If anything has defined the landscape of world football in 2021, it has been the desire to shift from the traditional to a new order of competition. In April, European football was hit with the unexpected, if not exactly unprecedented, news that a number of its most influential clubs had signed up for a splinter Super League. While fierce public backlash saw nine of the founding members back down from the idea, the stage was set for a year of upheaval.
The second half of the year brought its own peculiar agenda, with world football governing body Fifa angling for a shift to a biennial World Cup tournament as part of a wider revamp of the football calendar.
The World Cup has been held every four years since its inception in 1930 and is the most widely viewed sporting event in the world. Fifa audits estimate that the 2018 tournament in Russia pulled in over 3.5 billion viewers and around $5.3 billion (about R71 billion), both record highs. Despite this, Fifa president Gianni Infantino has based the case for a greater frequency of the competition in part on dwindling global interest in the game, and in part on securing greater access to funds for the development of football worldwide.
“It’s more high-level competition, more possibility of giving hope and excitement to the world and more hope of giving the world the possibility of hosting a World Cup. When it was decided that the World Cup would take place every four years, there were only 40 teams. Now we are 211 [member associations],” Infantino said.
The proposal was met with mixed reaction. While Europe and South America largely derided the idea, member associations from Africa came out in favour of it. North American and Asian football confederations said a feasibility study should be undertaken. In total, 166 out of the 211 member associations were in favour of looking into the possibility, threatening a split in international football.
The leadership of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), under Patrice Motsepe, has made its stance clear from the start. “Side by side with the [African] Super League is to have a World Cup every two years,” Motsepe said in October during a visit to Ghana. “African football must be put in a fundamental position to benefit financially.”
That cuts to the heart of the matter and gives the clearest explanation for the dynamic of the split, which is essentially between the haves and the have-nots. In non-World Cup years, Fifa makes roughly a fifth of its World Cup revenue. With most of the funding and wealth concentrated in the European game, and in light of their inherent economic disadvantages, developing federations feel that they need a jump-start in order to compete.
Questions and doubts
The concern for many then is whether Fifa is genuinely doing it for the good of its underfunded member associations, which are in the majority, or is this economic reality merely a convenient excuse for it to push through a plan for more money and influence over the world game?
This is a pertinent question for many because of the origins of the idea. The proposal came not from the disadvantaged nations whose interests Fifa purport to be protecting, but from oil-rich Saudi Arabia. (To be fair, the initial incarnation of the idea was the brainchild of former Fifa president Sepp Blatter more than 20 years ago.)
There are more specific African concerns, too. The impact of a biennial World Cup on the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) would be largely detrimental, especially since it is held biennially and has its own qualification process. How would such an upheaval to the calendar affect African football?
Also, considering the proliferation of stadiums that become white elephants after a World Cup has come and gone, how desirable a carrot is the promise of more nations hosting tournaments and then ending up with underused facilities afterwards?
Whatever the answers may be, CAF has not sat around waiting to find out. On 26 November, during its general assembly, it officially gave its support for the biennial World Cup proposal.
“[The Afcon] will continue,” Motsepe said by way of an explanation. “But the new format will ensure players will play less games than they historically do. There will be a fundamental review of the competitions and we will ensure these competitions will bring more excitement than ever.”
Player welfare and infrastructure
In all these proposed shifts, from the Super League to the biennial World Cup, player welfare is at the bottom of considerations. Former Nigeria international Mutiu Adepoju, who played in three World Cups and now works as a La Liga ambassador in Africa, says though he is not averse to innovation, the impact that more international tournaments would have on footballers concerns him.
“There is bound to be progress and improvements every year in football,” he said. “But in my opinion, I think it would be too stressful, too much for the players. The players are going to suffer for it because even now there are too many matches. And looking at Africa in relation to Europe and other continents and their level they are at with welfare and technology and taking care of injuries, we are not yet there. It is going to be very difficult.
“There won’t be enough time to organise qualifiers and all that, and if they are playing them every year, there will be a whole lot of matches on the legs of the players, and that will only cause injuries. Health-wise, I think it’s going to be too cumbersome to organise.”
Adepoju does not buy Infantino’s promise that a biennial World Cup would mean more hosting opportunities for Africa.
“How many African countries can boast of the infrastructure to host a World Cup at the moment? Yes, we had it in South Africa. I believe probably Morocco and Egypt would be able to do that. That’s it. I don’t think that Nigeria can even think of hosting the World Cup at this time. It’s not really logical.”
Outside of the CAF bubble, one of the lone voices calling for dialogue and patience on all sides is Chuka Onwumechili, a professor of communication at Howard University in Washington DC. He says African football can benefit from supporting the idea, even though Fifa may have ulterior motives and CAF may be going along with it for less than noble purposes.
“There are several upsides to the biennial World Cup, particularly for Africa, but also for other continents that aren’t Europe,” he said. “You have to look at what the current situation is. Right now, most of the money in football is generated in Europe, not in other continents. CAF has to look at this and say, look, how can we generate more funds? The biennial World Cup offers them that opportunity to generate more funds to run football on the continent.
“There are at least three key points that define the potential benefits. One is the access to funds for the football associations to run a lot of their programmes. There are many countries in Africa that cannot afford to run their football programmes year-round. They depend on government funds to do this, and sometimes those funds are not forthcoming. So here is an opportunity to access more funds to run their programmes.
“The second [is] it would aid faster development of the game within the continent itself. Playing against very good opposition every two years – there is nothing better in terms of development. We have seen that already in terms of the underage competitions and in the development of women’s football.
“The third is that this offers us the ability to create a better calendar, because if you’re going to create a World Cup every two years, essentially it means the entire calendar of football in the world will have to be reshuffled. And from what I’ve seen, it provides some months where nothing but international football takes place, meaning this constant struggle between clubs and countries would be over. The alternative is the calendar getting more congested if something is not done.”
Motsepe’s alliance with Infantino – and the latter’s increasing influence and footprint in matters of African football – has understandably led to some concluding that CAF simply rubber-stamps the Fifa president’s ideas. The adoption, also during CAF’s general assembly, of the widely lampooned African Super League has only served to add fuel to the fire, and has many observers despairing over the future of African football.
It is easy to see why Infantino has his hand so firmly on the pulse of Africa, to the point of sending Fifa’s former chief officer of its member associations, Véron Mosengo-Omba, to act as CAF’s secretary general. The continent accounts for 54 votes, a large bloc that is important to Infantino’s continued power at the helm of Fifa.
Onwumechili, however, says this can be leveraged politically and need not to be wholly negative. “CAF really should seek this kind of collaboration,” he said. “However, it does not mean that you are joined at the hip to Fifa. There are certain cases where your interests will differ from Fifa’s, and in such cases you need to stress the things that are in your interest that may differ.
“One particular example I can give is the time to stage the Afcon. Fifa wants the Afcon in the summer, but I don’t think it’s to CAF’s benefit to have it in the summer because of the climate in most parts of the continent. So this is one issue where you can differ. But there are also several issues on which you can work with Fifa because those interests are shared, so it’s important to look at these issues case by case.
“There is little doubt in my mind that the biennial World Cup will provide more income for Africa. The current conflict you are seeing is essentially people who have estimated the amount of money coming into the game and the current struggle is to see who gets the largest piece of that cake. That’s what this is all about.”