FIFA’s new proposal upturns international sports status quo
“Change or be changed!” That was the veritable mantra of International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach, when, not long after having been installed as the organisation’s leader, he introduced his key strategies for change in the global Olympic Movement, labelled, Olympic Agenda 2020. Now he is leading the next phase which is dubbed, almost simplistically, Olympic Agenda 2020 + Five”.
Today, the IOC finds itself confronted by a major quandary, the proposal put on the global sport table by the international governing body for the sport of football, FIFA, to host its marquis event, the FIFA Football World Cup, every two years instead of every four years.
The proposition appears to have struck a nerve amongst the IOC’s leadership.
From our vantage point it would appear that the IOC, for the very first time in modern history, is decidedly bothered at the prospect that FIFA, an international federation whose sport in on the Summer Olympics competition programme, will procure greater financial rewards and be seen as perhaps the most dominant sport in the global sporting environment.
FIFA’s proposal is perceived by some, if implemented, as a major threat to the organisation’s global positioning in international sport, something that the current IOC members are at their wits end trying to comprehend. They certainly seem unable to live with the foregoing prospect.
The FIFA Proposal
FIFA head of global football development, former long-time manager of Arsenal football club, Arsene Wenger, has been the man who has given articulation to a proposal that FIFA give due consideration to having its quadrennial Football World Cup to a Biennial event. This proposal is now being studied by FIFA and of course, several international sporting organisations that feel they will be significantly impacted.
The melee that the announcement has spawned across the globe and not just in football, has actually ignored the fact that the proposal did not start with FIFA, but rather from the Saudi Arabian football leadership.
Wenger is of the view that his proposal of a Biennial World Cup will do more for FIFA and football in general.
As it now stands, FIFA relies on the quadrennial World Cup for its revenues. Over the past four years, FIFA’s revenues amounted to $6.4bn. While this does seem much, it is much less than what the European football organisation, UEFA, has made over the same period, $12.5bn. According to The Conversation, while FIFA heavily depends on its quadrennial show for revenue, EUFA has far more competitions that allow for greater access to television rights’ revenue than the sport’s international governing body.
Over the past decades, FIFA has displayed a readiness to expend significant resources on its member federations, delivering up to as much as $500m annually for education and development. Clearly the thinking, as articulated by Wenger, is that more resources will enable FIFA to provide much more resources to member federations so that across the globe the quality of the game will be maintained and so too its appeal to the general membership and the countless avid fans.
Subsequent to Wenger’s pronouncement, the responses have been quick and, in some cases, acerbic.
As expected, the EUFA members were anxious to readily respond, citing the challenges that the FIFA proposal will have on their own annual programmes. They foresee a reduction in the number of their own competitions and a diluting of the quality of these events because of the impact of increasing matches will have on the health and fitness of the players who would have both club and national commitments.
The Conversation notes, “As for the clubs, there are potentially serious costs of making their players available for more international duty, such as the risks of player fatigue and injury. Large clubs are more likely to have a number of national team players and therefore more likely to face greater overall risk to their squad. Smaller clubs may have a national player as their star performer”.
According to ESPN’s Mark Ogden, “European football is the powerhouse of the world game, with the leading domestic leagues, richest clubs and Champions League all giving UEFA huge influence. And it will be 20 years next year since a non-European nation last won the World Cup (Brazil in 2002).”
One can therefore understand the nature of EUFA’s concerns since ultimately, they are watching their bottom-line.
Ogden nonetheless observes, “But the increasing financial reliance of major European teams on sponsors and owners from Asia -- namely Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, China -- and the U.S. has shifted the balance of power and given FIFA the opportunity to canvass support for a radical overhaul of the international calendar.”
Several international sports federations (IF) have weighed in on the growing global discourse since the proposals have been raised. In each case the concerns surround the impact that the FIFA proposal could have on their annual calendars at all levels and on the financial bottom-line. IFs are well aware that there is a significant difference between their respective revenuegeneration capacities in an increasingly congested and competitive sport environment.
The IOC’s reaction
While initially one got the impression that the IOC would not venture into the discussion on the FIFA proposals, the reality appears to be that the institution, often seeing itself as the world leader in sport, finds itself making remarks that suggest their anxiety to impact the process. One source credits the IOC’s leadership as point to possible disruptions to the international sports calendar.
It also appears that the IOC may also be concerned about the impact that the proposal would have in terms of maintaining gender inequity.
Unfortunately, though, the IOC’s concern may be much more than initially meets the eye. Undoubtedly, the IOC must be bothered by the possibility that there will inevitably be clashes with the biennial World Cup and its own Olympic Games.
The debate over the FIFA proposal may well force those willing to apply their critical thinking skills to engage themselves, if interested in understanding today’s the reality.
This author is of the view that the IOC may well be at a point of chronic fear. For the first time, its leadership and members may be looking down the proverbial ‘barrel of a gun’. The FIFA proposal threatens to derail the IOC’s dominance of world sport, which has, in the recent past, been exemplified in its relationship with AIBA and the IWF respectively. Football has global appeal in a manner that compares favourably with and often challenges that of the Olympic Games with its multiplicity of sport competitions.
There is a sense in which the IOC appears to be on the side of those who see the FIFA proposal as primarily about money.
But the reality is that the business of sport has been driven more by the desire to garner greater revenue than any other single factor. This is as true of the IOC as it has been for other sports organisations, including FIFA. This is the reason that there is today, four Olympic Games in any quadrennial – Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, Youth Summer and Youth Winter. The fact that the IOC can reference the several ‘good causes’ it espouses does not change the reality of the importance of generating increasing revenues for its continues existence and dominance in the global sports environment.
Following each edition of the aforementioned Olympics, the sporting world is provided with the ‘success factors’ that are led by the overall income each event generated. Global reach and youth engagement are also highlighted.
FIFA’s objectives are the same in respect of having its coffers bolstered by more regular income from biennial world cups.
The IOC must come to the realisation that as far back as the 1980s when then president, Samaranch, called for the introduction of professional athletes, his clear interest was that the Olympics must showcase ethe very best athletes in the world. We should be reminded that at the time FIFA indicated that there would only be one football world cup and so limited the inclusion of the sport’s engagement on the Olympic Programme so as not to have its then quadrennial world cup diminished in interest and income-generating capacity.
It should also be acknowledged that while FIFA and football have had several scandals, so too has the IOC. In neither case has there been a significant, principled withdrawal of sponsors and partners because of the scandals in and of themselves. This is an amazing reality that is all too often not addressed in critical analyses of the aforementioned institutions.
What FIFA is proposal will have the same impact on its finances that the several Olympic Games had had on the IOC’s treasury.
The IOC must prepare itself for more of this challenge from other IFs in the future, sooner rather than later.
While many seek to address the impact of money in international sport, less attention is brought to bear on the role of power and sport politics.
The IOC is a unique organisation in so far as it appears to be self-perpetuating, a sort of closed shop. How and why the institution has maintained the archaic organisation style that allows some the power to invite or nominate others to become part of the exclusive grouping of IOC members remains elusive even though some may suggest that this is not entirely in conformity with what are seen as the norms of modern democracy.
The NOCs may well be uncertain as to the value of their membership of the IOC if only because they have no direct impact on the election of members and certainly have no direct role in electing the Executive Board. The IOC does not have General Meetings that include NOCs in making decisions that impact the developments undertaken by the organisation.
FIFA, like IFs around the world, have been led to believe that good governance requires full, direct participation in the decision-making process at all levels.
In many respects, the IOC is perceived as wielding power in and over sport, almost without accountability to NOCs but instead, all to itself. NOCs are essentially led to believe that all decisions of the IOC are near-infallible, if only because they have no real capacity to do otherwise.
A new world sport order
The FIFA proposal raises a challenge to the IOC’s power over IFs and will be multiplied as more IFs seek their financial independence from the resources they garner from being on the Olympic sports programme.
We are likely to witness a global reaction to the FIFA proposals that will impact all sport. There is an excellent opportunity for all sports organisations to begin a broader dialogue on the establishment of a new world sport order.
We may never be able to change the power structures evident in global sport just as we are unable to end global economic disparity. Nevertheless, it is possible that we can make the effort to facilitate a system that closes the gap and engender new initiatives that are not dominated by any single grouping and where the benefits are distributed across the globe, positively impacting all stakeholders.
As the old people say, when the thimble is full and so to the glass and the mug, each has reached its capacity.
Written By: Keith Joseph