It’s 2046 and the 28th edition of the World Cup is underway. Just north of Doha, in Lusail — or somewhere in between, the cities have become a conurbation, but without the splendor that Qatar’s Vision2030 had once envisaged — Gianni Infantino Jr., who has the redeeming features of his late father — that gleaming baldness, the manicured eyebrows, the giant smile and the suave self-confidence that goes with most football administrators, is watching the tournament’s 95th match, the penultimate 90 minutes of the first round.
He suppresses a yawn. Arguably, he is not watching a very good match. A drone hovers nearby. He takes a glass of champagne and sips. The kick of the alcohol is immediate and a lightness soothes his mind. Infantino Jr. reclines a bit into his feather-cushioned seat. He thinks of his many achievements — the presidency, the largesse of the World Cup and the fine bank balance of his organization.
Then the Chinese striker tries an audacious lob. The Venezuelan goalkeeper fumbles it. The fans scream, squeal and jeer in disapproval, but little does it matter. The scoreline reads 13-7. The Chinese have already qualified courtesy of their right, enshrined in the Fifa constitution, to pass by default to the round of 32. The match is a dead rubber.
Uncomfortably, Infantino Jr. shuffles in his seat. The padding no longer feels soft. The Fifa president becomes pensive. His introduction of 64 teams and the abolition of the offside law had been audacious. He had easily appeased the council — his own politburo, he chuckles at the idea — with the usual incentives of power, prestige and privileges. The Congress had been all too happy to approve the World Cup expansion. He had restored his power base, with a trick picked up from his father. Fifa had grossed a record profit from streaming rights and big sponsors had bent over backwards to be associated with football’s governing body. He winced at the mere idea that 127 matches in 55 days were grotesque. Nothing about Fifa was grotesque.
Amid snowy and overcast conditions, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Diego Maradona walked out last Monday and played a 5-side tournament on the synthetic field next to Fifa’s headquarters, the Home of Fifa, in Zurich. Infantino grinned, after all Maradona’s presence was a coup.
The Argentine is notoriously whimsical and opinionated. The urchin from Lanus remains a misfit among the footballing establishment. Maradona never forgave Fifa for his expulsion from the USA 1994 World Cup. ‘The Scream’ against Greece is iconic, but the Argentine subsequently failed to pass an anti-doping test. He blamed Dr João Havelange, Fifa’s godfather, and Julio Grondona of a plot to oust him from the tournament.
In the past, Maradona has called Fifa ‘a mafia,’ accused Fifa officials of thievery and denounced the longstanding corruption at the organization. But here he was, alongside the Swiss-Italian football official in a wintry kick-about on the slopes of the Zürichberg. The matches were light-hearted. Even in Fifa’s realm of fantasy, Infantino and Maradona didn’t form a great footballing partnership. Infantino struggled to dribble Carlos Puyol, so, he jokingly showed Aleksander Čeferin, his Uefa counterpart, a red card.
The Fifa president paraded Maradona, his newfound mascot. He had convinced football’s biggest rebel to meekly tow the Fifa-line. Did Maradona back a 48-team World Cup? Yes. And in the frosty Zurich night, on the green carpet, right after ‘The Best’ awards, Maradona lauded, almost serenaded, Infantino. “I’m very happy to be back in the Fifa family,” said Maradona. “I am satisfied that Infantino is doing a good job and is trying to restore transparency within Fifa and its credibility. Fifa is making some important decisions and the move to expand the World Cup is a very good one. I want people to return to the stadiums and to feel the true passion for football. I am willing to help Infantino achieve this.”
Earlier that evening, at 4.52 PM, Maradona had walked on the carpet — in a grey suit, and with two ruby earrings, to wild pandemonium of fans. He indulged in the glamour, glitz and general air of expectation, or apprehension, that accompany semi-corporate events today in world football. Eva Longoria hosted a gala night that delivered little but textbook laudations and overcooked videos. ‘The Best’ was a poor concoction of the Ballon d’Or.
As the evening drew to a close, Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German FA, the DFB, was probed about Infantino’s expansion plans. “A decision for expansion is crystallising,” said Grindel, not hiding his opposition, like German coach Joachim Low, to the plan.
The lanky German had not been the only dissonant voice that day in Zurich. At the Kameha Grand Hotel, with the garish life-sized lettering ‘Life is Grand,’ a number of Fifa-invited legends didn’t seem to grasp that much of Fifa’s outward spiel is PR — inviting ‘El Diez’ and honoring the fans at ‘The Best.’ The legends had been solicited to enhance the narrative — not to disturb it — but they neither dismissed nor endorsed a 48-team World Cup.
“On paper, it is a wonderful idea,” said Marcel Desailly. “It could be good for football and also for the finances of the game. But the integrity of the World Cup has to be maintained. Smaller teams will be given more chances to qualify but we have to ensure that they are not there to just make up the numbers, get thrashed and then come home.”
“More teams in the World Cup cannot lead to a drop in the quality of matches,” commented Cafu.
“The World Cup happens once in four years and I don’t want it to lose the spark of what it represents,” said Dwight York. “It is closely fought. You don’t want teams getting in and the powerhouses running riot.”
But, at the level of Fifa politics and the many intricate machinations between Zurich and the five confederations, players don’t wield much influence. Fifa’s power structure is a pyramid: Infantino and his Fifa Council, once a select group of self-serving, whisky-sodden football officials in the form of the all-mighty Executive Committee, headed by Sepp Blatter, decide the future of international football. The Congress then enacts the decisions.
Not even Cristiano Ronaldo can alter that. At the end of the awards ceremony, Infantino took center stage, handing the trophy of 2016’s best player to the Portuguese, who merited the accolade based on ‘La Undecima’ with Real Madrid and his laborious odyssey to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy with Portugal. It was a neat reflection of the balance of power between the Fifa president and his players.
Back in 2015, one of the great dramas of our time — the reign of Joseph Blatter and the denouement thereof, finally came to pass. At last, after 34 years at Fifa, first as secretary-general, then as president, Blatter resigned. Thus entered Infantino, risen in the shadow of, and moulded by Michel Platini, the projected prince royal at Fifa.
His first few days in office reeked of the familial and facile: he reassured both Qatar and Russia that they would host the World Cup and drummed the beat for a World Cup with 40 participants. He didn’t pretend to be a statesman, who wanted to clean up the beautiful game, but tilted towards the prototype of an unsavory football administrator.
At his election, a protester held up a placard outside Zurich’s Hallenstadion with the words: “Make Fifa great again. Vote Trump.” It was both a witty indictment of Fifa and a reflection of the institutional crisis the organization is going through. Inside the Hallenstadion, there was déjà vu: same city, same conference hall, and same pantomime — the Fifa presidential elections, though this time without the great survivor Sepp Blatter.
Fifa’s great empire began to collapse on a cold December afternoon in 2010 when Blatter and his Fifa Executive Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to tiny, gas-rich Qatar in front of a global TV audience. That cataclysmic moment allowed Fifa’s gilded bubble to be pierced with a big needle with the arrests and indictments by the FBI and Swiss authorities last year.
The extraordinary Fifa congress that elected Infantino, had also convened to pass a reform package, but little suggested the organization wanted wholesale change. Fifa’s interim president Issa Hayatou trumpeted the language of reform, but has presided over African football in a demagogic way since 1988. The president of the Congolese national federation Omari Selemani soon followed suit in a bizarre double act, but firmly supported Blatter in the past. Both football administrators tried hard to convince, but failed. They were the messengers of the old regime.
In an easyJet flight Infantino flew off to London, but that was again mere PR. Under Infantino the organization has, so far, demonstrated precious little determination, if any, to transform from a corrupt and patronage-driven fiefdom into a more credible sports body: there has been neither an attempt at total housecleaning nor an endeavor to craft a roadmap for true reform. Ultimately, Fifa reforming Fifa is hogwash: Infantino, as the organization’s new frontman, was a non-election.
The 46-year old is defined by what he has done so far, and not by his intangible reform claims. The mammoth 48-team World Cup — the big money-spinner, the ultimate cash cow — is Infantino’s brainchild and the latest deluded installation of the never-ending Fifa saga. It is the aggrandisement of another sporting event, and self-aggrandisement by Fifa and its many impervious football administrators.
Fifa’s line of argument was simple: the World Cup needs expansion, because world football needs more inclusiveness. That has been a functional ‘passepartout’ at Fifa ever since Havelange dethroned Sir Stanley Rous as the governing body’s president in 1974. Havelange acquired the game’s prime job on this ticket, and so did Blatter. Infantino has continued the tradition.
He is politically astute. Infantino delivered his manifesto of bread and games to get re-elected in 2019. Less than a year in office and the Fifa boss has shown all the traits of a power junkie, desperate for re-election. Infantino has applied a tried and tested formula: expand and cash in. It’s a full-proof manner of consolidating his power base in the vote-rich confederations of Africa and Asia and ensuring the financial future of Fifa.
“Our Afc representatives will be voting for the 48-team option,” said Prasuf Patel, the president of the All India Football Federation, the Aiff, and the vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation, the Afc, earlier this week. “It would open up the World Cup to more countries and also generate more finances for Fifa. I also believe that an expanded tournament would help nations where football is still developing and allow them to increase the popularity of the game. This is something very important to Asia in particular. We estimate that we will be given at least another two slots, perhaps more, and this can only help the game in countries like India and China.”
“We are in the 21st century and you have to shape the World Cup of the 21st century,” highlighted Infantino during his press conference. “Football is more than South America and Europe, football is global. It will help to develop football.”
Stripped bare from the PR, the political machinations and the chutzpah, this was a quest for power and money. A bucket-sized World Cup, with sixteen groups of three teams, is the ultimate proof thereof, because, apart from inviting the maximum number of proposed newbie teams to the global stage, the format will ‘coincidentally’ yield the highest projected revenue of $6.495 billion and the biggest projected profit of $640 million. A World Cup of 40 teams, with eight groups of five, as Infantino had wanted initially, had been projected to gross a revenue of just $5.520 billion, with a paltry ‘net revenue growth’ of $135 million.
A World Cup of 48 teams is a victory for pragmatists over purists, for quantity over quality, for entertainment over sport. The inflated tournament was a grand design to benefit a select number of parties with vested interests at the detriment of the game.
The World Cup was Fifa’s prime asset, the ultimate tournament that easily overshadowed and dwarfed the European Champions League, notwithstanding the quality and luster of the European club game. The quadrennial tournament was the pinnacle of the beautiful game, a congregation of leading ball artists, refined tactical magicians and helter-skelter fans armies, engaged in a month-long sacrosanct and delirious roller-coaster of elite football, with the final and the right to hoist the iconic five kilogram trophy aloft as the culmination.
In Brazil, a Latin-flavored World Cup demonstrated the tournament’s enduring appeal. Robin van Persie’s flying header past Iker Casillas was arguably the first round’s moment. European powerhouses Italy, England and Portugal were eliminated early on and they were not missed. Jorge Sampaoli and Chile crafted a refreshing brand of modern football that combined tactical discipline with work rate and forward-thinking. Lionel Messi carried Argentina to the final, where Germany prevailed. Die Mannschaft had showcased the best of modern football throughout the World Cup: plenty of ball possession, swift transitions, quick-fire passing, superb movement and lethal counterattacking.
The World Cup had been refreshingly attacking with 2.7 goals on average per match, a marked improvement from the tedious three previous editions, best encapsulated by the three lasting images of their finals: Nigel De Jong’s kung fu kick, Zinedine Zidane’s extra-time headbutt and Oliver Kahn’s tragic howler. They were ‘explainers’ for World Cups that were poor in quality. Teams forewent much attacking intent. With limited training time, a recurring problem at all major finals, most countries lacked the finesse to dictate play and strike with precision. It is after all easier to organize a defense, then to instruct attacking.
Brazil then was an aberration and proved to be the best 32-team World Cup, a format introduced at France ’98. The new madcap expansion will further erode the World Cup’s quality.
It’s a gamble Fifa wants to take for the further commodification of the game. It is the World Cup as entertainment, far removed from the athletic and moral ideal of sport — so much so that one may talk of ‘sportainment,’ — ever more expansion for ever more commercialism.
Based on Neal Garbler’s treatise Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Rory Smith questions if football is still sport in issue II of renowned football quarterly The Blizzard. “It [football] possesses characters, narrative, plot,” writes Smith. “It attracts more attention for what happens off the field than on. The game still continues, of course, but the edifice around it suggests that sport is just an aspect of what football has become.”
Have football and the World Cup, in its new format, chipped away too much at the values that once shaped the global game, entirely consumed by the forces of politics and economics? Will the 2026 World Cup be Fifa’s ground zero, an irredeemable point of no return — when it no longer matters, with the World Cup as a self-destroying ‘product,’ signifying the death of international football?
‘[…]All that is holy is profaned,” wrote Marx, but, in an age when the absurd and non-nonsensical are all too easily normalized, the 48-team World Cup is but a logical product of its time — and so on 10 January 2017, the World Cup died.