‘It is not right to impose such a huge burden on a single country’ | Infantino speaks exclusively to SportBusiness

“I believe in co-hosting,” said Fifa president Gianni Infantino as part of a wide-ranging closing address and interview at the 12th Globe Soccer conference and awards in Dubai.

Returning to the stage where he effectively launched his leadership campaign two years ago, the Fifa president said he would encourage more joint World Cup bids in the years ahead.

“There have been too many instances of stadiums being built for a World Cup and not being used again. It is not right to impose such a huge burden on a single country.”

While his time in office has been a difficult one for an organisation whose reputation has been tarnished by scandals on his predecessor’s watch, Infantino said he was determined to invest to rebuild Fifa’s image, embrace technology to connect with fans worldwide, embrace social responsibility and protect the future of the game.

Co-hosting is the future

One of the key planks of Infantino’s election campaign was an increase in the number of teams qualifying for the World Cup finals, to 48 – a move designed to bring more nations into Fifa’s Big Tent and ramp-up commercial opportunities. But increasing the number of teams also increases the demands on hosts and limits the number of nations which could feasibly host the tournament alone.

The inevitable consequence will be a surge of interest in co-hosting, as in 2002 when Japan and Korea shared the honours.

The first test comes in the contest for 2026 where, to date, a bid from Morocco is up against a tri-nation submission from Canada, Mexico and the United States.  The latter was of course selected to host the 1994 edition in a bid to give the game a launchpad in the world’s biggest consumer market.

“The rules for bidding for 2026 are clear and voting will be clear and open. It will only be for 2026 as the mistake was already made to organise two World Cups at once.

“It is good to have the US, Canada and Mexico working together on a joint project. Given some of the things which have been said in the last year it sends out a positive message,” he said.

The possible return of the World Cup to the United States inevitably raises questions about the progress of ‘soccer’ in the country since the ’94 competition – a process unlikely to have been helped by the national team’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018. Even Eric Wynalda, one of the candidates in the upcoming election for the presidency of the US Football Federation, believes the country remains ‘insular’ in its approach to the global game, something which, says Infantino, “has to change”.

“Football has grown a lot in the US. The MLS is an interesting competition, the stadiums are often full and football culture is growing. We have to work with the US in the way that we have to in China and India where we want to develop, and we know that, although soccer is behind other major US sports it is a question of us doing the work there,” he said.

One of the ways in which the US differs from other nations with longer established football cultures lies in the league infrastructure. US sport has been built around a closed league system but, while the absence of relegation might encourage some investors, there is a growing lobby to bring the country in line with the rest of the world.

It’s an issue which Infantino has been quizzed on before and his answers are, as ever, diplomatic.

“I always believe in dialogue to find a way forward depending on the market,” he said.

“We should be able to discuss how things should be to find the best structure for the development of football in the United States.”

Gulf highlights role of football

His appearance at Globe Soccer marked a swift return to the Gulf following his visits for the Fifa Club World Cup – won by Real Madrid in Abu Dhabi – and the opening match of the 23rd Gulf Cup.

Speaking to SportBusiness International after his set-piece presentation to the Globe Soccer audience, he said the Gulf Cup experience had reaffirmed his view of the importance of football around the world. The event had been due to take place in Qatar but was threatened by boycotts following the country’s diplomatic isolation. Kuwait stepped in the host the competition after Qatar agreed to relinquish hosting rights and all eight teams took part.

“I was particularly pleased to attend the Gulf Cup opening match because it showed that while there may be issues [between countries] football is football and is beyond them. Everybody enjoys and loves football,” Infantino said.

“It was great to be in a stadium with 65,000 spectators with many children and women, many wearing the national team jersey. It was a great experience.”

But after a year in which Fifa’s reputation has been repeatedly been dragged through the mud, does the man who has become the figurehead for a tarnished brand still love the game?

“Sure I love it – in fact, perhaps even more than before, because I see now there is more than I realised to what it means in many parts of the world.

“When I was at UEFA I was involved with the Euros and the Champions league and everything worked well.  Then I joined Fifa and, although I am the same person, I somehow became a figure of suspicion.

“I think in the last year we have shown that we are serious about reform and I am inspired when I see what football means around the world and its potential to make life a little better.”

Looming large on his agenda is the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a nation scarred and defensive over its ban from the upcoming Olympic Winter Games after findings of institutional doping. Shortly before Globe Soccer, the chairman of the World Cup organising Committee Vitaly Mutko announced he was temporarily stepping down in order to fight his own ban from the Olympics for his alleged role in the scandal.

Asked whether Mutko’s exit would ease a potentially rough ride for Fifa from the media in the build-up to the World Cup, Infantino was, unsurprisingly, anxious to accentuate only the positive.

“We thank Vitaly Mutko for his contribution, but his decision was nothing to do with the World Cup. The doping story went on for years but had nothing to do with football or the World Cup,” he said.

“I think the World Cup in Russia will be spectacular. There are 150 million people living there and they are waiting to welcome everybody. For the first time there is no need for visiting fans to get a visa because that comes with their ticket, while there will be free train travel between cities.”

But while he is happy to predict a successful tournament, he wouldn’t be drawn on the chances of the host team, currently ranked around #65 in the world.

“Of course, it is always positive when the host team does well and being the host seems to give the home team an additional impetus to succeed. But the fact is that the general quality of football around the world is high and it is difficult to predict who will do well,” he said.

Global development initiatives

The emphasis on putting in place a ‘football culture’ is, says Infantino, driving the growth of the game in China.

“You would have thought that with such a big population they would have enough to be successful [in competitions] but it is not as easy as it might look. You have to grow the talent and that is what is happening in China and it is very positive. President Xi is committed to the sport and he wants to develop the culture first and [build] strength for the future.”

One of the ways of driving growth and raising the standard of the game worldwide is, Infantino believes, to revise the Fifa Club World Cup. Although no detailed plans have been published he told the audience in Dubai that thought would be given to creating an enlarged competition played on a four-year cycle. That melds with reports last year which suggested a club competition to replace the Confederations Cup.

Whatever the outcome of Fifa’s deliberations, Infantino is determined that Fifa should work to promote the game in a way that avoids top-level football being the exclusive preserve of a handful of nations.

“It is important that we think about the fans and give as many as possible the chance to see their stars in action. We have to continue to look at the international calendar and find the right balance between clubs and national teams,” he said.

Infantino’s focus on football’s role in society is at the core of the decision, taken last year, to launch the Fifa Foundation, due to become operational in the first quarter of this year to provide a ‘legal and institutional basis’ for the organisation’s social responsibility activities.

It will, in effect, be the body for delivering CSR programmes, often working with Fifa Legends – leading ex-players with huge influence in their homelands and beyond. Infantino is determined its work will go well beyond organising football matches and relate events.

“The idea is to work with the legends on-site in countries which are suffering as a result, for example, of natural disasters. We want to invest in projects which provide the things that countries need at these times. There are desperate needs in some countries and we have a responsibility to respond.

“We will look to our sponsors for investment and find new sponsors. I think some will be attracted by the ability to join us to make a difference. We will do it because it is our job, our responsibility and it is a responsibility we take seriously.”

Infantino occupies one of the hottest seats in sport.  Because of the what has gone before, and the trail of detritus left by the previous regime, his every move is scrutinised, every decision analysed, dissected and often criticised.

But despite – in fact, perhaps because – of all this, he manages to retain a refreshing sense of perspective.

“We should always remember that we are [working] in football,” he said.

“It is something which brings happiness and joy and other people are in far more difficult situations. We should remember that we are lucky.”

Women’s World League

Infantino’s – albeit vague – announcement of plans for a Fifa Women’s World League appear designed to give a further boost to a sport growing dramatically in some parts of world but gaining less traction in others.

Since its first edition in 1991, the Fifa Women’s World Cup has become a barometer for the strength of the women’s game. For the last edition – Canada 2015 – 1.3 million tickets were sold, and the tournament’s 52 matches pulled in an average attendance of over 26,000.

The United States, fuelled by talent from its well-established college programme, has been crowned world champions three times, ahead of Germany with two triumphs and Norway and Japan with one apiece.

Each successive edition of the event has seen TV and online audiences grow and there are great hopes that this year’s World Cup in France will see record levels of engagement worldwide.

In Europe there are 1.2 million registered players and the number of professional and semi-pro players has increased by some 80 per cent to 2,083 in the past four years. Big-name clubs including Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona have successfully used the powerful engines of their brands to drive women’s football forward.

But here’s the reality check.  The fact is the United States and Canada account for nearly half of the 4.8 million female players registered worldwide (Fifa Big Count) with UEFA member associations providing a further 44 per cent.  Elsewhere the picture is far less rosy. In Fifa’s African and Asian Conferences (CAF and AFC) only 71 per cent of member associations had national women’s leagues two years ago while in South America (CONMEBOL) the figure was just 60 per cent.

The ability to deliver strong, meaningful and compelling competition in order to attract audiences and encourage new players is a critical component of a successful development strategy. Fifa’s Women’s Football Survey recognised as much:

“The existence of consistent competitions at various levels is closely related to the higher number of female players registered in the most successful member associations than that found in the least successful. This shows the need to organise more competitions at different levels (youth and senior).”

While we don’t know the timescale or what shape it will take, Fifa’s new world league for national teams will certainly help provide exposure and generate interest in nations which can’t rely on leading club brands and rich National Associations to do the job.

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