Since the first FIFA men’s World Cup nearly 100 years ago, the planet’s biggest sporting event has been scheduled every four years. That tradition could be set to change if the vision of current FIFA president Gianni Infantino comes to pass: He’s pushing to hold the men’s World Cup every two years.
The proposal has ignited significant debate around the globe, with fans, coaches, players and entire continental governing bodies taking sides.
It’s an idea that is believed to be supported by 166 of the 210 member associations of FIFA, according to an ESPN report from early September. And Infantino recently said that he believed the majority of associations would vote in favor of it though no vote has been scheduled.
But some of the high-profile opponents include European governing body UEFA, which through its president Aleksander Ceferin, has stated publicly on multiple occasions that it will not concede to the new calendar without a fight.
Recently, global star Kylian Mbappe came out against the plan, citing the match overload on the top players and the lack of quality that overdoing it can produce: “It’s a special thing because it’s every four years … If you have it every two years it can start to be normal to play a World Cup. I want to say it’s not normal. It’s something amazing that you get to play maybe once or twice in your life.”
Here are the latest updates on where things stand and what it could mean for the sport if the plan is approved or rejected.
World Cup every two years: Latest updates
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter has come out as against the proposal, tweeting on January 5 that he believes the proposal would be damaging to the game on the club level.
Concerning the biennial World Cup: We must not forget that the basis of our game are the clubs and their impact to society; and if only the national teams play the club loses its right to exist, therefor a clear NO to the 2-year-rhythm of the World Cup. #FIFA #UEFA #biennialWC
— Joseph S Blatter (@SeppBlatter) January 5, 2022
FIFA released a comprehensive report to its member associations on Dec. 20 that detailed the benefits of the proposal, including the estimate that a revamped international calendar with a World Cup every two years would generate $4.4 billion in additional revenue per four-year cycle. With the additional income, the split among the member associations would see an average of $16 million in additional revenue for each member association.
In addition, the FIFA report cited a commissioned independent study which estimated that the plan would increase GDP by $180 billion and see more than two million jobs created per four-year cycle.
UEFA, which opposes the plan, released its own statement claiming European member associations could actually stand to lose over $2-$3 billion per four-year cycle due to lost sponsorships and media revenue. FIFA countered this claim by stating it would set up a $3.5 billion “solidarity fund” to make up any differences that associations experience as a result of the changes.
Another UEFA counter to the two-year plan: Fears that the women’s game could see a dip in revenue due to a lack of exposure and interest given the spotlight that the men’s World Cup would command. But there’s a FIFA advisory group that’s also studying the feasability of expanding the women’s World Cup to a two-year cycle.
UEFA won’t be happy as well about Infantino’s mention on January 4 that the European Championships could also move to a two-year cycle if the World Cup indeed pushes forward with this proposal.
“The Euros would also take place every two years,” Infantino said. “In Europe, there is resistance because there is a World Cup every week with the leagues and the best players in the world but that isn’t the case for the rest of the world: it’s a month a year and we need to find a way to truly include the whole world in football.”
What is FIFA’s World Cup proposal?
Quite simply, the FIFA proposal is a plan to hold the World Cup every two years. The proposal was initially floated by Saudi Arabia in May, and has gained significant steam since. It’s a plan spearheaded by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who now serves as FIFA’s head of Global Football Development.
As it stands, the World Cup is held every four years, as it has since 1930, with the only interruptions to that steady cycle coming in 1942 and 1946 due to World War II. It’s on a different four-year cycle compared to the summer Olympics and the continental championships for national teams (Euros, South America’s Copa America and the Asian Cup). If the World Cup plan passes, those continental championships would be sandwiched in during odd years.
At this point it’s unclear how FIFA would plan to alter the qualifying processes for both the World Cup and the continental championships to ensure the calendar does not become untenable. FIFA has already ratified and implemented a plan to expand the World Cup from 36 teams in its current structure to 48 teams, with the first expanded World Cup coming in 2026.
The sense is that this biennial World Cup proposal would allow FIFA to develop more regular touchpoints with fans by hosting major international events every single year that capture the world’s attention and dominate the news cycle. This would ensure FIFA remains relevant during what would have formerly been off years, and keep the brand in the public eye for sponsorship and revenue purposes.
What are the positive & negative impacts of the proposal?
FIFA’s latest proposal lays out all the benefits the organization believes will come from the two-year World Cup cycle.
Most of the detailed benefits revolve around increased revenue or increased visibility of the game. FIFA also touched on an increase in GDP as a result of the added events, which doesn’t come as a surprise, as FIFA often touts its shared benefits to national and international economies when searching for World Cup host countries.
The most obvious and concerning negative impact of the proposal is the continued feeding of a bloated match schedule. Players and managers have openly complained about an already crowded fixture calendar, with both club and international committments seeing the top players stretched thin.
For example, across the 2020-21 season, Manchester United playmaker Bruno Fernandes played in a total of 72 matches for his English club and Portugal, accumulating over 5,500 minutes played. Another example is Barcelona youngster Pedri, who was the talk on social media for his regular deployment across competitions for club and country. His 19-year-old legs racked up 62 appearances and a whopping 4,368 minutes.
These figures would only increase with additional World Cup tournaments and associated qualifiers, adding matches to the calendar and potentially hurting other competitions which would be forced to take a back seat to the World Cup.
The risk of injury increases with the added workload and travel, which is not appealing for the clubs that pay the players’ salaries and could be forced to rest them in key matches due to the commitments. Clubs that cannot afford deep rosters to replace their stars would feel the impact of injury or forced rest in a bigger way.
The conversation among fans revolves around the potential dilution of the event’s significance. With the competition held every two years, would it feel less important and less special, eroding the meaning of the tournament and the value of a victory? Some have pointed to the UEFA Champions League which is held every year, but has only gained in prestige.
On January 26, Infantino suggested at the Assembly of the Council of Europe that a benefit of the proposal would be the assistance of African migrants attempting to flee to Europe.
“This topic is not about whether we want a World Cup every two years, but about what do we want to do for the future of football,” Infantino said. “We need to find ways to include the whole world to give hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea. We need to give opportunities, to give dignity. Not by charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate.”
The comments brought widespread criticism on social media and from racism and ethics watchdogs.
Who supports and opposes the new plan?
Although a group called Football Supporters Europe has come out against the plan, FIFA claims that the majority of fans are in favor of the new proposal. It shared the results of a survey that revealed overwhelming support for the plan.
Among the national associations that will ultimately vote on it, there is support from the members of the African governing body CAF, which has gone public to state its support for the new plan, voting to ratify the proposal at its General Assembly in late November.
“If the FIFA study concludes it is feasible, CAF will fully support hosting the men’s and women’s FIFA World Cup every two years,” the CAF resolution read. The African confederation is a powerful force given the sheer number of member nations (54) in its ranks, meaning full CAF support can often sway any vote that FIFA holds.
The Asian confederation (46 member nations) has not yet committed one way or the other, but the sense is that its membership is generally in favor, with a number of countries already openly declaring support for the plan. The initial proposal also came from a country based in the Asian confederation (Saudi Arabia).
The North American confederation (CONCACAF), which also represents Central America and the Caribbean and is comprised of 35 national associations, is also open to the proposal. CONCACAF’s president has also recently floated other potential variations to the biennial World Cup plan.
Many of the 135 countries in Asia, Africa and the CONCACAF and Oceania regions have never qualified for a World Cup and are likely not to qualify any time in the near future. The thinking is that they can be swayed by the promise of increased revenue, prioritizing balance sheets over other concerns.
Formally against the proposal are heavyweights UEFA (Europe, 55 nations) and CONMEBOL (South America, 10 nations), which are a powerful duo that represent the vast majority of teams that make up the top tier of the FIFA rankings. UEFA president Ceferin has been entrenched in his position against the plan, while CONMEBOL also released a harshly worded and defiant statement in late October. Both have threatened to boycott a biennial World Cup.
“There are no reasons, benefits or justification for the change promoted by FIFA,” read the CONMEBOL message. “In view of this, the 10 countries that make up CONMEBOL confirm that they will not participate in a World Cup organised every two years. The project in question turns its back on almost 100 years of world football tradition, ignoring the history of one of the most important sporting events on the planet.
The two confederations recently joined forces commercially and competitively with the opening of a joint office in London and the planned participation of South American teams in UEFA’s Nations League tournament.
As mentioned before, Sepp Blatter’s public stance against the proposal is also notable, as someone who was significantly involved in World Cup and media negotiations. For sure, it’s a bit easy for him to have a clearer vision of the effect a 2-year World Cup cycle has on the game itself without being clouded by money, and it’s a bit rich now given Blatter himself was involved in the corrupt 2022 World Cup negotiations, with his head turned by money above all else then.
The next FIFA Congress is set for March 2022 in Doha, Qatar, but there are no plans for a vote to be held on the topic at that time. But it will need to happen soon with the current FIFA international match calendar only running through 2023 (women) and 2024 (men).