LONDON (AP) — European clubs joined forces on Friday to rebuke FIFA for trying to railroad through plans for biennial World Cups, warning of a destructive impact on world football.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has infuriated the European Club Association, which is accusing the global governing body of being in breach of legal obligations with its rush to radically overhaul the sport and gain more control.
FIFA has been pushing internal interviews to media with retired players and former managers as it rushes to sweep up support from national associations for the plan to double the frequency of men’s World Cups from every four years to two.
UEFA has already expressed its concerns about FIFA’s conduct and that has been echoed by the ECA, which represents 247 clubs.
The ECA said it would back a more balanced approach to club and international football by reducing the five windows typically in the year for players to be released for national team games to reduce the burden on players. It is the lack of apparent engagement by FIFA on the required new international match calendar (IMC) from 2024 that is troubling the clubs.
“ECA has therefore followed with grave concern and alarm FIFA’s launch of active PR campaigns and much pretence,” the club body said in a statement to The Associated Press, “apparently seeking to railroad through reforms to the IMC, particularly the introduction of a biennial World Cup.”
All 211 member federations of FIFA have been invited to online talks on Thursday on the new IMC.
The plans surfaced again in May when Saudi Arabia’s federation nominally proposed at the congress in May for FIFA to explore biennial World Cups. The Saudis have emerged as one of the closest allies of Infantino, who has made trips this year to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It is former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who has been deployed to sell the case for World Cups every two years in his role as FIFA chief of global football development. He gave presentations to the media before bodies such as UEFA on his vision for the match calendar after 2024 which requires the approval of the ECA so clubs release players for tournaments.
FIFA was “in light of the range of predisposed decisions and communications ... in direct and unilateral breach of certain legal obligations,” the ECA said.
“Aside from the notable lack of genuine (or indeed any) consultation, and as many stakeholders have pointed out in recent days, FIFA’s proposals would lead to a direct and destructive impact on the club game, both domestically and internationally,” the ECA added. “In addition, the proposals would put players’ health and wellbeing at risk. They would dilute the value and meaning of club and country competitions.”
The ECA pointed to how the plans would “diminish and conflict” with women’s football that would lose their right to stage events in a European summer without a men’s tournament. FIFA has only just started exploring plans for a biennial Women’s World Cup.
“Any decisions relating to (the international match calendar’s) future can only come about with the consent of football clubs,” the ECA said, “with player welfare at their heart — and in keeping with legally binding obligations which ordinarily should not need re-stating.”
The ECA has, however, backed an expansion of the Champions League in conjunction with UEFA with the group stage due to jump from six to 10 matches per team from 2024.
The only leading European clubs who are no longer ECA members are Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus over their ongoing pursuit of a European Super League. The breakaway was launched and collapsed in April, leading to Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi taking over as head of the ECA from Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli.
Infantino was accused of being complicit in the formation of the breakaway plans by Europe’s elite before belatedly denying he colluded with the rebels after months of silence. Infantino’s links to the Super League have heightened suspicions within European football about his motivations for more regular World Cups that give FIFA an even greater influence on a sport with the club game at its heart.
“The reform of the IMC must be founded on jointly agreed outcomes,” the ECA said, “balanced in the interests of all, following honest and detailed consultation — not simply railroaded in the singular interests of FIFA on the back of a series of PR campaigns.”
FIFA declined to respond to the specific criticism from the ECA.