Over the past few decades, FIFA has made itself an implacable enemy, a sleeping giant finally starting to stir. No, it is not any law enforcement authority. Nor is it the purveyors of good taste. It is not even those of use who loathe corruption.
No, FIFA is facing something more dangerous, the European Club Association (ECA). The ECA is exactly what it sounds like, an organization of the European clubs dedicated to protecting their interests. Specifically, it is an organization dedicated to protecting the interest of the largest European clubs. These clubs in particular hate UEFA, FIFA, and especially Sepp Blatter.
The clubs’ major concern is the ever-growing list of international fixtures. The clubs are compelled to follow FIFA’s international calendar. Whenever the FIFA calendar calls for international fixtures, the clubs must release those players called up to their national team, which the clubs deeply resent (more international fixtures means more potential for player injury.) FIFA has taken full advantage of this power over the clubs by increasing the number of international fixtures.
It can be argued that international coaches have limited time with their players, and increasing the fixtures makes for a better international game. The evidence however, does not bear this out. If anything the standard of international play has gotten worse over the past few decades, and international men’s tournaments really are dull, especially compared to the Champions League.
The real reason that FIFA increases the international calendar (and the other reason the clubs are furious) is that national federations make huge amounts of money from the gate receipts of these fixtures. Unlike cricket or rugby, in football, one-off international matches (“friendlies” in football-speak) are not all that important. FIFA uses them for its rankings, but no one takes those rankings very seriously. It’s a money-making scheme, and the clubs get no benefits but all the potential for loss. And then there are the international tournaments. FIFA and co. keep all the money from advertisement, licensing, and television rights, and no one else benefits. On top of that, the greedy pigs at CAF make the African Cup of Nations every two years, which means every two years the clubs must surrender their top African players. For a month. In the middle of the European season. (The fact that CAF holds a tournament during World Cup years is actually illegal according to FIFA rules, but FIFA will not do anything about it.)
The ECA is currently being driven by the demands of nine clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich. (Bayern in particular is at the forefront of this, and Franz Beckenbauer, who was until just recently a member of the FIFA ExCo has been remarkably quiet in the face of Bayern’s noise.) If these club name look familiar, well they should. With the exception of Real Madrid, who won the tournament a record nine times, these are the only clubs to have reached a Champions League final since 2005. In other words, these are the biggest money clubs in the world. And they are angry.
For now, the clubs have an agreement with UEFA that they will play in the Champions League and follow FIFA and UEFA rules. That agreement expires after the 2014 World Cup, and the clubs are aching for a fight. That fight has to come now, because FIFA is weak due to scandals of their own making. The European public sees FIFA probably worse than it ever has before, and FIFA’s internal factions are divided. Now is the time to strike.
What does the ECA envision? The super clubs will form their own breakaway league instead of playing in the Champions League. No doubt the nine clubs at the forefront will invite other historically successful (like Juventus and Ajax) and monied clubs (like Manchester City and maybe Shakhtar Donetsk.) What UEFA will learn, and what the clubs know, is that the Champions League brand is nothing compared to the brands of its competitors. Around the world, most people would rather see the top European clubs play one another than watch their own leagues, which is why leagues around the world are suffering from low attendance.
But the major blow will be aimed at FIFA. If they are no longer bound by FIFA rules, then the clubs will not have to release their players for international play, i.e. the World Cup. The clubs would instead make their own international competition in place of the World Cup. Which one would you prefer to watch? The one with the best players in the world or the one with history but with poor teams and a recent poor track record?
FIFA clearly does not take this threat seriously. Hence Blatter continues to visit (other) corrupt dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta. The truth is that FIFA no longer has the cachet it used to or thinks it still does. What FIFA does not understand is that while national teams are a matter of pride, clubs are matter of love. Fans will not abandon their clubs because of the fight with FIFA, especially if the clubs offer a more attractive alternative. FIFA also does not seem to understand that they are perceived as a shadowy, mafioso-led kleptocracy. Blatter and his ilk should have seen the writing on the wall after the Russia/Qatar votes, but they didn’t. The long-overdue exiles of Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, and the soon-to-occur cleansing of Caribbean Football Union is not enough.
It would be a loss if the World Cup were to fade away, but I blame FIFA for its destruction, not the clubs. What I do worry about is if FIFA is neutered, will it still hold tournaments like the Women’s World Cup? If the clubs only care about their own collective interests (which they do), then the women’s game could fade, as it is not a priority for the clubs. (On the other hand, if that is all FIFA has left, maybe it will do a better job with it? Not likely, but one can dream.)
I don’t blame the clubs. They are businesses not charities. A lot of money went into these clubs and the players, and the people who invested that money should be able to protect their investments. The way clubs were run before (and in many places continue to be run) is a disgrace. In American, we see our sports teams as organizations owned and operated by a person/group as a vehicle for making money rather than community property. Sure they are part of the community, but they don’t belong to us. If a club folded due to mismanagement, it’s sad, but that’s the way of life. In Europe, the view is different. Clubs are community property regardless of who sits behind the owner/president chair. But, that is an outdated view. Clubs are businesses first.
Right now this revolution is in the nascent stages, but it is very real. I suspect that the clubs will either get what they really want or they will breakaway. It’s for the better. The old way has failed, FIFA is resistant to change, and the sludge needs to be cleared.