February 23, 2019

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FIFA Averts ‘Institutional Crisis’ by Delaying Major Vote

FIFA Averts ‘Institutional Crisis’ by Delaying Major Vote
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KIGALI, Rwanda — Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, backed down on Friday from plans to hold a vote on the creation of two new competitions that would have meant profound changes for global soccer after he was told that they would lead to an “institutional crisis” for the sport.

The last-minute about-face came after European members of FIFA’s governing council threatened to walk out if Infantino forced a vote on the creation of a World Cup for clubs and a global league for national teams.

Instead, the governing council pushed the decision down the road, approving the creation of a task force to evaluate the proposals, which hold the potential to alter global soccer significantly and provide FIFA with major new revenue streams beyond the men’s World Cup.

The decision amounts to an embarrassing retreat for Infantino, although he will lead the task force that is now expected to deliver detailed proposals for the new competitions by next March.

The lack of approval casts doubt on the status of a 12-year, $25 billion offer to underwrite the competitions from a consortium led by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, according to documents viewed by The New York Times.

The Financial Times reported on Thursday that the investors would withdraw their offer if there was no agreement in Kigali, where the council is meeting. The investor group gave FIFA a 60-day deadline last March to agree to its offer, although talks continued as Infantino labored to find consensus. Infantino said the talks would continue.

The process has angered organizations representing Europe’s top leagues and clubs, who fear that any new FIFA competitions would come at their expense and would create an additional burden on players amid concerns that many are already overworked.

Aleksander Ceferin, president of UEFA, the governing body for soccer in Europe, who had been leading opposition to the plans, had described the negotiations as “highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism.”

With relations between Ceferin and Infantino close to a breaking point over the issue, it was left to emissaries, including Victor Montagliani, a FIFA vice president, to work out a face-saving compromise.

“Common sense prevailed,” Ceferin said as he left the meeting.

Infantino, who acknowledged that he could have handled the discussions better, said, “I am happy to have contributed to peace in the world today.”

For months, European leagues and clubs have accused FIFA of failing to take their point of view into account in considering projects that would have a profound effect on them.

An analysis of the proposals for the new Club World Cup showed that players would in some instances be required to take the field every 48 hours, under one of the plans, and European representatives have called for a discussion on the soccer calendar before any other decisions are made.

Ceferin arrived at the meeting armed with letters from three representative bodies. The European Club Association, the most powerful among them — it represents more than 200 top clubs — castigated Infantino for “failing to address challenges in an open and inclusive manner.”

Forcing through the new events without more meaningful dialogue, the association wrote, would constitute “an institutional crisis with potentially severe and far-reaching consequences.”

The letter was signed by executives from some of the world’s biggest clubs, including Juventus, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Paris St.-Germain. It was also backed by Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Spanish powerhouse teams, which had previously expressed support for the new FIFA competitions.

The World Leagues Forum, a group led by Richard Scudamore, the executive chairman of the English Premier League, warned Infantino in a letter that adding new events without addressing the calendar risked “endangering player health” and that it could “jeopardize the economy of football globally.”

“We do not understand the recklessness with which FIFA is acting on these competition and calendar issues,” the forum said.

Infantino, who in his previous role as the top administrator at UEFA had developed close relationships with many of those who are now criticizing him, seemed surprised at the extent of the opposition.

“I don’t know why discussions about a football competition and football competitions around the world need to take such dramatic tones,” Infantino said. He insisted that tournaments run by FIFA would benefit not just the top clubs but needier nations that are dependent on FIFA’s largess.

Infantino had tried, and failed, to push through an agreement in March, when he stunned members of FIFA’s governing council with details of the $25 billion offer.

He said he could not name the backers because of a nondisclosure agreement, even as he sought the council’s permission to move quickly, citing a 60-day time limit on the offer.

For its part, SoftBank has not commented on the negotiations, even though details of its involvement leaked six months ago. It recently hired the management consulting firm McKinsey and the sports marketing company IMG to conduct a financial analysis of its offer.

Studies commissioned by the investors found that the return was likely to be well below the $25 billion guaranteed to FIFA. The proposal called for a guaranteed $2 billion for each edition of the national team competition and $3 billion for each Club World Cup.

SoftBank did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.



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