GENEVA (AP) — Before the World Cup kicks off in Russia, expect a hectic month of football politics that could transform the face of the game.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino is driving his agenda of adding new and bigger competitions, even as FIFA prepares a June 13 vote in Moscow to pick a 2026 World Cup host: Morocco or the United States-led North American bid.
It is FIFA’s most intense pre-World Cup period since a financial crisis ahead of the 2002 edition.
In his day, former president Sepp Blatter ensured FIFA would not be so distracted so close to a World Cup that almost entirely funds the governing body.
Blatter would use the eve-of-tournament meeting of FIFA member federations to announce bonuses from World Cup profits — effectively starting his campaign to be re-elected the next year.
Infantino could also build toward winning a second term in June 2019 by moving to add 16 teams at the 2022 World Cup. He also wants to defy European skeptics and sign a deal potentially worth $25 billion which includes a new competition for more than 200 national teams.
Here’s a look at FIFA’s busy agenda:
2018 WORLD CUP
On June 14, Russia plays Saudi Arabia in Moscow. Finally, some actual games after the politicking.
Russian President Vladimir Putin should be at Luzhniki Stadium with Infantino. They have seen FIFA’s expansion talk steer some attention away from this tournament.
Calls to follow England and Iceland by not sending VIP guests to the tournament have died down. The focus on issues such as racism in Russian stadiums and FIFA’s inability to sell a full slate of global sponsorships has been low-key.
FIFA says it will beat its revenue target of $5.656 billion, which is less than the total income for the previous four-year World Cup cycle.
Infantino would welcome new income streams to help meet funding promises he gave voters in 2016.
2022 WORLD CUP
Long-time FIFA watchers were stunned in April to learn Infantino was keen to expand the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 teams to 48.
Qatar cannot realistically provide the four extra stadiums needed. Suddenly, a geopolitical move seemed in play, forcing Qatar to share hosting with regional neighbors currently blockading the emirate. Infantino has met in recent months with the ruling monarchies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Sports and politics are being mixed, at a much higher level than the inevitable anger from European soccer leagues who see four extra World Cup playing days in November 2022 eating into their schedules.
In Moscow, Infantino will likely seek — at a June 10 FIFA Council meeting or the June 13 congress — permission for a “feasibility study” to change the 32-team tournament Qatar began building more than seven years ago.
2026 WORLD CUP
The 48-team World Cup was meant to start in 2026, and extra demand for FIFA-standard stadiums and training bases created a clear favorite to host.
The United States-Canada-Mexico bid already has a surplus of venues. Morocco was a late entry with government-backed plans to construct or renovate all playing areas.
The North American bid forecasts setting World Cup records of $14 billion revenue and $11 billion profit for FIFA.
Moroccan officials suspect Infantino is so tempted by those numbers he would meddle in the selection process.
FIFA created a system to score the candidates, in fallout from the controversial 2010 picks of Russia and Qatar. It also let all member federations vote, instead of the closed circle of elected FIFA board members, and it is unclear if they care about evaluation scores.
More voters also means more factors affecting the June 13 ballot, including resentment toward policies and comments from U.S. President Donald Trump. Russia and its allies could also help inflict an American defeat in Moscow.
Potential FIFA presidential candidates might also think a Moroccan win weakens Infantino, if he is believed to have supported a losing American bid.
CLUB WORLD CUP
A $25 billion, 12-year offer from unnamed investors (a Japanese-led, Saudi-backed consortium) with just 60 days to close the deal.
Infantino presented this to council colleagues in March, met resistance, and began a series of secretive meetings to win over skeptics.
A 24-team Club World Cup would be worth at least $3 billion for each edition, played in June-July every fourth year from 2021 through 2033. It could be played in China, Saudi Arabia, or the U.S.
It would make an elite group of teams worldwide much richer, and widen a wealth gap critics say unbalances national and continental competitions. It would also challenge UEFA’s Champions League as the top club competition.
Infantino is forcing the pace of consultations, and on Wednesday FIFA will take part in a UEFA-hosted meeting of leaders from clubs, leagues and players’ union groups.
The other half of the $25 billion deal is a competition for national teams from the federations who are FIFA’s voters.
The global Nations League idea was developed by UEFA last year to replace most friendly games, and could now come under FIFA control.
In a two-yearly competition, worth $2 billion per edition, each continent would play qualifying games in tiers with promotion and relegation. Group winners would advance to eight-team intercontinental finals in each of eight tiers.
The top-tier finals tournament would look like a mini-World Cup played in October every second year. It could be approved within weeks.
Infantino wants to call a special council meeting to agree on the $25 billion deal in Zurich even before heading to Moscow.
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