by Umaid Wasim
MOSCOW: Since being elected FIFA president two years ago, Gianni Infantino has set about changing the landscape of world football. In his bid to win the presidency of the world’s football governing body, he promised an increase in teams at the World Cup as well as development funding. He’s done both of those things — increasing development funding to member associations by four times although a 48-team World Cup would seemingly dilute the quality of the quadrennial global football spectacle.
On Friday, sitting at the press conference room here at the Luzhniki Stadium, he pointed out to the fact that Croatia qualifying for the final of this year’s ‘best ever’ World Cup was an indication of increasing quality. And he reiterated that his plans to start a Global Nations League were an attempt to close the gap in quality between the teams across the world.
The tournament, which Infantino tried to push before the start of this year’s World Cup with a consortium promising $25 billion for 12 years for that and an expanded Club World Cup, sees regional groups with promotion and relegation system, leading to intercontinental finals brackets in seven divisions. The pinnacle of that would be an eight-team mini-tournament of teams from each of the continents, to be hosted in odd-numbered years.
It is aimed at replacing international friendlies with more competitive fixtures, and more competition means more revenue. It would also see lowly-ranked countries like Pakistan play against teams from other continents. Pakistan have never played a team from outside Asia. Playing regularly against teams from other continents might be key in bridging the competitive gap that exists between say teams of Europe or South America and Africa, Asia or Central America.
“We need to make sure we raise the quality of football from around the world,” said Infantino, who appeared at the World Cup’s closing ceremony in peculiar fashion, wearing a tracksuit that is worn by the volunteers of the tournament. “When I was working at UEFA [before FIFA], I laid out the plan for the Nations League there and also club-licensing and financial fairplay to reduce the gap between teams. Now I have to work around the world to bridge that gap.
“The Forward Programme is already offering increased funding than before but it’s not about investing lots of millions. It’s about making sure that the money is invested at the right place. Over the years, I’ve seen that some national teams play only four matches a year. How can you improve your skills if you don’t play? We have to create meaningful games. We need to invest there and think of new competitions again. That is what the Global Nations League is about.”
Infantino came under intense fire earlier this year when he did not disclose the background of the consortium that was offering FIFA the $25billion funding for the two tournaments. The offer was immediately rejected by the FIFA Council, which sought more clarity from Infantino. Details have since emerged that is has been led by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank and other investors from China and Saudi Arabia. It is expected to come up again for discussion after the World Cup.
For now, though, Infantino was gloating about how this was ‘the best’ World Cup ever. “For a couple of years, I was saying it would be the best World Cup ever, today I can say that with more conviction,” he said, citing unexpected results, fan interest and digital drive figures.
“I would like to thank everyone. The main actors are on the pitch — the players, referees and coaches — but, of course, there are also all those who have worked to make sure everything has worked smoothly, the Russians. A big thank you to the Russian government and the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the local organising committee, the Russian Football Union, the volunteers, the heart and smile of the World Cup, all those people, more than 100,000, who helped in one capacity or another.”