Harald Lange: World football has long been split into many parts. The major players want to squeeze as much money out of football as possible and take care that others don’t take a large slice of the pie. There’s a battle between UEFA and FIFA, but there are also disagreements inside UEFA, particularly when it comes to the Super League. All these arguments are not about the well-being of football or players but rather to scavenge for the biggest possible piece of the football’s financial pie.
How realistic do you think UEFA’s threat of a boycott is, should the World Cup be held every two years?
The threat is in the room now, clearer than ever before. Pandora’s box has been opened because a boycott is basically the last stop. It’s the strongest means in sport. Until now, we’ve known politically motivated boycotts at the Olympics, but in sport it’s sort of frowned upon. Now, the threat of a boycott is being used as leverage in an economic debate. That suggests the fight will be done very publicly. Given the way the conversation has gone, I consider it realistic that UEFA will do what they can to make sure their teams don’t take part in World Cups held every two years.
Is that perhaps because UEFA, based on power structures inside FIFA, have to consider that this plan will be realized?
Exactly. They can speak from experience. After all, UEFA operate the same power principles as FIFA: as many associations are collected under one roof, insist on solidarity, donate to the smaller associations, and promise them that the flow of money will be cranked up if tournaments are held more often. And, just like that, you have them on your side. In this way, UEFA was able to expand the number of teams at the 2016 Euros in France and most recently hold a pan-European tournament. And they still want to grow the whole thing more. In my opinion, UEFA’s arguments are all wrong if they’re criticizing FIFA’s power principles, ones they also use. That’s an enormous contradiction, but it’s only about financial interest and then such contradictions can just get in line.
FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and legendary coach Arsene Wenger, who developed the idea, are leading the argument that regions outside of Europe and South America are underrepresented. Do you see it that way too, that football is too centralized on these two strong continents?
Football is played in every corner of the world, and practically every country is a part of FIFA, providing football an excellent global network. But football is played at different levels on different continents because it has different traditions, cultures and social importance. This isn’t softened or compensated because you host a tournament every two years.
Qualifying, from a sporting perspective, only makes sense if at the World Cup the best teams are playing, and if the best teams come from Europe and South America then they should play. Everything else would invert the principle of competitive sport.
If a tournament was held based on equal distribution, then it would be less valuable from a sporting perspective. It’s also an extremely weak argument from a sporting perspective, but a very strong one economically. If the smaller associations can be won as an electorate in the FIFA circus by approaching them, then the sporting success of the Europeans and the South Americans can be put under pressure.
Do you think we will get World Cups every two years?
No, I don’t think so. It will go a similar way to the debate around the Super League. There will be a lot of noise and power plays and then in the end it’ll likely stay the same as it was. Compromises will be found, and perhaps other suggestions will be brought into play such as the expansion of the Club World Cup under the sponsorship of FIFA.
If the economic situation is applying such enormous pressure that a boycott can be threatened, then it could lead to a division of football. Perhaps there will be a new tournament format, a World Cup for everyone except Europe and South America. I think we’ll see a lot of movement here in the next few years. That will lead to the tried and tested organization and structure of football being put to a very tough test.
Professor Harald Lange (born in 1968) has been academic chair for sports science at the Unverstiy of Würzburg since 2009. Lange founded the first national fan culture institute in 2012. Since 2020, his project “What football do we want?”, offering a forum for all football protagonists.
This interview was translated from German. The interview was conducted by Stefan Nestler.