After the controversy caused by his eve-of-tournament brain dump, Gianni Infantino got the memo: fewer words, more numbers.
Speaking to the media for the first time since telling us all how biased, lazy and racist we are, the FIFA president was in business-as-usual mode on Friday as he raced through the 18 things he decided while we were having breakfast.
The first announcement was the least surprising: Qatar 2022 is the “best ever” World Cup. Better than his “best World Cup ever” in Russia four years ago, which in turn was better than his predecessor Sepp Blatter’s “best” World Cup at Brazil 2014, which was better than… you get the idea.
Anyway, once the organisation that gives us the annual The Best awards show had cleared up where Qatar 2022 fits on football’s Mount Rushmore, we moved on to the main events. And there were so many of them.
So, let us set out Infantino’s news grenades and explain why some may be duds, while others could blow football apart.
FIFA’s 2023-26 budget
There is a school of thought in global sports politics that you should always start with the money. It’s what they came for and most of the audience will stop listening once they have heard how much is coming their way.
Infantino does not always follow the script, but he stuck to it here. FIFA is going to distribute $9.7bn (£7.8bn) to its 211 member associations over the next four years, almost half as much again as it shared out over the past four years.
FIFA’s ever-expanding revenues are what make each World Cup better than the last one. That might sound very mercenary but about two-thirds of FIFA’s membership would go bust tomorrow without the global governing body’s financial backing and that is almost entirely generated by the men’s World Cup.
That national headquarters? FIFA paid for it. The training centre? Yep, that was World Cup money. The salaries of the national team’s coaching staff? All FIFA cash.
Infantino promised he would double this money when he was first elected in 2016 and he is well on the road to tripling it now. Denmark, Norway and anyone else who wants to withhold their applause when he is given another term as FIFA president by acclamation in March, that’s fine, you sit on your hands. Everyone else will be on their feet clapping like Duracell bunnies.
Expanded Club World Cup and other diary matters
Having dealt with the cash, Infantino moved onto the calendar.
Dates do not tend to get as much attention as the money but they should because the latter does not happen without the former, and deciding when things happen is one of FIFA’s most important, and least discussed, roles.
Basically, all professional football has to fit around FIFA’s international match calendar, which is a grand schedule that tells everyone when the major international tournaments and their qualifying competitions will take place. It is decided every four to eight years, and the domestic and continental club competitions work around these dates.
The current calendar expires at the end of 2024. In terms of things that need to be resolved pretty damn soon, it is hard to think of anything that trumps the calendar.
Which is why Infantino’s announcement that the 37 members of the FIFA Council had just backed his plan to expand the annual Club World Cup from its current seven-team format to not the 24-team tournament he had hoped to stage in 2021, but a 32-team monster in 2025, was so eye-catching.
Why? Because the money mentioned in the previous section is still only about a third of what UEFA earns thanks to its annual club competitions, namely the Champions League. Infantino does not need to read the European governing body’s annual accounts to know this; he used to work there.
So, ever since arriving at FIFA HQ, the 52-year-old Swiss-Italian has been trying to move the global governing body into the club game.
The decision to expand the Club World Cup to 24 teams and stage it in the window that used to be occupied by the World Cup warm-up event, the Confederations Cup, was made at a FIFA Council meeting in Miami in March 2019. UEFA hated the idea but was outvoted.
The first bigger, better Club World Cup was meant to be held in China two summers ago but COVID-19 intervened, not that anyone really complained.
Infantino has never met a tournament that could not be bigger and better, even tournaments that have never actually been staged. So, I suppose we should not have been entirely shocked when he told us the Club World Cup had now grown by another eight teams.
Which teams? Who knows? Details, details, details.
“Textbook Infantino,” texted one senior European club source. “Announce first, engage second. Typically, cause major fallout third.”
UEFA does not like the idea because it threatens the Champions League’s status as the unofficial world series of club football; the big domestic leagues are not keen because they worry its prize money will further skew competition at home; the players’ unions are worried about adding more games to an already congested calendar; clubs unlikely to be involved just despair at the unfairness of it all; and clubs likely to be involved are not sure if it is worth their while or not. Make them an offer and find out.
When Infantino first started talking about major changes to the calendar in 2021, the Premier League, along with its counterparts on the continent, made its objections clear.
“The Premier League is committed to preventing any radical changes to the post-2024 FIFA international match calendar that would adversely affect player welfare and threaten the competitiveness, calendar, structures and traditions of domestic football,” said Premier League chief executive Richard Masters at the time. The Athletic understands his views have not changed.
But Infantino did not only announce his intention to stage a World Cup-sized club tournament in the summer of 2025 (which suggests, we think, he cannot be planning to give it to his friends in Saudi Arabia, right?), he announced new biennial international tournaments, too.
So, starting in 2025, he would like to merge the current September and October international windows, when countries play two matches per window, into one big autumn window in which they would play four. The windows for international games in November, March and June would be unchanged.
However, the March window in even years would be used to stage friendly “FIFA World Series” tournaments between teams from four different confederations. This is a response to complaints that countries from different parts of the world do not get a chance to play — and learn from — each other outside of a World Cup anymore, as, for example, the European teams have swapped friendlies for the more lucrative Nations League.
As ever with Infantino, it is difficult to know which of his ideas he really, really likes, and which ones are just bargaining chips.
Tell you what, let’s compromise on a 16-team Club World Cup in the United States in 2025, shall we?
There will be lawyers
As if all that new action was not exciting enough, Infantino then told his audience at the Qatar National Convention Centre that the council had just taken a “major step towards the establishment of a fairer and more transparent transfer system” by approving the football agent regulations he has been working on for at least five years.
Why so long?
Where do you start?
The president was not in the mood for details, so we shall have to wait to see what has actually been approved, but the basic measures are a mandatory licensing system for agents to weed out the cowboys, a ban on agents acting for all three parties in a transfer and, most controversially, a cap on commissions.
The original proposal, which has been volleyed backwards and forwards since 2018, was for a 10-3-3 approach to maximum commissions: 10 per cent of the transfer fee when working for a selling club and three per cent of a player’s basic salary when either working for the buying club or representing the player. If an agent acts for both the buying club and the player, they can double the commission to six per cent of the player’s salary.
FIFA somewhat tipped its hat that Friday would be D-Day for its war with the super-agents — and that is what is coming — when it published its annual international transfers report on Thursday. That revealed clubs have paid agents $623m this year in fees from cross-border transfers alone, an increase of almost a quarter on 2021.
But the agents have been waiting for this moment. In 2019, some of the biggest names in the business — Jonathan Barnett, Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola — joined forces to set up The Football Forum. Raiola has since died but his partners remain committed to the fight against caps and we shall now see if the rumours of a $10m legal fighting fund are true.
And it will not only be a few rich individuals FIFA must fight to get these reforms over the line. The football intermediary business is in the middle of a period of rapid consolidation. World football’s governing body could find itself in multiple courtrooms around the world against Barnett & Co, other agents’ groups and some very large American sports and entertainment agencies.
Any other business?
Yes, in the blizzard of announcements about more football matches, Infantino mentioned a few that should not cause too many arguments, providing they are properly resourced.
Because as well as the 32-team men’s Club World Cup and new international mini-tournaments, we got commitments to create annual under-17 world championships for boys and girls, an expanded women’s Olympic tournament to bring it into line with the men’s 16-team competition, and a women’s Club World Cup.
We also learned that Morocco’s reward for so persistently bidding for tournaments and winning hearts in Qatar is the right to host the postponed 2022 Club World Cup. It had been rumoured that Saudi Arabia was in the hunt for that one but maybe they are keeping their powder dry for bigger prizes down the road.
The FIFA Council has announced that Morocco will host the 2022 #ClubWC! ? pic.twitter.com/y6p0EBYovP
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) December 16, 2022
Speaking of which, Infantino had some good news of his own to share.
It turns out that the four-year term he has almost completed is not his second, as many had believed (given the fact he has been elected twice), but is actually his first, because the 2016-19 term he served was not a full term. He was merely completing the one Blatter started in 2015.
This means that his unopposed re-election in Rwanda in March will herald the start of a glorious second four-year term, and not a valedictory third term.
We shall have to wait until 2027 for that to start, by which time the men’s World Cup will have grown to 64 teams, the Club World Cup will be an annual 48-team affair with 16 groups of three, and the new agent regulations will have reached the appeal-court stage.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)