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I remember, as a child, my dream was to play in a World Cup. For all of my friends, everyone I’ve known throughout my life, it was our dream,” retired Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo recently reflected. If anyone knows the importance of the World Cup, it’s him. He played in four of them — lifting the trophy twice, while cementing himself as one of the sport’s most iconic players around the turn of the millennium.
Referring to suggestions that the tournament should be held twice as often, Ronaldo continued, “With this change, more and more people will be able to see this dream become a reality.” All the world needs is more World Cups, and it will suddenly be graced with more Ronaldos. He didn’t seem to wonder whether more frequent World Cups would help more players achieve their dreams — or simply see the same players from the usual countries qualifying more often.
Failing to consider that would be fine if Ronaldo was just thinking out loud about how to make dreams come true. Yet in reality, he was weighing in on what could be a defining battle for the sport’s future.
FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, is currently conducting a feasibility study on holding the World Cup every two years, instead of the current clip of every four. This may at first appear to be a benign, if misguided attempt at giving fans more of what they love and democratising participation. But like most sports governing bodies, FIFA has just one thing in mind: profits. On closer inspection, this isn’t just a dumb idea, but the latest salvo in the class war from above that soccer’s biggest organisations and clubs have been waging against fans, players, and staff for years.
In this sense, it’s also indicative of a broader rot festering deep within the sport: soccer’s vampiric stakeholders see it only as a product to be wrung for as much profit as possible, even if this is deeply unpopular or undermines the quality of the game itself. And just as importantly, this view of the game fundamentally misunderstands the fact that players aren’t simply stars they can use to sell jerseys and promote products — they’re workers whose labor makes all of this possible.
Twice as often, double the fun?
You don’t need to be a strident anti-capitalist to be against FIFA’s gambit to run both the men’s and women’s World Cups every two years. Much of the World Cup’s magic lies in it being a rare, seismic event. The four-year wait for each tournament may be agonising, but it infuses every match with meaning — rendering each World Cup an indelible marker of a specific moment in fans’ lives. Players dream of running out onto the world’s biggest stage because they know their chances of appearing in it — let alone winning it — are limited to a few rare opportunities.
Last time out, more than half the planet tuned into the 2018 edition — with more than 1 billion viewers watching the final. So, FIFA doubling the tournament’s frequency could hypothetically help double the joy the World Cup brings. Or, it could ruin the most prestigious and popular sporting event on earth.
When legendary former Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger, now FIFA’s head of global football development, first pushed for a biennial World Cup in March, he cited the importance of meaningful competition, saying, “People must understand what is at stake and only have games with meaning.” It is hard to see how Wenger’s concept, officially proposed by Saudi Arabia in May, would achieve this aim, rather than simply water down its significance.
The amount of soccer on offer is already overwhelming, from domestic and international club competitions to ever-increasing regional and worldwide tournaments for national teams.
Typically a closing marker of each season (though rarely actually the last game), this year’s Champions League final fell on May 29. Less than two weeks later, the European Championship kicked off (alongside other international tournaments on other continents). Italy lifted the Euros title on July 11. Most Premier League teams had already opened their preseason camps by then, and the biggest league in the world gave fans a whopping four weeks to breathe (though even this was filled with exhibition games) before the 2021/2022 English Premier League season began with Arsenal’s humbling loss to the top flight’s newest team, Brentford.
The soccer simply doesn’t stop, and fans aren’t clamouring for more. If they manage to fend off their exhaustion long enough to clamour for anything, they tend to clamour for a break. According to the CIES Football Observatory, a majority of soccer fans think there are too many matches on, particularly between national teams. Fans aren’t just tired of all the games. Indeed, many have already made clear how much they dislike the idea of a biennial World Cup.
Cashing in on the world’s game
The fact that FIFA is acting directly at odds with the supporters that make organised soccer possible is neatly aligned with how FIFA and other major stakeholders view the sport. In their eyes, soccer exists solely to line the pockets of organisers, typically by fleecing the fans. This tallies with decades of brazen commercialisation of the world’s game, a war for the future of the sport waged, and largely won, by undemocratic institutions like FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
Squeezing every profitable drop out of the game isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to international soccer. Fans have only just recovered from the callous, laughably executed attempt by Europe’s biggest clubs to form their own breakaway European Super League this April; now, they have to come to terms with FIFA’s latest attempt to milk football for all it is worth.
If FIFA was motivated by fan interest, it never would have bothered with a feasibility study in the first place, given how unpopular the plan has proven to be. But FIFA cares about revenue above all else. And given that 95 percent of the $5.6 billion it raked in from 2015–18 was generated by the 2018 World Cup, it’s no surprise that FIFA happens to think doubling the number of tournaments is a good idea.
Fans’ disdain toward the proposal won’t be enough to stop FIFA or the numerous retired stars like Ronaldo wheeled out to support the idea — nearly all of whom remain tied to the organisation and/or stand to benefit indirectly from the plan through broadcasting work.
After decades of bribes and openly bought tournament hosting rights, FIFA has become synonymous with corruption — and shown an impressive resistance toward any meaningful reform or improvement. Indeed, soccer as the organisation’s own piggy bank has already driven the governing body to incredible lows. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar — set to be the blood-red culmination of a decade of sportswashing of the Gulf dictatorship — has demonstrated just how far FIFA will go to protect its cash cow.
Awarding the tournament to Qatar (unsurprisingly, on the basis of bribery and not its meagre football traditions or status as a logical choice for host) set off a brutal construction boom, reliant on migrant labourers toiling in abhorrent conditions. Over 6,500 such workers have died since Qatar was tapped to host ten years ago, including 37 workers directly involved with constructing stadiums for the tournament.
FIFAs response to this tragedy has been one of earth-shattering indifference. The inertia of having already awarded the World Cup to Qatar is apparently far too strong to find another host just because the prestigious tournament will be built on the graves of thousands of working people, let alone to even pretend to do anything about it. And while protests from both fans and players against the coming World Cup have been heating up, it’s clear FIFA has no interest in changing course.
Players are workers, too
FIFAs gambit isn’t just rooted in its role in commercialising soccer — it’s only possible given the organisation’s refusal to recognise that ultimately, the players that help to pull in profits are workers. Sure, it can be hard to recognise soccer players as having to work for their wages, especially given that many are some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous athletes. But without them, there would be no World Cup to capitalise on.
And though the big business of soccer is dependent on its players, not every player is Leo Messi. Even at a tournament as prestigious as the World Cup, many participants represent small soccer nations, ply their trade for cash-strapped clubs, and lack the financial independence of the sport’s biggest names. And whether they’re superstars or not, these players deserve a break, not to be forced to suit up for ever more frequent tournaments during what should be their off-season.
FIFA and other large stakeholders’ view of players as mere human capital was laid bare during the pandemic. In many countries, soccer was one of the first things to return after the initial round of lockdowns in spring 2020, even before it was clear whether or not it was safe to do so. While domestic competitions carried on, crying poor in the face of lost TV revenues, even international competitions were quick to return in the midst of global outbreaks. No matter what, the show had to go on.
Players — as well as the coaches, staff, and crew that make playing and broadcasting games possible — carried on while the world crumbled around them, even as many of them felt uncomfortable doing so. According to the international players’ association FIFPRO, the pandemic significantly exacerbated fixture congestion. This wasn’t limited to the richest leagues in the world, but occurred up and down the pyramid, and lead to grim examples like German second division side Dynamo Dresden having to play nine games in twenty-nine days just to finish out their season after finishing quarantine breaks.
Even without COVID-19, soccer players are expected to suit up for a painful number of matches. If it’s too much for fans, it’s certainly too much for players. Spain and Barcelona midfielder Pedro González López, known as Pedri, played a jaw-dropping 72 games for club and country in the 2020/21 season. Even FIFA recognises this is a problem. Moving to a biennial World Cup ostensibly seeks to alleviate fixture congestion: Wenger’s plan entails fewer, albeit longer international breaks and would remove unnecessary or uncompetitive matches.
This seems unlikely to actually reduce the number of international games being played, especially as FIFA has no solution for what will happen to immensely beloved, typically quadrennial continental tournaments and their qualifiers if the World Cup occurs every two years. It’s just a brazen attempt to boost revenue that would happen to also cheapen the importance of a wildly popular tournament.
Instead of being a solution, it would make things worse. But again, FIFA is happy to allow the quality of the sport to suffer if it can make a few people richer, like when it expands tournaments under the guise of “democratising” the sport just to bring in more revenue streams from a bigger base of participant countries. Again, if FIFA cared about protecting the quality of soccer, we wouldn’t be about to hold a 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and then a 2026 tournament expanding from 32 to 48 participant nations.
Instead of addressing glaring inequalities in resources between national teams — or doing anything to curb a broken club system that sees talented players and nearly every drop of cash funnelled to just a few leagues in Europe — FIFA’s solution is simply to play more matches and let the problems solve themselves.
Countering FIFA’s onslaught from above
Thankfully, the initial response to FIFA’s proposal has been overwhelmingly negative. And though it is yet to buckle, FIFA is facing stiff resistance. Big leagues from around the world have spoken out against the move, while UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin has voiced “grave concerns” about the proposal. It’s worth noting that UEFA, along with other regional governing bodies, is likely more concerned about the pressure biennial World Cups would put on continental tournaments like the Euros than the sanctity of the sport.
Though many fans oppose the proposal, the clearest organised response has come from fellow stakeholders, eager to maintain their piece of soccer’s lucrative pie or do their best to maintain the already fragile balance between domestic and international competitions. The swift rejection of the European Super League demonstrated how important supporters — and the pressure they put on governing bodies and clubs — are in checking organisations like FIFA when they pursue such blatant cash grabs.
Unfortunately, it is generally more difficult to organise fans of international soccer than at the club level, where membership and regular attendance from season ticket holders and match-going fans builds more tangible binds of accountability between fans and decision makers.
Yet, there are some promising signs. Football Supporters Europe, an independent network of soccer supporters from throughout the continent, recently put out a statement backed by fans from around the world against the two-year World Cup cycle. Efforts like this will need to be intensified if the World Cup is to remain the beautiful, seismic spectacle fans know and love. Further supporter organisation is equally needed if there is to be any chance of rolling back years of commercialisation. That means ensuring that those that make the most popular sport in the world what it is — the fans that fill the stadiums, the players that take the pitch, and the workers that make all of that possible — can have a say in its future direction.
Thwarting the cynical two-year World Cup proposal and finding a real solution to overwhelming fixture congestion would be a good start.
Dave Braneck is a journalist in Berlin covering sports and politics.
This article was first published on Jacobin. Read it here.