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Asia wants change to World Cup status quo

John Duerden
September 10, 2021

The hot topic in global football is whether the men's World Cup should be held every two years instead of four. The reaction from Europe has been mostly negative, but DW found opinions in Asia seem to be different.

Paul Pogba with the World Cup trophy
France won the previous World Cup, but could Asian teams have a better chance in the future?Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Fife

In May, FIFA's Congress voted to approve a feasibility study on whether to change the World Cup, its flagship tournament, to take place every two years instead of every four. Major figures in Europe have been quick to voice their opposition to adding an extra tournament, as well as qualification matches, to an already crowded calendar. 

Aleksander Ceferin, the head of UEFA, European football's governing body, has led the resistance. "UEFA and its national associations also have serious reservations and grave concerns surrounding reports of FIFA's plans,” Ceferin said, adding that Europe could boycott a World Cup held every two years.

Asia may be home to over half of the world's population but has only four berths at the World Cup compared to Europe's 13. It has been less successful at the tournament and more open to changing the status quo.

The initial proposal came from Saudi Arabia, one of the Asian Football Confederation's leading powers.

"It is time to review how the global game is structured,” Saudi Arabia Football Federation president Yasser Al-Misehal said in May. "This should include whether the current four-year cycle remains the optimum basis for how football is managed, both from a competition and commercial perspective.” 

Earlier this month, four federations in South Asia; Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal — who have yet to come close to appearing at a World Cup — issued a statement arguing that a four-year cycle has been set in stone too long.

"Less than a quarter of current AFC (Asian Football Confederation) members associations have been represented  in almost a century…in a situation where these tournaments are the real drivers of development.”

Commercially attractive

Financially, the average Asian federation is more dependent than European equivalents on the money that the world governing body distributes to its member associations. FIFA itself is also financially reliant on the World Cup, and the bulk of its €5.4 billion revenue during the 2015-2018 cycle came from the 2018 tournament.  FIFA President Gianni Infantino was reelected in 2019 after promising to further increase annual handouts to all 211 of its member associations. They had already received a total of €930 million in the 2015-18 cycle, an increase of €276 million from the previous four years. In short, an extra World Cup would make more money.

Gianni Infantino
Gianni Infantino's FIFA will organize the 2022 World Cup QatarImage: Amin Jamali/ATP/picture-alliance

"For a small nation like Bhutan, I actually think that it would be good,” Ugen Tsechup Dorji, the president of the Bhutan Football Association, told DW. "Every two years means that there will be more funds flowing into FIFA thereby filtering down to its member associations that are very dependent on funds from FIFA to support and grow their football programs.”

The feeling in Lebanon is similar and is heightened by the country's current economic and political chaos. It is not just the money handed down by FIFA that is crucial. The €2.1 million extra that the national team received for reaching the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup not only keeps the various national teams in the country afloat, but will pay around half the costs of the country's club teams.

"The Lebanon FA would vote ‘yes' for a two-year World Cup,” said Wael Chehayeb, chairman of the Lebanon federation's Marketing Committee. "We know it is a commercial idea but it is a good idea for us. It will mean more qualifiers and more revenue and this is what we need to progress. Infantino has modern ideas in football and knows it is a business."

Not just about the money

There has been concern expressed in Europe that more World Cups will strain an already-full calendar, with the European Championships taking place every four years as well as qualification campaigns for those tournaments and the Nations League. There is also a desire to protect local football. Leagues in England, Spain and Germany are powerful politically, boasting the best players in the world and the most fans. Also, the equally powerful clubs do not want extra demands placed on their players.

In Asia, clubs and leagues are less powerful. The continent's first professional domestic league was born in South Korea in 1983, decades after Europe. Club football is less lucrative too. Chelsea received around €118 million for winning the UEFA Champions League in May, compared to the €3.4 million collected by Ulsan Horang-I of South Korea for its triumph in December. 

Former Iran national team head coach and South Korea assistant Afshin Ghotbi has also coached clubs in the top tiers of Japan, Thailand and China.  "Most Asian countries will favor the World Cup every two years,” Ghotbi said. "It has a lot to do with the fact that some of these countries do not have domestic leagues and clubs with the history and following of European teams."

​​​​South Korea's Son Heung-min
South Korea beat Germany in the group stages of the 2018 World CupImage: Reuters/D. Martinez

There are popular regional competitions for national teams such as the AFF Suzuki Cup in Southeast Asia and the Gulf Cup in West Asia but these do not have to disappear if an extra World Cup is added according to Chehayeb.

"Competitions like the Gulf Cup and the West Asian Championships will still exist and will become all about preparing for World Cup qualifiers,” he said. "This would make players more prepared for qualifiers and they would perform better."

Increased competition

Lower-ranking federations may look to more revenue and opportunities to play qualifiers, but there is interest at the top of the Asian ladder too. Only four countries in the world can better South Korea's current streak of nine successive tournament appearances, but officials in Seoul have an open mind.

"It would depend on how it would all be organized," a Korean FA official said on the condition of anonymity, adding that more non-Asian engagement would be welcome. "If we want to have consistent success then we need to play as many competitive games against South American and European teams as possible. At the moment, we play one or two games every four years if we qualify. It's not enough."

There is still a long way to go but if there is a workable proposal put in front of FIFA in the coming months — the target of December looks to be very difficult — or years, the signs are that Asia would overwhelmingly support it, as Chehayeb explained.

"If it is organized the right way and it takes place in the summer when the leagues have stopped, then it would be good for Lebanon," Chehayeb said. "And the feeling is the same elsewhere."