Buda Mendes/Getty Images

FIFA has hectic month of football politics before World Cup

Leave a comment

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.

[ MORE: Championship Sunday TV, stream schedule ]

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.

NATIONS LEAGUE

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.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

FIFA’s ‘white elephants’ warning after Morocco bid criticism

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
2 Comments

FIFA issued its second rebuke inside a week to Morocco’s World Cup bid for questioning the fairness of the process while warning it does not want unsuitable “white elephant” stadiums built for the 2026 tournament.

The process has been designed to end the “secret and subjective decisions” of the past, FIFA said after its president, Gianni Infantino, received a letter from Morocco complaining that the governing body had imposed burdensome demands for technical criteria that the bids will be scored on.

[ MORE: Juve 0-3 Real | Sevilla 1-2 Bayern ]

The protest is an indication of Morocco’s exasperation ahead of the June vote as it challenges a rival bid from North America, which already has the infrastructure to cope with the first World Cup to be held after the expansion from 32 to 48 finalists. Morocco, by contrast, has to build or renovate all 14 stadiums and up to 150 training grounds as part of a $15.8 billion project to host the nation’s biggest-ever sporting event.

Responding to Morocco’s concerns, FIFA told The Associated Press on Tuesday: “In order to avoid unsustainable bids … with the creation of `white elephants’ – something FIFA has been heavily criticized for in the past – the scoring system evaluates with objective criteria how meaningful and sustainable is the infrastructure presented in the bids.”

The role of FIFA’s bid inspectors has been strengthened in response to concerns in 2010 that FIFA’s executive committee voted for Russia and Qatar in the dual 2018 and 2022 hosting votes despite those countries being evaluated as the highest-risk contenders.

Voting this time will be expanded to the FIFA membership, with up to 207 federations eligible. The bidding nations cannot vote, including the North American trio of the United States, Mexico and Canada, who announced Tuesday that they had secured the support of Saudi Arabia.

The 2026 contest could see bids be declared ineligible before the FIFA Congress vote on June 13 if they are scored lowly by a task force. Morocco federation president Fouzi Lekjaa objected to Infantino that they only received details of the scoring system on March 14, two days before deadline to receive bid books. The rival bid, which would see the U.S. host 60 of the 80 games, said it received the details at the same time.

“As a matter of principle, the basis of the preparation of a bid should not be the scoring system for the technical evaluation but rather the requirements which FIFA has provided to the bidders in 2017 through the bidding and hosting requirements,” FIFA said, dismissing Morocco’s objections.

The technical evaluation will assess if bids meet minimum requirements over infrastructure, costs and revenue projections.

“Contrary to what the FRMF (the Moroccan federation federation) implies, the hosting requirements, which were clearly set in the bidding registration and other bidding/hosting documents provided in 2017, have not changed,” FIFA said. “The scoring system merely provides a methodology for evaluating and documenting the extent to which the bids submitted fulfil those requirements in certain key areas.”

Morocco said it will spend around $3 billion on stadiums and training grounds. The North American bid said it needs to spend $30 million-$40 million to install grass at stadiums, which don’t require any significant modification for the World Cup.

In correspondence with FIFA seen by the AP, Morocco expressed unhappiness that the population of host cities has be at least 25,000, airports must have the capacity for 60 million passengers a year and that the travel time from the airport to the city must be a maximum 90 minutes. A low score on those specific criteria would not see a bidder excluded, FIFA assured Morocco on Tuesday.

“A host city could still meet the minimum requirements for transport without meeting such an individual requirement on the location of the airport, in particular if other criteria are satisfied,” FIFA said.

In a scoring system of 0 to 5 – where 0 means is “no requirements met/very weak” and 5 is “requirements exceeded/excellent” – a bid must average a total of 2, or “minimum requirements met/sufficient,” to be approved ahead of the vote.

Bids must score at least a 2 for the individual aspects of stadiums, teams and referee facilities, plus accommodation and transport links. Failure to score 2 from the task force means a bid “has been evaluated as `high risk’ and represents a material failure” that could see the bid disqualified by FIFA.

Morocco anticipates raising $785 million from 3.5 million tickets sold, while North America forecasts generating $2.1 billion from 5.8 million tickets. FIFA would also earn $300 million more from the North American broadcasters if the 2026 World Cup is played in the region under the terms of contracts already negotiated.

 

“As explained many times, the bidding process for the 2026 FIFA World Cup has been designed to evaluate the bids against objective criteria and so avoid a return to the secret and subjective decisions of the past,” FIFA said Tuesday.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

European clubs push back at FIFA expansion plans

(Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Leave a comment

ROME (AP) Europe’s soccer clubs are pushing back at the grand expansion plans of the sport’s governing bodies, calling for fewer matches, mandatory rest periods and alignment of confederation tournaments.

Presenting a streamlined agenda aimed at protecting players at its general assembly Tuesday, the European Club Association (ECA) wouldn’t even discuss FIFA’s proposal for an expanded Club World Cup in June 2021.

[ MORE: Pogba stars for France ]

“It is not about adding competition in this moment,” ECA president Andrea Agnelli said. “To us the priorities are addressing the calendar post-2024.”

Agnelli said the players, which he described as “the main actors,” must be respected.

“It’s ensuring that throughout the calendar players have the time to rest and/or train,” said Agnelli, who is also the president of six-time defending Italian champion Juventus.

“They’re playing week in, week out, two or three games a week, be it at club level or a national team level,” Agnelli added. “So when we think about the calendar going forward we must also take into consideration weeks when players can actually rest and/or train. So reducing the overall number of games.”

The Club World Cup is currently an annual competition held each December featuring seven teams. FIFA president Gianni Infantino would like to expand the competition to include 24 clubs and move it to June as a quadrennial event similar to the World Cup.

But June is when players’ and coaches’ contracts expire and generally a transitional period for clubs.

“There are many things around that but mainly we almost don’t know anything about it,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told The Associated Press. “The stakeholders are not informed properly yet so it’s much too early to say anything.”

Ceferin added that he “doubts” the tournament could come together for 2021.

But Infantino isn’t giving up.

“The Club World Cup is a great competition already and we are discussing whether we can make it even greater,” Infantino said.

Among other topics discussed at the ECA assembly, which was attended by 163 clubs from across the continent:

VAR:

Already approved for this year’s World Cup in Russia, the video assistant referee (VAR) won’t be used in the Champions League until next season – at the earliest.

“It’s too soon for the Champions League to start this season. We are not ready, referees are not ready, fans are not ready,” Ceferin said. “It’s not the competition to have a trial.

“We will start training the referees and educating the fans and if everything goes fine it might happen next season,” the UEFA president added.

Agnelli, however, suggested that the VAR might not be included in the Champions League until the 2019-20 season.

Infantino, meanwhile, promoted the VAR amid controversies in domestic competitions where it has already been introduced.

“For the World Cup the referees will be trained, the VARs will be trained,” Infantino said. “We are looking very much forward to a World Cup which, thanks to the VAR, will be a little bit more transparent and just or fair.”

During this season’s trials in other cup competitions, a number of wrong decisions, delays and a lack of communication have left many critics wondering whether the VAR is worth it.

But Infantino said that testing has shown the VAR increases the accuracy of referees’ decisions from 93 to 99 percent.

“It’s not 100 percent so there is still work for all those who want to complain and maybe before if it was the fault of the referee it will (now) be the fault of the VAR,” he added.

2026 WORLD CUP

A day after bid dossiers were released from the North American and Morocco candidates, UEFA’s Ceferin reserved judgment on whether Morocco can spend $15.8 billion for construction work on new stadiums and training grounds.

“I don’t think that this task force group has finished their work yet,” Ceferin said, referring to FIFA’s April 17-19 visit to the North African nation.

Stadium infrastructure accounts for 35 percent of the evaluation score from the task force.

By contrast, the bid book for the joint candidacy by the United States, Mexico and Canada says it is the low-risk proposition since no infrastructure will be built for the first World Cup after the jump from 32 to 48 finalists.

While the dossiers were submitted to FIFA two weeks ago, Infantino claimed he hasn’t read them yet.

“I was here so I didn’t have the chance to look at them,” he said.

FINANCIAL FAIR PLAY 2.0

The ECA and UEFA have agreed on an update to the financial fair play rules beginning next season – subject to final approval by UEFA’s executive committee.

The new rules aim to expedite the investigation process by putting in place two new indicators: “a sustainable debt ratio” based on a club’s net debt and earnings and a maximum net transfer spending of 100 million euros ($124 million).

If one of the two indicators is breached, UEFA will immediately begin a preliminary investigation – which could drastically reduce the current process, which sometimes lasts up to 22 months.

The clubs rejected UEFA’s proposal of a luxury tax but promoted publishing the amounts paid to player agents.

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.

More AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Infantino pledges unmatched monitoring of 2026 World Cup bidding

Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images
Leave a comment

To say FIFA is under the microscope is an understatement.

Soccer’s embattled governing body saw its leadership flipped after allegations of bribery regarding the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

[ MORE: USMNT-Paraguay preview ]

With both of those hosts going unchanged, FIFA knows it has to say and do all the right things moving forward. Enter new president Gianni “Not Sepp Blatter” Infantino.

With the United States, Mexico, and Canada’s joint-bid for the 48-team 2026 tournament challenged only by Morocco, this should be among the easiest bidding processes to oversee. Pardon us if we’re still a bit skeptical given the size of the world.

Here’s Infantino:

“The rules of the process include the highest standards in terms of ethical conduct, participation and commitment to sustainability and human rights. These are necessary steps to ensure that we never go back to the old ways.”