FIFA president: new events will protect soccer’s relevance

Gianni Infantino said he is championing “modern ways” in the world’s most popular sport — that includes scrapping the Club World Cup in its current format and the Confederations Cup, which is a little-regarded World Cup warmup tournament.

Gianni Infantino addressing a press conference following a FIFA executive meeting at its headquarters in Zurich. (File photo)   -  AFP

FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he is pushing for support of new competitions despite Europe’s opposition because it is his duty to protect the “relevance of football.”

On the eve of the soccer governing body’s council meeting, Infantino revealed other investors are interested in backing a revamped Club World Cup and a new worldwide Nations League. So far, only a consortium featuring Japan’s SoftBank that has offered $25 billion in guaranteed revenue has been identified.

But European soccer’s federation remains a thorn in the side of Infantino, who wants council members on Friday to agree in principle to replace competitions that lack commercial appeal. UEFA clubs are opposed to adding more games to their schedule, especially any that threaten the popular Champions League.

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“I really think we have to think out of the box to think about new models to preserve football and the relevance of football and the structure of football,” Infantino said in an interview with The Associated Press and New York Times on Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t think there is anything that dramatic or wrong to discuss about competitions, to discuss about how to commercialize these competitions,” he said. “I don’t understand this hype.”

The relationship between FIFA and UEFA was tense ahead of Friday’s meeting in the Rwandan capital.

UEFA representatives discussed walking out of the meeting when the new competitions are discussed, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. But FIFA officials late Thursday floated the possibility to UEFA of a task force being created to explore the merits of the new formats, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private.

As successor to Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president of 17 years, Infantino said he is championing “modern ways” in the world’s most popular sport. That includes scrapping the Club World Cup in its current, unappealing annual seven-team format and the Confederations Cup, which is a little-regarded World Cup warmup tournament.

But several council members were irritated by Infantino’s secrecy surrounding the proposal for the new competitions — particularly the financials.

“Maybe (there is) some misunderstanding. I don’t know what the reasons are and I’m still confident that we will find the right kind of solution,” Infantino said.

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Infantino wants members, at least, to back the idea of the global Nations League and a bigger, annual Club World Cup or quadrennial version.

“He is not already lost or not,” Infantino said of UEFA head Aleksander Ceferin. "I am confident we can speak."

However Infantino said he has not spoken to Ceferin in a few months despite both of their governing bodies being based in Switzerland.

“We don’t agree ... so far on essentials,” Infantino said. “This isn’t the end of the world. You can have opinions and agree we have different interests. ... Hopefully everyone, or a majority, sees and agrees (the new competitions) are something that will benefit football. Then if it doesn’t then you do something else.”

The lack of consensus prevented Infantino from calling a special council meeting to secure the backing he hoped to get ahead of the World Cup in Russia. He even wrote to council members warning a “change in the financial terms” could result from not accepting the full proposition.

A 60-day negotiating period with a consortium of investors, who Infantino has not publicly named, expired in May.

“Maybe that hindered a proper discussion about (the new competitions) but (the offer) was there,” Infantino said. He is now trying to take the focus off the finances heading into Friday’s meeting.

“It’s not all a question of 25 billion,” he said. “The question is do we want to do something for club football and national team football on a worldwide basis.”

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In briefing documents for the council meeting, FIFA assured council members that government-issued funds won’t be allowed to be part of any joint-venture consortium involved in the new tournaments.

“There were several discussions with several other potential investors, not state funds or anything similar but private global companies,” Infantino said. “We will see what, if anything will be decided on Friday, and then if something will be decided we will see what kind of offers we can get after that.”

UEFA officials have been informed the consortium featuring SoftBank could withdraw from negotiations if progress is not made in Kigali, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Asked about the other offers beyond the $25 billion proposal, Infantino said: “Nothing was rejected nothing was concretized.”

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