The idea that Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Japan might contest the European Championship is, prima facie, so fantastically at odds with past experience and national boundaries as to be dismissed as the musings of a mad man. Or, given the power struggle at the top of the global game, it might just represent the beginning of the end of the World Cup as we know it.
That is not to say that a tournament of nations would not take place every four years, just that it wouldn’t be called the World Cup and Fifa would not be handing out the invites. The football map has come to resemble a map of the world in the 19th century, and the game’s principal governing bodies, Fifa and Uefa, superpowers jostling to colonise it. More than that, if we take the Uefa idea first outlined in The Independent On Sunday yesterday to its logical conclusion, it is a fight to the death.
Where once it was believed Uefa’s president, Michel Platini, would assume control of world football via the auspices of the Fifa presidency, it emerges he might achieve his goal by bringing the world to Europe, or rather by expanding the European Championship into a de facto World Cup featuring the game’s principal international ticket sellers.
Last week’s convulsions in the corridors of Fifa ended with a predictable fudge that could never right the fundamental wrongs of a decision to take the tournament to the desert in July. Fifa finds itself in this gross muddle because it has essentially been unable to keep up with the pace of change. The game has long since stopped being about sport. It is now a multibillion pound industry that has outstripped the capacity of organisations to run it effectively, efficiently or ethically.
Blatter’s predecessor, Joao Havelange, said in 1998 when asked to evaluate his role: “I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin... In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times. When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion... Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone? That’s respect. They’ve got their power, and I’ve got mine: the power of football, which is the greatest power there is.” This could have been the Last King of Scotland speaking. The presidency of Fifa may go the same way as any despot whose hold on reality has warped beyond repair.
The decision-making that led to Qatar’s name being pulled from the 2022 envelope is under investigation. The findings might not matter. The damage has been done since the shift to a winter timetable has forced the great domestic leagues of Europe, where ultimate power resides, to reassess just what international competition outside Europe really means. It appears that beyond Europe, the South American hotbeds of Brazil and Argentina, plus the multibillion markets of Central America and Japan, the global game means diddly-squat.
The rise of the Champions League has, in the eyes of many, already displaced the World Cup as football’s most important event and forced organisations to reassess the international football calendar. Platini and his Uefa think-tank has invited president Sepp Blatter and his Fifa cohorts to ponder what they might make out of what is left behind were the Uefa associations to withdraw their interest and refuse to take part in the World Cup at all.
Blatter justified Fifa’s decision to award the tournament to Qatar in terms of wider representation, reflecting the global expansion of the game, forgetting that football’s economy is driven by Europe. He had already augmented his legacy with a first tournament in Africa. The World Cup is staged in Brazil for the first time next year. Qatar was another destination on football’s Great Silk Road. Or has it become a staging post too far?
The football calendar is already over subscribed. Though Fifa believes it has solved the problem of Qatar by rescheduling in winter, it has in fact sown the seeds of its downfall. There is no scheduling problem if the Uefa countries do not take part. An augmented European Championship renamed, say, the Uefa Cup of Nations, would continue in its quadrennial cycle and extend qualification to teams from South America, or any other region for that matter.
The prestige that presently attaches to the World Cup would drain in the absence of the game’s major powers. Fifa is estimated to rake in more than a £1bn annually, with the World Cup yielding 87 per cent of those earnings. What would the great broadcasters of the world pay to show New Zealand v Algeria in the final? Fifa would become overnight a house in Zurich without curtains at the windows and a table to sit at. And Blatter, were he to recover from the wounds inflicted by Platini, would be left to turn out the lights.