FIFA chief Gianni Infantino is busily promoting money-spinning schemes for world football ahead of an expected bid for a second term, including a revamped Club World Cup and a so-called Global Nations League.
Infantino faces a re-election vote in June next year, three years after he took control of world football’s governing body after long-time leader Sepp Blatter was ejected amid a bitter corruption scandal.
With an eye to winning a new term at FIFA’s 2019 Paris Congress, Infantino has embarked on one new project after another to fill the coffers and bolster his reforming appeal.
“He clearly has a political agenda,” said a analyst familiar with FIFA’s inner workings. “He has opened two main areas, one covering competitions and the other on rules, where he wants to work on transfers.”
His marquee project is to boost the number of World Cup participating nations from the current 32 to 48 by 2026, a target that has now been brought forward for the 2022 edition in Qatar.
“It is the president of Conmebol [the South American football confederation], Alejandro Dominguez, who proposed [bringing in the expansion for 2022] but you would be forgiven for thinking that FIFA was directly behind it,” said a former FIFA official, speaking on condition his name not be used.
That proposal has left Qatar, already diplomatically isolated, scratching their heads and wondering how to host an expanded tournament that would likely involve staging matches in neighbouring countries.
However, the expansion to 48 teams has its supporters and falls in line with the FIFA chief’s “political agenda”, according to the same source.
New-look club world championship
Infantino’s other key proposal is to revamp the Club World Cup, boosting it from seven clubs to 24 in a four-year format rather than retaining it as an annual event.
At the same time, borrowing an idea from Europe’s governing body UEFA, Infantino has opted to launch a league tournament for nations, the Global Nations League, grouping the winners of international competitions in each of FIFA’s six regional confederations.
Infantino pushed the proposals at a FIFA council meeting in Bogota in March, with the persuasive argument that sponsors were ready to pour $25 billion into the new league and expanded cup proposal.
No names have been released, but the Japanese bank-led sponsors’ consortium includes Chinese, Japanese and Saudi Arabian backers.
Infantino has been working behind the scenes to interest top clubs and spoke to a dozen including Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in Zurich recently. Faced with a cash windfall of between $50-80 million per club per tournament the response has been positive, according to a source who followed the discussions.
Inside FIFA there are those who see the expanded club tournament as a farce and others who see it as a stroke of genius.
Infantino’s new proposals were discussed on Monday at a meeting in Zurich of top leaders of the six continental confederations “in a friendly and positive environment,” according to FIFA. A FIFA council meeting will also take up the subject in May.
If Infantino appears to be in a hurry, it is because the $25 billion sponsorship offer will expire after 60 days and FIFA, whose financial reserves have shed $600 million in three years, needs the money, according to the source.
Also Infantino would welcome a boost ahead of the vote to determine the host of the 2026 World Cup on June 13.
Infantino’s favourite, the joint US, Canada, Mexico bid, is coming up against Morocco, an outsider which seems to be gaining traction, and is seen as progressing even further following tweets from Donald Trump.
The US president appeared to threaten those who withheld backing from the US bid and could trigger an anti-US backlash, according to some experts.