Football: Blatter's new world order

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The Independent Online
SEPP BLATTER yesterday voiced the inevitable, and suggested the World Cup should be held on a biennial basis rather than a four-yearly one. His proposal is apparently prompted by the rising power of the big European clubs but, given the success of the global jamboree, it was bound to come sooner rather than later.

There is also the customary factor of football politics as Fifa, the world governing body of which Blatter is president, tries to limit the power of the continental organizations such as Uefa. The game's politics also means Blatter's proposal, which is being considered by Fifa's executive committee, has a genuine chance of being accepted, though it could not come into practice before 2006. Should it do so, the world football calendar would be significantly changed, with the European Championship being radically affected.

Blatter's plan would involve using the various continental competitions, such as the European Championship, in place of the current World Cup qualifying programme. The European competition would thus have to be held every two years, as the Copa America and African Nations' Cup already are, in odd- numbered years.

If these could be co-ordinated, it may ease the current demand on international players - but space would still have to be found for the various qualifying programmes for the continental competitions.

Opposition to the plan is likely to come from Uefa, European football's ruling body, which would not want its flagship tournament devalued to a qualifying round; the major federations who would fear a similar loss of influence; and, depending on the logistics, the big European clubs.

Blatter said it was the prospect of a breakaway European super league - which might mean clubs depriving national sides of their players, which prompted his suggestion.

"I want a football world championship every two years. Then the national teams will get the rankings they deserve," Blatter said. "The existing four-yearly tournament is out of date. It dates from the 1930s, when teams chugged from one continent to another on ships."

Support will come from continents like Africa and Asia, which would welcome the increase in exposure and revenue generated by biennial competitions. Their votes might be enough to pass the proposal but, if the major clubs were not placated, it could be difficult to operate.

One positive development from an English perspective is that it would double the chance of hosting a World Cup. However, Sir Bobby Charlton, a leading figure in England's 2006 World Cup bid and a director of Manchester United, led criticism of the proposal.

"My personal feeling is that every four years is often enough because a World Cup is something to look forward to," Charlton said. "Waiting for it increases the value of it, it would not have the same attraction every two years and that would be very sad. I just hope it is not based on finance."

Sir Bobby may have hit the nail on the head with his last comment - it is no co-incidence that athletics has turned its World Championships into a biennial event and there have been suggestions for similar changes with the Olympics and the cricket and rugby World Cups.

The FA and the Scottish FA both had a muted reaction preferring to adopt a "wait and see" policy until more details were available. "Interesting," said both Steve Double of the FA and Alec McGivan of the 2006 Bid.

"There would have to be a lot of hard bargaining, and it might not be possible," noted Andy Mitchell, of the Scottish FA.

"It is the first we have heard of this plan, but if we were approached by Fifa we would, of course, judge it on its merits," Mitchell added. "Our first reaction is that there are obvious practical difficulties."

Although more frequent World Cups would devalue the competition, it was clear from the public appetite for last summer's tournament that a biennial competition would retain appeal. Whether it would lead to better football is another matter. Only if combined with a thorough rationalisation of club and international fixtures is the game likely to avoid the problems that afflicted Ronaldo in France.

Blatter's proposal has merit - but not if it simply becomes another way to milk sponsors, spectators and players.

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