Commentary

Morality, cash and 'the relevance of soccer'

"Sepp Blatter has 50 new ideas every day, and 51 of them are bad," the British journalist Brian Glanville used to write when the disgraced former FIFA President was still in charge of the game's world governing body. It was a day of rare good news when Blatter was finally forced to resign in 2015, but his replacement Gianni Infantino has done little to suggest that FIFA is paying anything more than lip service to Zurich's ongoing and urgent need for reform, transparency and democratic governance.

Like all grandstanding leaders with too much control, Infantino is Blatter's equal when it comes to big, bad ideas. Last week he again touted his vision of an expanded Club World Cup with a field of 24 teams, backed with $25 billion provided by mysteriously unidentified investors in a consortium working with the Japanese Softbank (a name so benevolent that it immediately arouses suspicion).

The investors -- whoever they might be, and there have been rumors that they include the states of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and China -- are reportedly becoming impatient with Infantino's failure to persuade the FIFA Council that this competition, in any of his three suggested formats, is either desirable or necessary. What might have been an innovative and adventurous plan 40 years ago now just seems like another potential burden on an already heaving calendar.

UEFA's pushing back because it doesn't want anything to threaten its lucrative and all-consuming Champions League. The big European clubs are not on board either, although there's no guarantee that won't change if enough money's at stake. So the FIFA Council, meeting last week in Rwanda, fudged a decision and sent Infantino's blueprints off with a FIFA Task Force, to report back next March. A FIFA Task Force sounds like a grand endeavor, but it really means that most people will be hoping that the plans are either shredded or shelved.


FIFA President Gianni Infantino

Infantino is right about one thing, remarkable as that seems. The current version of the Club World Cup is a waste of time. Seven teams - from six confederations, plus the champion of the host country - meet annually just before Christmas in a tournament that is ignored by everyone until the final, where the draw has been rigged to mean that the South American entrant almost certainly plays its European counterpart. And even then no one pays much attention. So, does it need reform? No, it just needs to be abolished.

The June-filling Confederations Cup -- the World Cup warmup one year before the main event -- was put to sleep after the last edition in 2017. Rather than provide time for players and fans to recover, Infantino wants to fill the gap with his new or expanded competitions (he also mooted a World Nations League) that will generate greater revenues, an "idea" spawned by financial envy of the Champions League. By pure coincidence, he's up for re-election next year and needs to fulfill his promise to the world's smaller soccer nations that he will push more money their way.

Infantino justified this approach in an interview last week with the Associated Press. "I really think we have to think out of the box," he told Rob Harris, "to think about new models to preserve football and the relevance of football and the structure of football." We need to preserve the structure of soccer by over-loading it with even more competitions? If you think that makes no sense, it's because it doesn't.

Even more comical is his reference to "the relevance of football." It's futile to speculate what Infantino means by this, because he probably has no idea either -- talking garbled hogwash is one of his few talents. Mainly because soccer, like all sports, has no relevance in itself. No matter how many (doubtless very clever) books attempt to maintain otherwise, soccer can not explain the world any more than Frustration and Connect 4. If anything, it just adds more layers of mystery and contradiction.

That's not to deny that the global game is a sometimes magnificent, sometimes frustrating, and almost always intriguing object of wonder. Like all games, though, it is an artificial proving ground with arbitrary rules, and no inherent meaning. Despite FIFA's pretense, it can not heal the world and bring us all together through Fair Play. Especially if ethically dubious regimes and corporations are the principal source of hard cash (albeit via a lovely, soft bank).

Germany's satirical "Heute Show" -- the equivalent of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" -- last week aired "the world's shortest game show," titled "Morality or Cash?" The only question was, "Morality or Cash?" And the only correct answer -- gleefully proclaimed by host Oliver Welke -- was, "Cash!"

The sketch was aimed at German politicians unwilling to cease trade with Saudi Arabia, but it could easily be applied to FIFA, which claims to be beyond politics. Yet that superficially noble principle just means it can shamelessly accept money from any source, or stage its World Cup in any politically bankrupt nation, while discounting all moral inhibitions.

Imagine if the historically corrupt functionaries of Zurich at least once made a concerted and genuine attempt to abjure cash and tentatively embrace morality, or even common sense. That, however, would constitute a good idea, and as Blatter and Infantino have proven time and again, FIFA's rarely in the market for those. Even if it would mean finally forging a path to make soccer at least somewhat relevant.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

6 comments about "Morality, cash and 'the relevance of soccer'".
  1. Elizan Morales, October 29, 2018 at 5:22 p.m.

    Excellent article - thank you!!   :]

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 29, 2018 at 6:27 p.m.

    Interesting reading.

  3. R2 Dad, October 30, 2018 at 12:42 a.m.

    I think a Club World Cup is an excellent idea--for 2nd division teams! This would raise the profile of unknown clubs, coaches and players to a worldwide audience. Would it catch on? At least if FIFA launched it, we would complain less about their bad ideas and lack of soccer development initiatives.

  4. beautiful game replied, October 30, 2018 at 12:53 p.m.

    R2Dad...under Blatter & Infantino, FIFA has become an autocratic.org with only one mission: CA$H. It eventually will want a 12 month calendar. CA$H has become more important than the well being of players and the game itself. And for this reason a lower division Club World Cup is a Tale of Corruption. When FIFA needs to address the current player deveklpment and market, inconsistency in officiating and LOTG enforcement in order to make the game better, it focuses on irrelevant issues. If Saudi Arabia offered FIFA $50B today to move WC 2022, Infantino would readily find an excuse and bring it to Riyadh.  

  5. Ian Plenderleith, October 31, 2018 at 11:02 a.m.

    Update, Wednesday: Infantino's Bad Idea of the Day - expand Qatar 2022 WC to 48 teams...  

  6. R2 Dad replied, November 1, 2018 at 5:06 p.m.

    This is hugely ironic. The middle east should be careful what they wish for. If Israel qualifies for 2022, you're going to see all those states punt on holding the world cup. They will all try to play hot potato with the Israel matches, because Israelis are not allowed in their countries.

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