FIFA announced this week that they will conduct a feasibility study into holding the men's and women's World Cups every two years, as opposed to the current system which follows a four-year cycle. It's early days yet, but if FIFA follow through with the proposals, they will ruin a huge part of the magic of the World Cup.
The proposals were brought forward by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation at the annual FIFA conference, and the initial comments from FIFA president Gianni Infantino suggest that there is interest at the highest level in making the changes.
We have to go into these studies with an open mind but we are not going to take decisions which will jeopardise what we are [already] doing. We know about the value of the World Cup, believe me.
I would like to put this discussion in a much broader context, that of the international match calendar. Are we really convinced that playing qualifying games [across the year] is the right way when we are saying that fans want more meaningful games? All these points have to be considered. But we will put the sporting element as the top priority, not the commercial element.
There's a lot to unpack in those comments, but what jumps out immediately is yet another bigwig of a football federation supposedly speaking "on behalf of fans". Infantino seems to suggest that because fans are sick of meaningless friendlies we should have more frequent World Cups, and that that would be something fans would want.
We saw this with the much-maligned Super League proposals in April. People whose sole interest in football is and always has been money, suggesting that they know what match-going fans want. Infantino himself referred to the Super League at the conference, and his comments there will have done little to convince anyone that his heart is in the right place.
I have been working in positions of relevance for decades now and I know many clubs, I speak with clubs for many years, since my days at UEFA. And when speaking to European clubs, the Super League topic always is a topic for discussion, always. Everybody in football knows that.
For years and years some clubs are studying and preparing for this or similar projects. In the 16 years I was in UEFA we always managed to manage that and I can tell you that there were projects that were far more advanced than the one we have seen recently.
FIFA had been accused by some of colluding with the 12 clubs responsible for the Super League proposals and, though Infantino denied that charge strongly, his comments don't exactly condemn the concept of major reform either.
1/3 FIFA president Gianni Infantino addresses rumours of involvement in Super League: "We should look at the facts not rumours or corridor gossip. I have worked in different positions of relevance in football for decades.
— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) May 21, 2021
There's nothing wrong with the idea of evolving tournaments per se, but the issue here is how FIFA are clearly thinking. Infantino claims that the proposals are not for commercial purposes, but it's pretty easy to see through that line. More World Cups means more matchday revenue, more opportunities for countries to host, and more merchandising opportunities.
FIFA made $6bn off the back of the 2018 Men's World Cup in Russia - to pursue doubling that revenue is nothing short of greed. The head honchos at FIFA have never been particularly subtle about their financial meandering, and the cynics would have to say that this screams of another money-making exercise.
No. Just no. Will the suits never learn? Stop trying to make things less special. The pursuit of ever more money is cheapening everything https://t.co/OFQkHbJutp
— Guy Mowbray (@Guymowbray) May 21, 2021
It also raises questions about other competitions that run on four-year cycles. What happens to the European Championships here? Do we simply lose one of the most cherished football competitions in this part of the world, for the sake of "what the fans want"?
Perhaps the strongest argument against the proposals is that, simply put, it would ruin the magic of the World Cup. The four-year buildup to a World Cup is one of football's great traditions, with international form tracked through continental competitions and qualifiers, before the grand event in the summer of the fourth year.
The fact that the World Cup only comes around so seldom is a huge part of its charm - every game matters so immensely.
Look at Belgium in 2018, comfortably one of the best teams in the world and nearly throwing it all away in a last-16 game against Japan. With twenty minutes to go, Belgian fans would have been horrified at the prospect of their golden generation blowing their shot at a good run to the last four against such a minnow, and having to wait another four years for another chance.
And then the team digs deep, mounts a comeback, and the jubilation at the final whistle is plain to see. There is no way that a biennial World Cup could ever replicate the intensity of a four-yearly World Cup, because the frequency of the opportunities to play at one would diminish its mystique.
Part of the lure of the World Cup is that you only get so many shots at it - the greatest players have (nearly) always left their mark on it, with questions of what might have been for others like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Could that same lure be replicated if players were to get twice as many chances to win it? It's hard to see anything coming close to the suspense of the current model.
Leo Messi took this team to the world cup final and almost won it 🤔 pic.twitter.com/FdNzGXwOkL
— FootballFunnys (@FootballFunnnys) May 16, 2021
It must be said that the proposals are just that for now - proposals. We can live in hope that FIFA will ultimately rule in favour of maintaining the current model, but the language used in Infantino's comments would not inspire a huge amount of hope in football fans.
The magic of the World Cup is its rarity, its elusiveness, and its grand place in the global setting of football. To hold it more often would severely damage its mystique, and FIFA must be careful to ensure they do not ruin the magic of the World Cup.