and sponsors.
There are also legitimate concerns about player burnout and what seems to be a complete lack of awareness over how such a move would impact the Women’s World Cup.
Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global development, insists a biennial World Cup is the “right solution” for modern soccer.
The World Cup finals tournament is by far the biggest earner for FIFA and it’s hard to believe there is “no financial incentive” behind the plan, as Wenger told L’Équipe.
But, for all of the flaws in the plan, Wenger has a point about the need to reform the international soccer calendar from 2024.
Currently, leagues have five international breaks of 10 days each in September, October, November, March and June. These breaks are used to play qualifying matches for the World Cup or continental championships, for example the Copa America or Euro.
FIFA’s “big idea” is to play all qualifying matches during two breaks in October and March. Wenger would ideally like just one break, in October.
“I would like to increase the frequency of competition, in a way that’s led by simplicity, a clear calendar, and a desire to only organize competitions that have a real meaning to them, which are those which allow an improvement in the level of football,” Wenger said.
“What people want are competitions with high stakes, that are easy to understand. That’s why it must be done, for audiences and to improve football.”
Whether or not this is what audiences want remains to be seen but the argument for fewer meaningless international matches is a fair one.
Did anyone really learn anything from England’s 4-0 defeat of Andorra earlier this month, in which the losing side had 11% possession? Did Norway or Gibraltar take anything out of the former’s 5-1 win which left the latter with a goal difference of -22 after six matches?
This is not to say soccer’s minnows should be excluded from international competitions. The fact is, though, international qualifying is too long and too often boring. It is in need of reform.
Would a break in the league season for a whole month of qualifiers turn fans off? Possibly. Yet it could also spark more interest in national team qualifiers if they are condensed. It is at least worth considering this part of the proposal.
Soccer in general needs to be more willing to explore change. A biennial World Cup is a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean condensing international qualifiers is also a bad idea. It doesn’t mean the sport should refuse new ideas without consideration.
FIFA already has backing to make its plan a reality, though CONMEBOL has joined UEFA in standing firmly against it. The problem is international soccer, at least for now, looks unlikely to get the good part of the plan without the bad.