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Mystery group said to offer FIFA $25B for tournaments

FIFA president Gianni Infantino holds a press conference on March 16 in Bogota, Colombia, after a FIFA Council meeting. AFP
FIFA president Gianni Infantino holds a press conference on March 16 in Bogota, Colombia, after a FIFA Council meeting. AFP

Mystery group said to offer FIFA $25B for tournaments

Tariq Panja

The sheer size of the number stunned the room.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino told his top board last month that a fund of investors from the Middle East and Asia wanted to pay about $25 billion to buy an expanded version of FIFA’s Club World Cup as well as the rights to a proposed global league for national teams.

According to several people with direct knowledge of the meeting held in Colombia last month, details of the offer were scant. Infantino did not reveal the identity of the investors to the FIFA Council, though he said the group wanted a speedy decision on its offer.

Such an agreement would be unprecedented. FIFA has never sold control of its events to the highest bidder, and never to an investment fund.

The council rejected Infantino’s request to push forward with the proposal, saying it needed more information. But the fact that Infantino would even entertain such a proposal illustrates global football’s current state of flux.

The sport’s top clubs, its leading figureheads and deep-pocketed investors are duelling with one another to try to unearth new ways to capitalise on the world’s most popular sport.

Expanded Club World Cup

Selling the competitions to a third party would also represent a major shift in FIFA’s business model, which relies on the sales of tickets, sponsorships and media rights for revenue. Under the proposal delivered to Infantino, the consortium would even decide where the new competitions are held.

The proposal could help Infantino, who was elected as president in 2016, on his quest to increase revenues and restore profits at FIFA, which were hurt by a major corruption scandal in 2015. He also wants to make good on a promise of a fourfold increase in development funds to FIFA’s 211 member nations. He faces re-election next year.

Few details are known about the potential deal, which would be for as many as three editions of the tournaments. But, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting, Infantino received a proposal earlier this year to bring the club tournament to China and Saudi Arabia, two nations that are committed to expanding their leisure and entertainment sectors.

At the FIFA Council meeting, members received a briefing on a proposal for an expanded Club World Cup, which is currently contested annually by the seven clubs who win their regional tournament. The current Club World Cup is worth less than $100 million.

The briefing outlined plans for a quadrennial club tournament similar to the FIFA World Cup that would feature a minimum of 12 teams from Europe, home to sport’s richest and most popular clubs. The document, however, gave no hint of the $25 billion investors offered. Infantino delivered that information verbally.

European representatives were resistant because the competition could compete with the UEFA Champions League, the wildly popular club championship for Europe.

‘Defies all best practice’

Europe’s clubs and leagues complained to FIFA and to UEFA ahead of the March meeting about what they perceived as a lack of transparency and consultation over plans that would directly affect their operations.

Sensing moves were afoot to formalise a new competition without their approval, groups representing clubs and leagues sent letters to Infantino and to Alexander Ceferin, the president of UEFA, who also has called for more discussions to take place.

“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, the executive chairman of England’s Premier League, wrote to Infantino on March 9 after learning the FIFA Council might vote on expanding its club tournament.

Scudamore was writing in his capacity as chairman of the World Leagues Forum, a consortium representing top leagues from four continents.

The European Club Association, representing more than 200 of the continent’s biggest clubs, rejected any plans to create a new club competition at its annual meeting in Rome last month.

The ECA’s president, Andrea Agnelli, who is also chairman of the Italian club Juventus, said the clubs wanted fewer games, in order to protect player health. He said no new tournaments could be created before 2024.

Infantino wants to launch the new club event in 2021.

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