In just over a month, the FIFA Congress takes place in Moscow, and, among other things, they'll be deciding whether to award the 2026 World Cup to Morocco or the United Bid, an entry shared by Canada, Mexico and the United States. But that's only the start. Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, is pushing hard for two other pet projects: a revamped Club World Cup and the Global Nations League, modelled on the UEFA version, which kicks off next month.
Q: First things first, where will 2026 take place? Surely in North America, right?
A: Many think that is Infantino's preferred option, though obviously he has to be officially neutral. But it's a lot closer than people think. And the fact that the voting procedure has changed makes it tougher to call. Previously, it was the 24 FIFA Executive Committee (since replaced by the FIFA Council) members who voted. Now it's all 211 FIFA members. And it looks as if there won't be a secret ballot.
Q: So, why did they change it?
A: Well, as you may have noticed, most of the folks who voted last time around, for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, have been indicted or banned. The thinking is that it's tougher to manipulate a vote when you have 211 voters as opposed to 24. And scrapping the secret ballot is supposed to make it harder to bribe voters. Of course, the flip side is that it also limits freedom to some degree: regional power brokers will know exactly who is following their instructions and who isn't.
Q: But aren't they supposed to simply vote their conscience based on the strength of each bid?
A: Yeah, and Elsa is still queen of Arendelle ... come on now. They're not supposed to, but most FAs vote based either on geopolitical considerations -- because they get instructions from their government -- or, if there is no political interference, on what's best for them and their part of the world. It shouldn't be that way, but it usually is, which, I guess, is better than folks voting based on who gives them the biggest envelope full of cash.
Q: Back to 2026. Why is it close? The last CONCACAF World Cup was in 1994; Africa just had one in 2010. Plus, the United Bid has better infrastructure and most of the grounds are already built...
A: Well, some think it's going to be close because they expect virtually all of Africa to back the Moroccan bid. That would be 54 votes right there. They've also speculated that some nations who aren't fond of the United States might also back it as well as, possibly, a gaggle of Arab nations in the Middle East, perhaps Russia and some former Soviet states, too. That might add up to 80 or so. And then it comes down to those on the fence, and that's when it's OK to get a little cynical about how they will use their vote.
But you're right: a United Bid World Cup would cost a lot a less and would likely be far more lucrative. In fact, Carlos Cordeiro, one of the three co-chairs of the bid (and president of the USSF) estimates it will generate some $11 billion in profits for FIFA, making it far and away the most profitable World Cup ever. In fact, that's why conventional wisdom has it that Infantino prefers the United Bid.
Q: Ah yes, greedy FIFA. All about the dollar signs...
A: Yes and no. It's not as if he owns FIFA and the money goes to him. But it's true that FIFA right now are probably more driven by financial considerations...
Q: How come?
A: Well, FIFA lost nearly $700 million between 2015 and 2017, largely as a result of massive legal fees after the scandals and sponsors running away. Infantino, who was elected in 2016, was supposed to turn that around. He had grown UEFA revenues significantly during his time as general secretary and promised to do the same at FIFA. Plus, he kinda had to: part of his election platform was based on quadrupling development money to each member federation, except it is proving to be rather tougher than expected.
A: For a start, he inherited Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. Neither is particularly appealing to sponsors, certainly not relative to, say, Brazil 2014 or what a United Bid in 2026 might be. The political situation in both countries -- EU sanctions over the invasion of Crimea and charges of Russian meddling in foreign elections for the former, the Saudi-led blockade for the latter -- isn't helping matters. Compared to Brazil or even South Africa, those are tough sells. In fact, part of the reason he's expanding the World Cup to 48 teams is to generate more revenue so he can hit his targets.
Q: Will it be enough?
A: Probably not. And that's why the Global Nations League and revamped Club World Cup are on the agenda again.
Q: You mentioned the Global Nations League before. Let's start with that one.
A: You can read about it here, though remember, that's an early iteration. Who knows what it will look like in the end, but the basic idea is to replace friendlies with competitive international play between countries of similar standard on a regional basis, with the winners squaring off in some global tournament. If done right, they wouldn't be adding any international dates to the calendar, which is important to clubs, of course. And they reckon that if FIFA run it themselves and sell the commercial and broadcast rights centrally, it will be quite lucrative. Certainly more so than all these friendlies being sold piecemeal by each nation.
Q: Just how much money are we talking?
A: It will vary by region, but a European nation winning the GNL could earn up to $50 million for the initial stage -- which is just six games -- plus an additional $25m if they win it all. If, say, England were to win it, that would represent a 15 percent increase in revenue ... and they're one of the richest FAs. But that pales by comparison with the revamped Club World Cup proposal.
Q: Oh? Tell me more.
A: So instead of the Confederations Cup, you'd have a quadrennial competition for 24 clubs. Think Champions League meets World Cup, but held in June. Think Bayern, Real Madrid and Manchester United plus, obviously, teams from other confederations, all of them duking it out at the end of the European season. For the clubs, it could mean as much as an additional $60m to $90m, plus a chance to expand their global footprint.
Here, it's not just about the money, though. It's also about the balance of power. Such a competition, you'd imagine, could challenge the Champions League. That's important, too. Clubs, especially the superclubs, are driving the commercial development of the game. Rather than sharing it with UEFA, FIFA would be getting a slice, as well. It would make it more appealing for the clubs, too, I'd imagine: not only do they get more money but they'd get more leverage, too. If push comes to shove, they could even pit FIFA and UEFA against each other.
Q: OK, so far you've told me how much cash he's going to hand out. But how is he going to pay for it? I'm sure he's very confident in his ability to sell sponsorships and broadcast rights, but surely that's a massive gamble?
A: It would be a huge gamble, though he says there's a group of investors willing to partner with FIFA and guarantee as much as $25 billion. We don't know who is behind it -- though they've already set up an office in London's Mayfair -- but they'd be happy with a 49 percent stake in a joint venture.
Q: That's crazy money ... how is this going to end up? And is it good for the game?
A: I doubt the stakeholders will go for it without knowing who the investors are. But if they're legit and the cash is there, well, money talks. And Infantino is in a hurry to turn things around. He needs to cement his position at FIFA and deliver on his election promises.
All told, if we don't end up with more matches (which remains to be seen), if more money can be made by not playing meaningless international friendlies and preseason club tournaments (again, TBD) and if the money does find its way back into grassroots development as Infantino promises (here, it's up to ensuring he sticks to his word on compliance, transparency and good governance), then maybe it's not such a bad thing. But we'll all want to keep a close eye on it.