Photo courtesy of Nelson Ndongala (@whodunelson) at Unsplash.com
Arsène Wenger and Mae West may not appear to be natural allies at first glance. The 71-year-old may be blissfully unaware of West’s collection of pithy sayings but in light of his endorsement of Fifa’s plan to host the World Cup every two years it appears that he might actually be well-acquainted with the American actress/writer’s work. West re-engineered a widely held tenet when declaring that having “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
In his role as Fifa’s Chief of Global Football Development, Wenger revealed his rationale in an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe.
“The goal is to keep improving the quality of football by increasing the frequency of competitions alongside an improvement to the laws of the game,” Wenger said. “The international calendar will remain stable until 2024, since it’s already set. But after 2024, there’s a chance to change it. I would like to increase the frequency of competition, in a way that’s led by simplicity, a clear calendar, and a desire to only organise competitions that have a real meaning to them, which are those which allow an improvement in the level of football.”
It is reassuring to hear that the main reason behind the notion of increasing the quantity is to enhance the quality. The more cynical may scoff at this and suggest that this appears to be a move motivated by money rather than any concern about “the level of football.” The Frenchman was quick to scotch such a notion, “Not at all,” he told L’Equipe. “There will be the same number of matches as before, and players will go on international duty less often. The idea is really to improve the level of play and competitions, there’s no financial incentive behind it, especially as FIFA redistributes the money to all of the federations around the world to develop football in their countries. For the players, there won’t be more matches, and there will be a compulsory rest time after international competitions – 25 days at least, as I see it.”
Explaining how there would be only two international breaks in October and March with all the qualifiers played in those two windows, Wenger is adamant that there will be less disruption to domestic football schedules. He does have a case and however laudable the clarity of the football calendar might be, to conflate that with a World Cup every two years is misguided.The idea of a biennial World Cup that alternates with continental tournaments has not gone down well with Uefa, whose president Alexsander Ceferin responded by saying that European countries could boycott the tournament.
Ceferin was understandably miffed that Uefa were not consulted as he revealed when asked by Martyn Ziegler of The Times. “No, they didn’t come, they didn’t call. I didn’t get a letter or anything. I just read it in the media that they are talking about something. I think it’s a bad idea because we all know that players cannot play too much, maybe it’s already too much. For the players it’s a killer, that’s one thing. Secondly, every two years it clashes with the Women’s World Cup, it clashes with the Olympics. As I said the value is in playing every four years, it’s a huge event and I don’t see our federation supporting that.”
Uefa’s opposition should effectively kill any chance of this proposal seeing the light of day. A World Cup without one of the two powerhouses of global football competing and the federation which has provided the last four winners and five of the last six would be a non-starter. In such contretemps with Uefa, Fifa often tries to take the moral high ground, claiming that football does not revolve around Europe, enlisting support of other federations and many of the smaller 211 nations that have never qualified for the World Cup such as Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Wenger does have some powerful advocates including a raft of ex-players who were gathered together for the two-day summit in Doha to endorse the proposal. Among the eighteen so-called Fifa ‘legends’ were Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel and Tim Cahill. “I feel now after the presentation,” Cahill said. “With the transparency of what Arsene Wenger [and] FIFA have put together, thinking about the future, when you have 166 countries asking for the feasibility [study], it’s really important that everyone can do their due diligence and add some context.”
Cahill’s mention of the feasibility study is a reminder of how Fifa has often steamrollered any opposition to ideas, by appealing to those countries who do not normally qualify. For example the increase from 32 teams to 48 for the 2026 tournament was approved after a previous feasibility study stated that 32 teams was the perfect number for a World Cup. English football’s response has been mainly negative with the Premier League and the EFL joining their counterparts in the European Leagues group saying it “firmly and unanimously opposed” the plans. But there are some in the English game who are less against the idea such as Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola who said: “The World Cup is amazing. It is the biggest tournament and, as a spectator, I always enjoy watching it. If I could watch it every two years that would be good.”
Guardiola comes across as possibly a little naive and he would do well to read what The Guardian’s Sean Ingle wrote as he highlighted that greed was the primary factor driving this concept. “It sounds so enticing, doesn’t it? A World Cup or European Championship every summer, allowing us to gorge like a footballing Augustus Gloop almost all year round. Never mind the risk of burnout, of greater TV subscription fees, of the game becoming even more bloated; just listen to the tinkle of nickel and copper swelling Fifa’s coffers.”
As hard as Wenger tries to assert that the main motivation behind this move is not money but raising standards and providing greater clarity in the football calendar, there is a sneaking suspicion that Wenger might have edged over to the dark side. He earned the nickname Le Professeur because of his scholarly style and academic approach to the game but as his muse West once said – “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”