Soccer is becoming political arena as Infantino, FIFA court outside money

Sport has always played a proxy role in politics or conflict. Since its earliest martial origins in ancient Greece, through the Cold War boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, to the state-sponsored training programmes that continue to this day, the Olympic Games have always felt like a peacock contest between nations as much as between athletes.

Soccer has by and large tended to avoid that narrative. Until now. As it has outgrown Olympic sport in terms of its global popularity to become the single biggest global cultural phenomenon, it has been thrust into the grown-ups' playground of geopolitics. Soccer, more than ever, is now a macro-political football.

The proofs have been there for all to see in recent weeks with the announcement of a proposed revamp of the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. Upon announcing his plans to the FIFA Council in Bogota in March, its president, Gianni Infantino, told members that the project would see a 49 percent stake in the competitions sold to third parties in a deal worth $25 billion to FIFA.

Though he withheld the investors' identity from the Council, alarmingly citing confidentiality agreements he had signed, it has been reported by the Financial Times that the provenance of the cash is from the global tech investor Softbank, led by the Japanese businessman Masayoshi Son. This tells us much about the investors' motive.

Diplomatic conflict

The largest single investment in Softbank is the $45 billion ploughed in by the sovereign-wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which has developed a more ambitious world view under its current crown prince, Sheikh Muhammad bin Salman. Another minority co-investor in Softbank is the Arabian Emirate of Abu Dhabi, whose profile has gained much from soccer through its ownership of the current Premier League champions, Manchester City.

Saudi Arabia appears to want some of this soft-power projection for itself. This is not least because there have been tensions in recent months between Saudi Arabia and its neighbour, Qatar. In June last year, the Saudis led a coalition of Arabic-speaking nations to cut off relations with the world's biggest natural-gas producer, effectively creating a blockade.

One of the fronts in that diplomatic conflict has been soccer, resulting in the systematic piracy of the Qatari broadcaster beIN SPORTS by a Saudi-based outfit called BeOutQ. This has utterly undermined the business model for beIN, creating a headache for Qatar itself. Now it seems Saudi Arabia could also be targeting Qatar's global soccer jamboree, namely the 2022 FIFA World Cup it is set to host.

By taking a 49 percent stake in the revamped FIFA Club World Cup and new Global Nations League tournament alongside its partners in Softbank, Saudi Arabia would have enormous influence over club and international soccer. How this would be wielded is anyone's guess. However, with a planned start date for the new Club World Cup of 2021, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia is making massive soccer investments so close to Qatar's big day through mere coincidence.

The ambitious, new tournament plans have won over the FIFA president and he in turn has been wooing the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United. But there remains staunch opposition from other established football interests, not least the rump of European clubs and leagues. This might feel familiar and trivial, as there was a time that Qatar faced resistance from major European clubs over plans to host a winter World Cup in 2022 only for those objections eventually to be smoothed over. This time, though, the opposition within football is more implacable.

Divide and rule

FIFA insists it is working collaboratively. It told me: "Constructive talks have been held with the relevant stakeholders on these proposals and further consultation will continue in the upcoming weeks." It will flesh out its proposals at the next FIFA Council meeting on June 10 -- in the geopolitical seat of Moscow, intriguingly -- but leagues and most clubs will not be won over. They say they are furious at Infantino's divide-and-rule tactics. Approaching individual clubs for their endorsement and using confederations' general secretaries to explore support for the project, rather than to hold a full stakeholder-consultation exercise, has gone down very badly indeed.

In a letter issued to Infantino in March and seen by ESPN FC, Richard Scudamore, the chairman of the World Leagues Forum (a lobby group) and the executive chairman of England's Premier League, expressed his disquiet over Infantino's Club World Cup and Global Nations League plans.

"The leagues believe that the improvement of the professional football environment is only possible if FIFA and all stakeholders work closely together," wrote Scudamore. "During the last Football Stakeholders' Committee meeting [on Feb. 28], stakeholders raised many and varied concerns regarding FIFA's proposal to switch the current FIFA Club World Cup to summer and significantly increase the number of participating clubs.

"Members expressed many concerns regarding the rationale of this new competition. FIFA itself highlighted, within the same FSC meeting, the International Match Calendar's congestion and the lack of rest periods for players most in demand. A new competition in the summer, involving more teams, will only bring greater congestion and health concerns for clubs and their players."

As recently as this Wednesday, Scudamore's concerns were powerfully echoed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin when he addressed a meeting of European Union sports ministers. In fact, he made no attempt to disguise his contempt for Infantino and his plans.

"As long as I am UEFA president, there will be no room for pursuing selfish endeavours or hiding behind false pretenses," said Ceferin. "I cannot accept that some people who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering [selling] the soul of football tournaments to nebulous private funds. Money does not rule and the European sports model must be respected. Football is not for sale. I will not let anyone sacrifice its structures on the altar of a highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism."

Ceferin added that the concentration of wealth that FIFA's new tournaments would engender in a few clubs "threatens the competitive balance that is essential to football's appeal. We are ready to take action to enhance competitive balance... There is an urgent need to act and respond before it is too late."

Ceferin then begged the European national sports ministers for their active assistance in facing down FIFA over its plans.

"Do not sit idly by... do not adopt a wait-and-see policy," he added. "You should share this objective that we strive to meet: the openness and unpredictability of competitions."

Geopolitical power play

The UEFA president was appealing to European governments on narrow football grounds of competitive balance, openness and unpredictability. But the backdrop of a geopolitical power play is what might rouse those governments to action and it is no coincidence that the most ambitious global players are now vying for a higher profile through football.

Russia and Qatar gained their slice of the action with their 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and their efforts to win the hosting rights against respective bids from England and the United States was a heavyweight battle. With FIFA demanding government guarantees from the bidding nations, the lobbying teams on all sides were stuffed with statesmen. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger served on the U.S. 2022 bid board. Russia's then-prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, worked hard to promote theirs. And David Cameron, then the UK's prime minister, also played an active role in lobbying the FIFA Executive Committee decision makers.

The water under the bridge since those bid decisions shows that FIFA was too unsophisticated back then to realise the part it was playing in the bigger international-relations picture. The arrests and incarcerations of many senior FIFA figures -- vice-presidents and Executive Committee members among them -- for embezzlement and corruption demonstrates their naïvety.

FIFA had better get serious now as the global powers are mobilising again.

Show of strength

When faced with such intense opposition from within his core constituency (soccer interests), it begs the question of what motivates Infantino to take such geopolitical risks for the benefit of certain favored investors. The key to this is, clearly, money.

Infantino has placed FIFA (and himself) in a position of weakness from what had seemed a show of strength. The promise to quadruple development payments to member associations won him election to his position in 2016. But meeting those commitments has not been easy. In the first two years of Infantino's presidency, cumulative pre-tax losses at FIFA were $552.6m, leading to FIFA's reserves dwindling by $480m -- more than a third.

FIFA's accounts for 2017 projected adequate revenues to cover the shortfall in this World Cup year, but the pace of expenditure outside of that bumper-income period has been dramatic. The FIFA president clearly envisages the sale of very substantial equity stakes in FIFA tournaments to Softbank and its backers as a means of raising the cash that would render the big Infantino-era spending plans immaterial.

The cash on offer might be appealing but the costs to Infantino in terms of political capital are potentially huge given the opposition within soccer. One thing Ceferin did not mention to the European sports ministers was the integrity concerns that arise with having outside investors involved in soccer competitions. (It is a bitter irony that the 32-year-old World Cup referee banned for life last week for attempted match fixing, Farhad Al Mirdasi, should have been a Saudi.) Nor did he go into detail about how once he has created football's preeminent competitions, it would affect football development for almost half of the dividends they generate to drain out to third-party investors, who own 49 percent of the cake.

When I asked about these things, FIFA had no answer. But as Infantino plots to spend his way to re-election to the FIFA presidency in 2019, the imperative to raise more money is clear. The alternative is to depend on the promises of "jam tomorrow" from a hugely successful World Cup bid. Fortunately for him, there is another geopolitical bloc with its own soccer ambitions. The North American United bid for 2026, consisting of the United States, Mexico and Canada, is standing by to provide a massive payday for FIFA.

Overwhelming support

In May, that joint U.S.-Can-Mex bid promised $11bn of revenues if it is awarded the 2026 World Cup hosting rights. Next month, FIFA Congress will vote to decide whether to approve either United 2026 or its rival bidder, Morocco 2026. The United States is believed to have a powerful ally in Infantino, who is suspected by Morocco of actively favoring the North American bid, but the decision is not as clear cut as it might seem.

Corralling the diverse breadth of individual FIFA member associations in the United bid's favour has proved tricky. Morocco has overwhelming support among the 56 African nations, consisting of more than a quarter of FIFA's entire membership. In another reflection of the growing power of the Middle East in global soccer politics, it is Morocco's fellow Arabic-speaking nations who could be kingmakers in the process. The Asian Football Confederation has 47 members arranged in five cluster federations, of which the Arab-nation West Asian Football Federation is the political epicenter.

The AFC's president is Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a Bahraini and the man Infantino beat to the FIFA presidency. Another of the most powerful figures in global soccer is the former FIFA Executive Committee member Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees. Between them, these men carry vast influence over Asian and global soccer politics.

The bid they choose to support in the coming World Cup decision will be telling. Should they try to carry Asia in Morocco's favor, it might require only a handful of swing voters to support the Maghrebin nation for it to finally win those World Cup hosting rights after four failed attempts.

Political capital

Given the horse-trading that so often goes on behind closed doors at FIFA's Zurich headquarters, it is reasonable to assume that whatever political capital is spent in garnering support for one 2026 World Cup bid or the other will affect what influence can be exerted on the ongoing Club World Cup and Global Nations League discussions.

Neither Sheikh Ahmad nor Sheikh Salman has commented on Infantino's Saudi-backed plans; nor have they spoken about the World Cup bid decision. But whomever they choose to support (Morocco, the United States, Saudi Arabia or any combination thereof) will have a strong bearing on the future shape of world soccer, the destination of the 2026 World Cup and the soft power it projects.

What has become clear is that soccer matters more these days than ever. Throughout the 1800s, the central Asian tussle between Russia and Great Britain over regional primacy and access to Indian trade routes was labelled the "Great Game." Now, in the 21st century, geopolitics over-arches this great game of ours.