Infantino faces dissent on call with European football heads

·5 min read

If Gianni Infantino was in any doubt how divisive his rule of world football has become, it was revealed to the FIFA president during an hour-long video call with leaders of European federations.

Trying to convince UEFA members to back his plans for biennial World Cups, Infantino instead faced a torrent of criticism in a recording obtained by The Associated Press.

“We trusted you to create an organization that transcends the divisions and brings unity,” Răzvan Burleanu, the Romanian Football Federation president who sits on the FIFA Council, said to Infantino.

Fernando Gomes, the president of the Portuguese federation, reminded Infantino it was Europe that helped to elevate him so unexpectedly from the position of UEFA general secretary to the FIFA presidency in 2016. Now, Gomes said, Infantino was overlooking the concerns of Europe about the damage to the game that would be caused by the envisaged overhaul of the football calendar.

Italian FA President Gabriele Gravina told Infantino he was “very worried" by the plans and said they seem to be opposed by the coaches and players across Serie A.

“Football does not need further tensions but requires a journey that offers an idea of more stability and improved sustainability,” Gravina said.

FIFA’s proposal foresees a tournament in every off-season, rather than one edition each of a World Cup and European Championship in the current four-year cycle. Rather than there being match windows in September, October, November and March for men’s international games, the plan is for one month-long block of games around October and November for tournament qualifiers.

"We don’t see any benefit," Swiss FA president Dominique Blanc told Infantino.

The AP reported on Tuesday that more than a dozen European nations told UEFA they would consider quitting FIFA over biennial World Cups. The six Nordic nations appear leaning toward that.

“If a majority in FIFA decides to adopt the proposal on biennial World Cups,” Finnish federation president Ari Lahti told Infantino, “the Nordic Football Associations will need to consider further actions and scenarios that are closer to our fundamental values than what the current FIFA proposal stands for."

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has already suggested Europe could boycott the World Cup if Infantino pushed ahead with the ending the current quadrennial format.

“I’m seriously seriously asking you and FIFA not to push for a vote because that could have terrible consequences for football,” Ceferin told Infantino.

“I don’t think it would be wise to go for a vote on a matter like that," Ceferin said. "Not just because there will be severe consequences that we will have to take but also because the stakeholders like clubs and leagues don’t have a voting right and this idea is detrimental to their existence.”

Perhaps the first indication was obtained that Infantino might back away from the project he has largely left to be presented by FIFA chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager.

“We will not go ahead as far as I’m concerned with any proposal if anyone was to be harmed,” Infantino said.

The next day, on Wednesday, came an indication of the success of UEFA's resistance when Infantino announced there would only be a summit of the 211 FIFA member nations rather than an extra congress to formally vote on the planned biennial World Cups for men and women.

During Tuesday's UEFA call, no country spoke in favor of the plans. The Spanish federation also spoke up to scrutinize Infantino’s project. Opponents also cited the impact on player welfare of having more frequent tournaments and the potential damage caused to the growing profile of the women’s game by having more men’s competitions.

Scottish Football Association chief executive Ian Maxwell highlighted the limited regard for the lifeblood of the sport — domestic club matches — in the FIFA vision. Maxwell also asked Infantino to consider the “potential impact on sponsorship and potential impact on spectator attendance with a month-long international window.”

It seemed Infantino was so unnerved that he ended up giving credence to a suggestion that would undermine the revolution he is championing. Tiago Craveiro, the general secretary of the Portuguese federation, proposed that FIFA explores the possibility of not allowing teams to compete in consecutive editions if it pushed ahead with biennial World Cups.

“I welcome as well the idea of Thiago to say, well, we need more participation and maybe there is a way of doing that by having two World Cups, but not with the same teams participating,” Infantino said. “I don’t know. This is something that the technical people will study, but this is certainly something that we have to look into.”

Rarely does the FIFA president face such prolonged dissent to his face by such a large audience. But Infantino pitched the reshaping of world football as being necessary to safeguard the future of the sport.

“I believe as well that the enemy of football is not the World Cup or is not FIFA but it is other activities that young boys and young girls are running after today,” Infantino said in closing remarks. “And we need to see how jointly and together we can bring them back to be interested in football. And we want to, as far as I’m concerned, do this all together as we have always been doing in the last few years.”

Infantino did not specify what those “other activities” were.

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Rob Harris, The Associated Press

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