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Football’s top clubs and leagues push back against FIFA president

FIFA president Gianni Infantino speaks at a press conference on Friday in Bogota, Colombia, after a FIFA Council meeting. AFP
FIFA president Gianni Infantino speaks at a press conference on Friday in Bogota, Colombia, after a FIFA Council meeting. AFP

Football’s top clubs and leagues push back against FIFA president

Tariq Panja

Groups representing the world’s top football leagues and clubs are pushing back against FIFA President Gianni Infantino over plans to introduce new competitions, accusing him of ignoring some of the game’s biggest stakeholders to push through major changes without proper consultation.

In a series of strongly worded letters, reviewed by the New York Times and presented at Friday’s meeting of FIFA’s governing council, the clubs and leagues accused Infantino of backsliding on his promise to lead through consensus, and of putting player health in jeopardy with plans for a new expanded international club tournament and a global women’s league for national teams.

The letters bring to public view for the first time growing concerns about Infantino’s management style. Critics, including some of FIFA’s most senior officials, have privately fumed about the speed and manner of decision-making under Infantino, who assumed the FIFA presidency in 2016.

Infantino said on Friday that it was normal for people to have differing views and to debate them and to defend their territory.

“As FIFA president and FIFA we have to try and take care of the whole world,” he said. “Obviously, sometimes it can get tense. Other times it can get loud. Other times it can be friendly.” He added that decisions always were taken after consultation with all stakeholders.

At the heart of the most recent complaints is the plan to begin a lucrative new Club World Cup competition, which has the potential to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars but would require 24 clubs to play in a summer tournament akin to the quadrennial World Cup, an event that is worth more than $5 billion to FIFA. It would replace the largely inconsequential Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal held in the host country the year before that event.

FIFA had met with representatives from clubs, leagues and players’ unions in February to discuss the possibility of expanding and moving the Club World Cup, which is played in December, but the officials said they were provided few details before the meeting.

“To be presented with FIFA’s ‘solution’ as a fait accompli and claim this to be consultation defies all definitions of best practice and good governance,” Richard Scudamore, executive chairman of England’s Premier League, wrote to Infantino on March 9. Scudamore was writing in his capacity as chairman of the World Leagues Forum, a grouping of top leagues from four continents.

Concerns

Separate letters were written to Aleksander Ceferin, president of the European soccer confederation, UEFA, by officials representing clubs and leagues on that Continent. Those letters were distributed to FIFA council members at this week’s meeting. Their content was similar in style and tone to Scudamore’s.

“We must share with you our concerns in relation to the process FIFA is engaging in by presenting what appears to be a completed document without any meaningful consultation with stakeholders or indeed their agreement as the basis for discussion,” Andrea Agnelli, chairman of the European Club Association, wrote Ceferin. Agnelli is also chairman of Italy’s most-successful team, Juventus.

FIFA makes about 90 percent of its revenue from the men’s World Cup, but it long has cast envious looks toward Europe, where UEFA is able to generate billions every season from its biggest club competition, the Champions League. A new summer tournament, to be played every four years, would deliver additional funds to FIFA, which has been hunting for new revenue streams to deliver on generous development aid promises Infantino made when he campaigned for election two years ago.

Before his elevation to FIFA president, Infantino had been secretary-general at UEFA, that organisation’s No2 post, where he worked closely with the clubs to develop the Champions League into a global behemoth, drawing billions of dollars from global sponsors and broadcasters.

The clubs and leagues also have taken issue with Infantino’s proposal for the women’s game, with Agnelli arguing it not only risks the club-led development of the sport in Europe but also the health of players who most likely will face “long and tiring travel” on top of an “an already heavy international match calendar.”

Under the proposed format devised by FIFA, the world’s top 16 teams will be divided into four groups and play in minitournaments to determine a champion. The top teams would only play in an annual November window. Four smaller regional leagues also would play matches in a spring window.

But the larger European nations argued to the FIFA Council that the new women’s league could clash with existing broadcast contracts.

The council on Friday delayed making a decision on the expanded Club World Cup plans and the new women’s competition. Its next meeting is in June in Moscow, when its agenda also will include choosing a host for the 2026 World Cup.

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