FIFA looks to investors to create "world's greatest football experience"

A document seeking financing and partners for a new Club World Cup suggests FIFA may have designs on controlling a larger share of soccer's riches

By Tariq Panja
Published: Dec 14, 2019

g_125011_gianniinfantino_gettyimages-1183113047-2_280x210.jpgFIFA president Gianni Infantino
ImagePedro Vilela-FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images​

Make us an offer we can’t refuse.

That is FIFA’s message in a document sent to investors, commercial partners and media companies interested in teaming with soccer’s world governing body on a new World Cup for clubs that starts in China in 2021.

The document, reviewed by The New York Times, offers potential partners the chance to propose their own vision for soccer, but it also offers clues that suggest FIFA’s ambition is not merely to stage an expanded club championship every four years, but to become the global leader in club soccer. That kind of power shift would be significant, carrying with it huge implications for current competitions like the Champions League, but also for the influence of the continental governing bodies that have long managed the club game.

FIFA’s tender offer says its objective is to find partners to create “the world’s greatest club football experience,” and it has told interested parties that they may suggest visions for future club tournaments that differ from the quadrennial club championship approved by FIFA’s executive board earlier this year and awarded to China in October.

Offers “may include suggestions for alternative tournament parameters, including as to frequency, format, qualification process and team participation,” FIFA said. Curiously, though, potential investors have been given only 11 business days to come up with a proposal to perhaps remake the model soccer has operated under for, in some cases, more than a century.

European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, which organizes and profits from soccer’s richest club competition, the Champions League, reluctantly agreed to FIFA’s plans for an expanded Club World Cup after months of acrimony between its president, Aleksander Ceferin, and FIFA’s, Gianni Infantino.

Any more substantial changes to the structure of club soccer are likely to be bitterly opposed by UEFA, which makes the bulk of its revenue — as much as $1 billion a year — from the Champions League.

Just last week, Ceferin reacted furiously after The Times reported that Infantino had met with Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid, and discussed the details of a plan in which Europe’s richest clubs would break off from UEFA to form their own independent competition. Such a move would see powerhouse clubs like Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus and others abandon their domestic competitions.

Until Infantino’s arrival in 2016, FIFA had largely stayed in its lane when it came to club soccer, content with organizing and monetizing the World Cup, the multibillion-dollar tournament featuring national teams that is responsible for more than 90% of FIFA’s revenue. Since becoming FIFA president, however, he has pushed harder and faster than any of his predecessors for world soccer’s governing body to get a slice of the riches available in the club game.

Last year, he was forced to abandon a plan to close a $25 billion agreement with a group led by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for two new events, including an expanded World Cup for clubs, after opposition from members of FIFA’s board, led by Ceferin, and representative bodies for leagues and clubs.

That setback led FIFA to change its approach. It first sought approval for the quadrennial club world championship, and scrapped an idea for a national team league, before saying it would go to market with the event. But for the past months, it has held talks with CVC Capital Partners, the former majority owner of the Formula One racing series. CVC, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, also has significant investments in sports like rugby and motorcycle racing.

The Financial Times reported last week that the company has spoken with both FIFA and Real Madrid, and is interested in being a partner with FIFA for competitions and events beyond a single four-year tournament. A spokesman for CVC declined to comment.

Other companies have also expressed interest in the project, including Infront Sports & Media, a sports marketing company owned by the Dalian Wanda Group, one of FIFA’s main sponsors. Officials there, and at least two other businesses interested in the tournament, expressed surprise that FIFA had not held preliminary discussions with them ahead of issuing its request for offers, but also at the short window to create a plan in time for the Dec. 19 deadline.

FIFA did not respond to an email for comment on the tender offer, or on its plans for a bigger role in club soccer.

FIFA’s 2021 club world championship will feature 25 teams, with a playoff match reducing the field to 24 teams placed into eight groups of three teams. In the current format for the tournament, group winners would move into a knockout round that culminates in a final. Europe (eight) and South America (six) will provide the bulk of the teams for the event under a plan outlined by FIFA, which said the event would take place over 15 match days.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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