It has been floated as an idea on occasion in the past, but biennial FIFA World Cups (both men’s and women’s) were formally proposed in May this year by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation at FIFA’s 71st congress.
Arguments for hosting World Cups every two years include the increased opportunities for more nations to host the event, injured players having more of a chance of playing in the next one, and, of course, more frequent income for the governing body, some of which would be allocated for development. Arguments against include player fatigue, clashes with an already overwhelmed sporting calendar (including events like the Olympics), and increased risks to clubs’ seasons through player injury while on international duty. And that’s without even touching the “what do the fans want?” debate.
There are arguments on both sides, strategic and financial. But the situation has spilled into a very public disagreement between two very powerful governing bodies – and neither FIFA nor UEFA are keeping quiet. In fact, UEFA’s president, Alexander Ceferin, not only made his objections clear but threatened a potential boycott. This was followed up, last week, with a comprehensive statement on the four ‘dangers’ of a biennial World Cup. The European Club Association also issued a statement on impact of the plans and lack of consultation. FIFA are, for their part, continuing to press on with a feasibility study.
Which brings us to issues of governance. How does something that would so fundamentally impact not only the sport that your organisation has responsibility over but also other organisations that you are a member of (such as the IOC) get floated without first engaging with the main stakeholders? Despite everything, it seems as if lessons were not learnt from the European Super League debacle earlier this year. Or at least not the fundamental one: you need to engage with your main stakeholders (fans, players, clubs, etc) before you decide to forge ahead with your exciting new ground-breaking plan. Discussions often help to bring a bit of practicality to the initial overexcitement a “new idea” can generate. It can also decrease perceived differences, diffusing situations before they reach the stage of publically thrown insults.
So what constitutes good governance when it comes to decision-making? And is consultation always the answer? Decision-making, if you are a private enterprise, does not need to involve consultation, though there is a reason why (a) successful companies tend to have an active and diverse board of directors and (b) most firms conduct market research and feasibility studies before publically announcing plans for change. Given FIFA’s structure, there are two opposing drivers at force here: in order to get onto the agenda, someone needs to propose it at their congress (as was done). Consulting with stakeholders before proposing this may be seen as less transparent (and FIFA have been working hard on improving their transparency). However, consulting with stakeholders before putting forward a proposal in a governing organisation is also key to getting a feel for where the problems lie (money, player fatigue, sport calendar clashes, to name a few) and whether or not they are solvable.
And then there is the gender angle – good governance should consider changes holistically. FIFA, after all, “exists to govern football and to develop the game around the world”. However, proposing biennial World Cups on the assumption that other major players (like UEFA) would move their mega-events, will inevitably have an impact on the “single biggest growth opportunity in football today [which] remains a top priority for FIFA”: the women’s game. In fact, this forms one of UEFA’s four areas of concern: that women’s football will be “deprived of exclusive slots and overshadowed by the proximity of top men’s events”. Which brings us back to FIFA trying to square a circle.
Much governance reform has occurred at FIFA over the last few years, but there is clearly some way to go. Perhaps it’s time for FIFA to consider their decision-making processes, given the damage to their reputation that the public in-fighting a proposed change can lead to.
Principal Lecturer, Faculty of Business & Law
University of Portsmouth