KARACHI: There was a certain ring to four football federations from South Asia backing FIFA’s proposals to holding the World Cup every two years instead of four.
One of those federation chiefs, also the president of the South Asian football body, said they were in agreement with the plan because “there must have been good reason for it being proposed in the first place”.
It was Saudi Arabia which came up with the initial proposal, calling for a ‘feasibility study’ into the impact of staging biennial World Cups for both men and women at the FIFA Congress in May.
FIFA has gone into overdrive since then in pushing that proposal. Last week, 18 former internationals were invited for a two-day summit in Doha with FIFA’s chief of global development Arsene Wenger and gave a ringing endorsement to the plan.
While European and South American football governing bodies, UEFA and CONMEBOL, have rejected outright or criticised the proposals, the feasibility study was welcomed by the Asian Football Confederation, Confederation of African Football and the North and Central American body CONCACAF between Monday and Tuesday.
CAF president Patrice Motsepe, a staunch ally of FIFA president Gianni Infantino who has already overseen the World Cup enlarged to 48 teams from 32 from the 2026 edition, said in a statement that discussions should continue in “an open-minded manner”.
The AFC said it “welcomes the extensive consultation process initiated and led by FIFA in examining the options to optimize the new International Match Calendar”.
It added that it “recognises the natural synergies of organising more meaningful matches, as outlined in the ‘football of tomorrow’ vision [by Wenger].”
The CONCACAF, meanwhile, said in its statement on Monday that it will continue to look at the proposals “constructively”.
Those three continental federations, though, were beaten to welcoming those proposals by the presidents of Bangladesh Football Federation, Football Association of Maldives, All Nepal Football Association and Football Sri Lanka.
“They wanted us to give an opinion and we gave that,” BFF president Kazi Salahuddin, who leads the seven-member South Asian Football Federation, told Dawn on Monday, about nine days after the four federations had released the joint-statement.
“As a former player, I believe it will give the current crop more chances to play at World Cups. It is natural human behavior that there will be opposition to it. It’s a two-way street and of course the pros and cons will be debated before it’s eventually approved.”
He declined to comment that the South Asian nations were backing the proposals because they came from Saudi Arabia, which in 2018 led the formation of the South West Asian Football Federation which later dissolved.
FAM president Bassam Adeel Jaleel did not respond to repeated requests from Dawn seeking comment for this story.
A day before the joint statement was released, the FAM president was at the Saudi Football Federation headquarters where a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to develop football in the island nation of Maldives.
“MoUs with other countries where they can exert an influence are also going to be signed,” one source close to the matter told Dawn.
While active players and managers have all criticised the biennial World Cup plans, those voting in those proposals would be heads of FIFA’s member associations.
Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key political ally for Infantino in recent years. And while FIFA will reap in the financial rewards of organising the money-spinning World Cups every two years instead of four, Saudi Arabia look to be the immediate beneficiaries.
Recent reports suggest they, alongside Egypt, have been looking at potentially co-hosting the next edition of the World Cup — be it in 2028 if the new proposals are approved, or in 2030.
“Sports — and specially football — is an area where the Saudis want to be big players,” James Dorsey, a researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of ‘The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer’, told Dawn on Monday.
“They had failed attempts in the past with regards to getting greater influence when they tried to form the SWAFF. They have fostered close ties with the football federations in Italy and Spain [most notably playing hosts to the season-opening Super Cups of both countries]. They were behind the funding to FIFA to launch the expanded Club World Cup which hasn’t started.
“All that really means is that the major event is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It’s the centre of attention for the whole of the world.”
With the next World Cup already in the Middle East, there is little chance of Saudi Arabia getting to host the 2030 edition by itself but may get a chance as co-hosts with a European or African country.
“The biennial proposal is essentially to speed up that sequencing of World Cup hosting and get it earlier,” added Dorsey. “Saudi Arabia wants the limelight to shift on it immediately after the World Cup ends in Qatar.”
Dorsey also pointed to the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with their allies also at odds over the World Cup proposal.
“Infantino has faced the strongest opposition to the plan by [UEFA president] Aleksander Ceferin,” he said. “Ceferin quashed the plans for the European Super League thanks to support from Qatari-owned Paris St Germain and its president Nasser Al Khelaifi.
“This whole thing is about getting greater influence in the Gulf region.”
At this point in time, Saudi Arabia seems to be winning that race.
“Infantino is doing the bidding of the Saudis,” said Dorsey, “and that’s why we’re seeing this debate on the future of the World Cup.”
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2021