A few months ago, FIFA announced a radical plan: to host the World Cup every two years instead of four. Led by former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, the initiative claims as objective to reduce meaningless international fixtures and increase high-stakes encounters. Continental competitions, such as the EURO or Copa America, would also become biennial as part of these plans.
On the surface, this sounds great. More World Cups, more EUROs, more Copa Americas; what’s not to love? In reality, however, the idea is misguided at best. While FIFA claim to act in response to increased demand for top international games, the real reason is much simpler. As with much that touches soccer’s governing body, it is about the money. More World Cups, to them, means more tickets, merchandise, broadcasting rights, and sponsorship deals, to name but a few.
Not only is the intent largely financial, it could also have damaging effects on the soccer landscape. And though FIFA have already recruited many legends of the sport to help them promote their vision, there is a growing rift on the matter. This came to a head this week, when UEFA released a statement condemning the proposal. In it, they accused FIFA of a “promotional campaign” and outlined the dangers inherent to such a plan. In addition, the European governing body also bemoaned the lack of direct communication on the subject and demanded greater transparency into its feasibility study.
The current proposal would implement the change in five years, starting in the summer of 2028. Because of this, we’re going to start hearing a lot more about it. And, as such, it is important to understand what is at stake. So let’s take a look at UEFA’s stated concerns.
1. Loss of the mystique…
It is a well-known economic principle that scarcity creates demand. In the World Cup’s case, it is no different. As UEFA put it, the competition’s “quadrennial occurrence gives it a mystique that generations of fans have grown up with.” Removing that mystique could be removing the competition’s allure altogether.
1.1 … for the players
After all, a World Cup triumph is usually the pinnacle of any player’s career. Why? Because even participating in the event is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many. While soccer careers may well last nearly twenty years these days, only the most elite players last that long internationally. Most get half of that at best. As such, they will only play one or two World Cups, three if they are particularly lucky or talented. Success in that competition is thus sacred.
Now imagine what happens when the World Cup is biennial. When ten years for your country brings you five World Cup appearances. Why should a player care as much when a little voice at the back of their head will be telling them “Don’t worry, you’ll get another shot at it soon”? Rather than the be-all-end-all opportunity it is meant to be, the World Cup would be just one competition among a multitude of others.
1.2 … for the fans
And it is no different for fans. Your country winning the World Cup is what dreams are made of, a moment you cherish the rest of your life. Years down the line, supporters of winning nations can tell you exactly where they were and who they were watching with. The star on one’s shirt, a memento to that triumph, is a symbol of pride. But if the World Cup becomes biennial, those feelings would all be severely diluted, if not lost entirely.
Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup across its 21 editions. Brazil have the most with five, followed by Germany and Italy with four. Argentina, Uruguay, and France are the other repeat champions, with two each. Spain and England both have one. This makes for an exclusive club, where member countries get lifelong bragging rights. But if we start seeing a new winner every two years, and inevitably new nations added to that list, the meaning would no longer be the same. “We have a World Cup victory” would quickly become “we only have one World Cup victory,” ruining that feeling forever.
2. Loss of opportunities for smaller nations
UEFA’s second concern is for the smaller countries that compete under their governance. As the largest continental association, Europe has many weaker teams that stand no real chance of qualifying for a major tournament anytime soon. These are nations such as San Marino, Gibraltar, or the Faroe Islands, where players are often semi-professional at best. Because they are unlikely to reach the summer tournaments, the qualifiers are their one shot at international glory. Not by winning, of course, but by simply scoring a goal.
FIFA’s proposal, however, would condense international fixtures. If the World Cup is to be every two years, with continental competitions in the gaps, there would be little time for qualifiers. And because the seeding system would work in favour of bigger nations, weaker teams would not only have fewer games, but they would be exclusively against better opponents. Cue the thrashings and subsequent loss of interest in the sport. For countries already behind, this could have serious adverse effects on the sport’s growth and ruin any chance of someday achieving the impossible.
3. Risk to player health
In light of recent complications with the international break, many are already debating how to ease fixture congestion in packed seasons. Hosting a World Cup every two years is definitely not the answer. As things stand, elite players regularly compete in 50 club games a season. This is without factoring in any international competitions, which can take that number past 60. With the high-intensity demands of these matches, this is clearly not sustainable. It becomes even less so if players no longer get a full summer of rest every two years, as would be the case under FIFA’s proposal.
For players who start most of their team’s games, recuperation is key. The same goes for players with niggling injuries, who might play through some pain with the hope of addressing it in the summer. If their rest during those summer months is cut short, we will then see more and more players miss out on early season games or succumb to preventable injuries caused by fatigue. And players are well aware of this issue, as Ilkay Gündogan made clear during the Super League debacle. So why those responsible keep ignoring it remains a mystery.
4. Threat to the women’s game
It is no secret that women’s soccer is lagging behind the men’s when it comes to support, exposure, and coverage. And though governing bodies have started making some progress of late, there is still a long way to go. Key to the continued growth of the women’s game is then their own international tournaments. The latest Women’s World Cup, for example, saw England reach the semi-finals and enjoy a new wave of support from the casual English supporter. As a direct result, fans paid more attention to and the media provided more coverage of England’s Women’s Super League the following season. The league, its teams, and its players subsequently all grew in stature.
A Men’s World Cup every two years would thus be a massive setback to that progress. Because, if the Men’s World Cup occurs every even year, EUROs and Copa Americas will be forced into the odd ones. As a result, there would no longer be summers exclusively dedicated to women’s tournaments. Even if the tournaments were not to overlap, their proximity would undeniably pull focus away from the women’s competition. And it would also encourage comparison between the two, a misguided notion that further hinders progress.
While the original appeal of more regular World Cups is understandable, it is equally clear that such a plan would be a grave mistake. Though FIFA claims to be responding to demand, a closer look shows that is not the case. Because, of all the entities involved, FIFA are the only ones who would actually profit from it.
A biennial World Cup, in truth, would serve only to damage soccer’s standing. Not only would it endanger the health of the game’s biggest names, it would also weaken its biggest competition’s appeal. FIFA would then be shooting itself in the foot, while also dealing a major setback to the continued growth of the sport, both in smaller nations and the women’s game worldwide. UEFA are thus right to oppose this plan, and fans should follow suit to ensure it never becomes reality.
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