Business Of Sports: Fifa launches money-go-round but clubs are worlds apart

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 23, 2019 - December 29, 2019.
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The world has never really been club football’s oyster. Nations regard the quadrennial Fifa World Cup as the ultimate prize — and the club equivalent is a pale shadow. Top sides in Europe treat the annual mid-season traipse across the globe to play clubs they have never heard of as an inconvenience — “Mickey Mouse” even. But Fifa claims to have backing of US$25 billion to make the mouse roar.

The world football governing body’s plans to expand the club competition and the inconvenience factor both came into focus last week as European champions Liverpool were required to field two separate teams on successive days in different events.

It raised doubts as to whether their squad — or any squad — can cope with the physical demands of five simultaneous competitions. Cynics are already saying that ballooning from a low-voltage seven-team tourney to a glittering 24-team extravaganza is typical of how Fifa “solves” a problem by creating a bigger one. But there is more to it than that.

Under the terms of the current incarnation in Qatar, Liverpool, along with their South American counterpart Flamengo, were allowed to skip the early stages and parachute straight into the semi-finals.

But even though just 180 minutes from a possible coronation as world champions, the Reds would rather not have had to break their stride in what has been a well-calibrated march toward the English Premier League title. That is their holy grail.

As manager Jurgen Klopp led the “A” team to the Gulf, fringe players and kids were left to negotiate a Carabao Cup quarter-final back in England — which they lost badly, by 5-0, to Aston Villa. Three of them then had to fly overnight to bolster the bench in Doha. It had the German boss calling talk of enlarging the Champions League “absolute bollocks”, let alone what Fifa are cooking up. “You all like watching us suffer,” he added.

Even a triumph (in the early hours of Sunday) would rank no higher than third on the Reds’ list of priorities behind the Premier League and Champions League. While their fans are never shy to flaunt new silverware, some may even put the FA Cup and Carabao Cup above it.

The trouble is “the World Club Cup” is far from being as grandiose as its title suggests. With a past chequered by fallow years, revamps and wrangles, it has not been fit to wear the name. It is a situation that Fifa has long been desperate to change.

What makes the suits in Switzerland more bullish about doing so this time are the head-turning sums pledged by “a new group of investors”. Alert to the new corporate interest in football, Fifa has already lined up CVC Capital Partners and Japanese conglomerate Softbank.

Private equity companies could soon take investment in the game to a new level following US-based Silver Lake’s recent US$500 million stake in City Football Group, the parent company of Manchester City.

As the inaugural tournament is to be played in China (in June and July 2021), backing from many sources is expected. The host’s Wanda Group have been partners of Fifa since 2016, while Mengniu Group was an official sponsor of the 2018 World Cup.

With President Xi Jinping a keen football fan and China aiming to bid for the 2030 World Cup, it is a welcome boost to the country’s attempts to develop its football industry. Qatar, meanwhile, will do the honours for the existing format for 2020.

As ever, such ideas are welcomed more by the wider world than by Europeans who see their precious pre-eminence being eroded. Former English Premier League boss Richard Scudamore called the Club World Cup “a competition too far” while a leading Italian official said, “If you keep challenging the way clubs are playing, you will have a backlash.”

Managers like Klopp see the players being worn down and more susceptible to injury as a result of the perpetual treadmill of tournaments. Even so, the signs are that Europe’s club owners will be unable to refuse what is being offered. Other positives are that it is only every four years, shifts to mid-summer and replaces another dud in the Confederations Cup.

The new deal, once confirmed, is part of Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s ambition to make the game more global by raising the profile of teams outside Europe. Laudable though this may appear, opponents dismiss it as an attempt to clip the wings of UEFA which run what is indisputably the best club tournament in the world, the Champions League.

Europe will be granted eight places that will go to the winners of the Champions League and Europa League over the past four years while South America gets six spots. There will be three from Africa, Asia and North and Central America, with Oceania still arguing for one. The tournament will consist of eight groups of three with group winners advancing to the quarter-finals.

A negative for the bold new look is that the line-up for the 2021 event will see many of the same old faces — Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Liverpool — by virtue of their winning the major trophies in Europe over the past two years.

And with representation from all confederations, the gulf in class will be all too glaring. Several of the participants would not be ranked among the top 100 in the world, let alone the top 24. Sadly, to be truly global is to be lopsided.

Not so Fifa’s other plan, however. Emboldened by their new revenue stream, Fifa are even talking of a “World League” for clubs and this would be for the elite. Seen as an even bigger power play against the European body, it was described by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin as “insane”.

He added, “A mad idea that needs to be treated with disdain. It would be hard to think of a more selfish and egotistical scheme. It would clearly ruin football around the world — for the players, for the fans and for everyone connected with the game — all for the benefit of a tiny number of people.”

So, not for the first time in human history, the two major power blocks are lining up to confront each other over what was initially a relatively minor matter.

Fifa will be hoping the new cup will slot into football’s four-year cycle of mega events but the same old names, the same old chasms in standard and the wearing out of players raise grave doubts. The stars may just go through the motions and the prize will still be something most of the elite clubs could do without.

Serious money has a habit of talking seriously but football has always been a law unto itself. Money alone cannot prevent clubs from being worlds apart. And in trying to get the mouse to roar, there is a danger of killing the golden goose.

Bob Holmes is a longtime sports writer specialising in football

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