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FIFA head aims to rethink soccer competitions and schedule

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi reacts after a missed scoring opportunity during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

By GRAHAM DUNBAR, GENEVA (AP) — World soccer was put on notice by FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday to imagine — and maybe expect — big changes to its international competitions in the coming years.

FIFA agreed to study whether the men’s and women’s World Cups could be played every two years instead of four, with Infantino asking out loud if they could alternate with continental championships to fill the calendar with annual national-team tournaments.

Infantino also defended talking with clubs about new projects like the breakaway Super League, which rocked European soccer body UEFA last month before a backlash quickly killed the plan.

After reports that FIFA secretly encouraged storied clubs to rebel against UEFA and its Champions League, Infantino insisted at a news conference people “should look at the facts and not rumors or corridor gossip.”

“To speak with some clubs doesn’t certainly mean in any way whatsoever that FIFA was behind or colluding or plotting … for any Super League project,” he said, insisting he never closed his door to talks about new ideas.

“This is the way I live the presidency of FIFA,” said Infantino, who won election in 2016 as the official candidate of UEFA where he was a long-time senior staffer.
Infantino also used the platform of FIFA’s online meeting of 211 member federations to say the sport needs to break the domination on and off the field by Europe and South America.
“There is a concentration of money and player talent which does not serve the global development or interests of the game,” he said. “We cannot simply ignore it.”
“We do not see equal opportunities throughout the world. We do not necessarily see too much solidarity either, to be honest.”
Infantino positioned FIFA as the protector of soccer’s worldwide family which is prepared to upend the traditional competition calendar and formats to seek more equality.
The chance for change is there because the FIFA-managed calendar of international competitions — which mandates when clubs must release players for national-team duty — expires in 2024.
FIFA is now ready to consult widely on redrafting the calendar, after turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic delayed the process last year.
“What kind of competitions do we need for the world?” said Infantino, also asking whether the season needed fewer breaks for national-team games.
Earlier, a Saudi Arabian soccer official proposing a feasibility study into biennial World Cups echoed FIFA’s own oft-repeated suggestion of “fewer but more meaningful games” to protect players’ health.
FIFA and UEFA have often had poor relations since Infantino switched organizations five years ago, and European competitions seem at risk from his current ambitions.
UEFA’s popular and lucrative Champions League could be affected by Infantino’s pet project of a 24-team Club World Cup. It was set to launch next month in China until the pandemic forced a postponement.
A biennial World Cup would clearly harm UEFA’s second-tier Nations League event, and likely take commercial value from the four-yearly European Championship.

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