Infantino eyes reboot for football to avoid crisis

Updated March 24, 2020

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The future of football could be fewer games and fewer top competitions to help avoid a financial crisis. — AFP/File
The future of football could be fewer games and fewer top competitions to help avoid a financial crisis. — AFP/File

GENEVA: The future of football could be fewer games and fewer top competitions to help avoid a financial crisis, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a newspaper interview published Monday.

With football around the world in near-total shutdown and no end in sight because of the coronavirus pandemic, Infantino said the sport risked going into recession.

“We don’t know when things will return to normal,” Infantino said in the interview with Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport published on his 50th birthday.

“Without panic, let’s face it, we will play when we can without endangering anyone’s health. Health first. Then everything else. And the rest, for managers, means hoping for the best but also preparing for the worst.

“But let’s look at the opportunities. Maybe we can reform world football by taking a step back. There needs to be an evaluation of the global impact. Let’s all together save football from a crisis that risks becoming irreversible.”

Infantino said different formats could be an answer, with fewer, but more interesting tournaments.

“Maybe fewer squads, but more balance. Fewer, but more competitive, matches to safeguard the health of the players,” he said. “It’s not science fiction, let’s talk about it. Let’s quantify the damage, see how to cover it, make sacrifices and let’s start again.”

Before the pandemic, Infantino added to the congested football calendar by expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams for the 2026 edition, and by trying to launch a 24-team Club World Cup next year.

The inaugural edition of the latter tournament in China was delayed last week after UEFA and South American soccer body CONMEBOL postponed their championships by one year to 2021. That was to give domestic leagues time to try to finish their seasons.

The shutdown means there are already too few dates in the FIFA-managed calendar to complete the scheduled qualification paths for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The pressure now on football stakeholders, many with conflicting interests, is likely to force a debate on the squeezed schedule that the pandemic has exposed.

Some influential clubs in Europe are pushing to get more guaranteed games in a bigger Champions League, and 20-team top leagues could be under pressure to make cuts. Those include leagues in England, Spain and Italy.

FIFA announced last month a task force of officials from member federations, clubs, leagues and player unions that would look at drafting a new match calendar from 2024. That work could also now include the next four years to adjust to the current shutdown.

Infantino revealed he was working on temporary derogations on footballers’ contracts to avoid the June 30 deadline.

“Now let’s think about the national team calendar, and about temporary changes and dispensations for the regulations on the status of players and transfers.

“To protect contracts and adapt registration periods. Tough measures are needed tough. But there is no choice. We will all have to make sacrifices.”

Infantino, meanwhile, dismissed talk of a planned European Super League for the top clubs.

“It makes me laugh,” he said. “And what else? From what I see, others are already planning and organising tournaments around the world, outside the institutional structures, and without respect for how domestic, continental and world football are organised.

“In the future we must have at least 50 national teams that can win the World Cup, not just eight European and two South American ones.

“And 50 clubs that can win the Club World Cup, not just five or six European ones. And twenty of these 50 will be Europeans, which seems to me better than today’s five or six. But this is not the time to talk about it now.”

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2020