Elswhere in this issue, WSC contributors offer their impressions of their favourite and least favourite moments of the year just past, with the 1998 World Cup featuring prominently among the positive memories. However much like a corporate jamboree it has become, it is still a momentous occasion enjoyed by millions of football fans around the world and there is absolutely no good reason to change it. Or so you might think.
Quite a start to the New Year, then, with the announcement of the latest idea from the feverishly busy brain of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who has offered the prospect of a World Cup being held every two years, with regional tournaments such as the European Championships acting as qualifying competitions. “I am calling for a clear declaration: do we want national teams or do we only want club teams?” Blatter demanded, alluding to the direction in which the balance of power in football appears to be shifting, from national federations to the owners of a handful of European clubs, with their fiendish plans to beam “Champions” League football into our homes 24 hours a day.
He went further and suggested that a mini World Cup be staged to celebrate FIFA’s 100th birthday in 2004, the date of the next but one European Championships. Initial reactions to Sepp’s brainwave have been mixed. The English FA, keen not to alienate their remaining friend (albeit one who probably laughs at them behind their backs), talked politely of a biennial World Cup as an “interesting” idea. Others have been less sanguine. “I hope it’s not going to be just about finance,” fretted Sir Bobby Charlton, which does make you wonder how people have managed to keep the truth from him for so long, while UEFA’s Lennart Johansson muttered, possibly from a prone position, that any attempt to interfere with the 2004 European Championships would be “unacceptable”.
UEFA’s craven falling into line behind the venal demands made by the major European clubs allows FIFA to strike a pose as the guardians of the game, their minds on higher principles rather than the pursuit of a fast buck. But they have proved themselves just as keen to cash in through their creation of events like the inane Confederations Cup, which has already been shifted from its scheduled date in December to next summer after clubs in the main European leagues insisted, not unreasonably in this case, that they would not release players.
The Blatter plan is simply the latest move in the perpetual jockeying for supremacy between huge multinational empires. As well as downgrading the status of the European Championships, a biennial World Cup with alternate editions falling in a Olympic year would also effectively kill off any possibility of the Olympic football tournament, currently restricted to Under-23 teams, becoming a credible rival world championship. UEFA have had their big idea, now Blatter, with a long and dishonourable record for attempting to tinker with the structure of football, wants to top it and in the process consolidate the FIFA presidency as the most powerful position in international sport. (As the Man Who Changed The World Cup, he ought to be good for at least one statue and several sets of commemorative stamps, though none would be issued in Europe.)
While in one sense FIFA and UEFA are competing against each other for supremacy in world football politics, the results of their greed-driven machinations point in the same direction – the killing of whole flocks of golden geese. In UEFA’s case the revised Champions League set-up seeks to create perpetual clashes between the clubs now habitually grouped together under the collective term “the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus”. The thrust of Blatter’s proposals would be essentially to recreate international competition between Brazil, Argentina and the top six or eight European countries on a more regular basis.
What both apparently fail to appreciate is that it is, or was, the very rarity of such contests that gives them much of their appeal in the first place. To most people, the fact that Brazil and Germany have never met in the World Cup is a historical curiosity. To FIFA it is obviously a missed marketing opportunity which needs to be set right. And then repeated as often as possible after that.
Perhaps Blatter should get someone at FIFA’s marketing arm, ISL, to explain to him the law of diminishing returns. The problem is that when either FIFA or UEFA realise that their top ties are not pulling in the punters like they once died, it will be too late. Once the specialness of such occasions has been destroyed (and already, who honestly wants to see Man Utd play Juventus ever again?), there is nothing that can be done to recreate it.
From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month