Soccer's world governing body FIFA has become very good at one thing only, and that is at making decisions that are terrible for the future of the game. This week, in the East African dictatorship of Rwanda — a country with a shocking human rights record under its President Paul Kagame — FIFA's member nations re-elected the hollow, self-aggrandizing and relentlessly mediocre Gianni Infantino.
That Infantino stood for re-election without an opponent to challenge his authoritarian reign reflects the chronic absence of democracy, transparency and imagination in an institution that thrives only on fattening its mandate, and bulking out the soccer calendar for maximum exploitation.
The Norwegian federation's Lise Klaveness announced that her federation will not vote for Infantino, and good for her — she's a brave but all too rare dissenting voice in FIFA's insular, male-dominated enclave. Without an opponent or a larger revolt against the sitting president, though, her non-vote is little more than a token protest. Not a single member country or confederation has been able to present a candidate, and that's a depressing reflection of the people who represent our game. Shame on UEFA, Conmebol and Concacaf for failing to produce even one viable individual with a manifesto and a vision for soccer's future.
Instead, this week has seen FIFA Council endorsing Infantino's vanity project to fill our every waking hour with yet more tournaments, while inflating the ones that already exist. Official press releases make laughable claims to caring about player welfare, while announcing confirmation of a 32-team Club World Cup every four years, and a 48-nation World Cup that will last almost six weeks. Under the guise of spreading the game, these moves harbor a single aim — generating more revenue for FIFA.
It was the Machiavellian Joao Havelange who first exploited FIFA's ultra-flawed one-nation, one-vote policy by tapping in to the support from soccer's neglected but member-packed continents — Africa and Asia. That made sense as an electoral ploy in 1974, when he thrashed the out-of-time, imperialistic Englishman Stanley Rous to become FIFA president. Ever since, it's been the model for bad governance. Need votes? Keep pledging to spread the wealth under the pretense of inclusion. Keep allocating tournaments to countries not fit to host, and which do not even meet the most basic criteria of FIFA's own ethical statutes.
It's only a few months since we enjoyed the excitement of the final round of group games at the 32-team (and very non-ethical) 2022 World Cup. And we lamented that such excitement would no longer be possible at future World Cups, because FIFA had already voted to expand the tournament to 48 teams. The idea back then (if 'idea' is not too generous a word) was 16 groups of three. Even FIFA realized this was a rotten format, and promised to review.
Now, we have the results of that review from the FIFA Council. There will be 12 groups of four. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the new knockout round of 32, and then the eight best third-placed teams. The only good thing you can say about this format is that it's not quite as terrible as 16 groups of three. The downside is, of course, that there will be no less than 72 games played just to reduce the field of participants to ... 32 teams — that mathematically perfect number we had for the last seven tournaments.
Speaking of 32, that's the number of clubs taking part in the expanded Club World Cup every four years, starting 2025. This is a festival of sport that the world's knackered players could well do without, and which will inevitably be dominated and won by UEFA's richest clubs. Chelsea and Real Madrid are already inked in, as recent winners of the UEFA Champions League. Their coaches and the players' union FIFPRO will complain about the burden of too many games, but the clubs' accountants and marketing department will send the teams anyway. It'll be great for pushing sponsorship exposure and upping global shirt sales.
And if you're one of the three people on the planet who will miss the current format of regional champions playing every year, don't worry - that ignored and pointless tournament will continue on an annual basis, hosted no doubt by Infantino's cozy and co-operative oil states in the Gulf (next venue — Saudi Arabia).
You could argue that FIFA has done a decent job at supporting the women's game, but frankly, it had no choice. It's also a support based on commercial potential, not on any initiative for equality, fairness and universal health. The drive for expanding the women's game came from below, not above, and FIFA missed the chance to be ahead of its time by at least half a century.
As long as FIFA remains a body run by unelected functionaries accountable to no one besides their grandstanding boss, soccer will be subject to damage from within by ponderous committees like the rule-making International Football Association Board (IFAB). This secretive, reform-shy clique has consistently muddied the game with idiotic amendments to the handball and offside rules, and the game-wrecking implementation of the Video Assistant Referee. It's the perfect illustration of what happens when you combine gob-smacking cluelessness with an utter absence of democracy.Photo by Harold Cunningham/FIFA