FIFA head aims to rethink soccer competitions and schedule

GENEVA (AP) — World soccer was put on notice by FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday to imagine — and maybe expect — big changes to its international competitions in the coming years.

FIFA agreed to study whether the men’s and women’s World Cups could be played every two years instead of four, with Infantino asking out loud if they could alternate with continental championships to fill the calendar with annual national-team tournaments.

Infantino also defended talking with clubs about new projects like the breakaway Super League, which rocked European soccer body UEFA last month before a backlash quickly killed the plan.

After reports that FIFA secretly encouraged storied clubs to rebel against UEFA and its Champions League, Infantino insisted at a news conference people “should look at the facts and not rumors or corridor gossip.”

FIFA has declined for more than three months to respond to specific questions from The Associated Press about its president’s involvement in talks with Super League clubs, led by Real Madrid.

“To speak with some clubs doesn’t certainly mean in any way whatsoever that FIFA was behind or colluding or plotting … for any Super League project,” he said Friday, insisting he never closed his door to talks about new ideas.

“This is the way I live the presidency of FIFA,” said Infantino, who won election in 2016 as the official candidate of UEFA where he was a long-time senior staffer.

FIFA and UEFA have often had poor relations since Infantino switched organizations five years ago, and fulfilling his stated ambitions would put European competitions at risk.

Infantino also used the platform of FIFA’s online meeting of 211 member federations to say the sport needs to break the domination on and off the field by Europe and South America.

“There is a concentration of money and player talent which does not serve the global development or interests of the game,” he said. “We cannot simply ignore it.”

“We do not see equal opportunities throughout the world. We do not necessarily see too much solidarity either, to be honest.”

Infantino positioned FIFA as the protector of soccer’s worldwide family which is prepared to upend the traditional competition calendar and formats to seek more equality.

The chance for change is there because the FIFA-managed calendar of international competitions — which mandates when clubs must release players for national-team duty — expires in 2024.

FIFA is now ready to consult widely on redrafting the calendar, after turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic delayed the process last year.

“What kind of competitions do we need for the world?” said Infantino, also asking whether the season needed fewer breaks for national-team games.

Earlier, a Saudi Arabian soccer official proposing a feasibility study into biennial World Cups echoed FIFA’s own oft-repeated suggestion of “fewer but more meaningful games” to protect players’ health.

A biennial World Cup was first suggested more than 20 years ago by FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter though was not seriously investigated.

It has been revived in recent years by allies of Infantino, who has consistently proposed more and bigger tournaments. A review of women’s and youth competitions was also agreed Friday.

UEFA’s popular and lucrative Champions League could be affected by Infantino’s pet project of a 24-team Club World Cup. It was set to launch next month in China until the pandemic forced a postponement.

A biennial World Cup would clearly harm UEFA’s second-tier Nations League event, and likely take commercial value from the four-yearly European Championship.

In another FIFA move Friday against Europe, a friend of UEFA’s Slovenian president Aleksander Ceferin was removed from an oversight position.

Tomaž Vesel had chaired FIFA’s audit committee since 2016 but lost an election to lead the merged audit, governance and compliance panel. The vote was won by Mukul Mudgal, a judge from India, who previously led the governance committee. Mudgal will also replace Vesel chairing the compensation panel which oversees setting Infantino’s pay and performance bonuses.

In a rare contribution to debate from the FIFA membership, the six-nation Nordic group from northern Europe urged continued monitoring of human rights protections for migrant workers in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host.

“It is a priority for FIFA and it is a priority for Qatar as well,” Infantino told Finland soccer federation president Ari Lahti.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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