MIAMI — Against the wishes of European soccer leaders, FIFA pushed through plans for a revamped World Cup of clubs featuring 24 teams at a meeting of its governing council on Friday. The decision ended a debate that had lasted a year, while at the same time raised doubts about the caliber of participants in a major new competition championed by FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino.
The remaking of the competition from winter afterthought to potential summer moneymaker — a replacement for the Confederations Cup, an unpopular national-team competition usually held a year before the World Cup — has led to a major breakdown in relations between FIFA and European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. All the European members at the FIFA meeting voted against the plan for the new tournament on Friday.
European club teams, whose participation will be critical to the success of the reimagined Club World Cup, reiterated their opposition to the event only minutes after FIFA made its announcement that it had been approved. The European Club Association, an umbrella body for the continent’s top teams, said its members would not participate in the event, even though FIFA’s plan includes slots for eight European teams.
Infantino, though, described himself as “a happy president,” saying he was confident that after further talks, opposition to the event would subside and the world’s top teams would take part. He pointed out that the event — held every four years — could bring in billions of extra dollars to FIFA’s coffers, which currently benefit from more than $6 billion from each World Cup.
“We hope all the greatest teams will participate,” Infantino said at a news conference. “The best teams should have this world platform.”
The main opposition to the plans largely relates to adding more events to soccer’s already busy global calendar, with fears that even more games could burn out top players, or leave them susceptible to injuries. UEFA said any changes should wait until 2024, when a new comprehensive schedule for global soccer is set to be approved.
The Club World Cup plan had led to an almost complete breakdown in the relationship between Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president. The men had not held talks for a year since a meeting last year in Colombia during which Infantino first unveiled the proposal. They did, however, meet for an hour on Thursday morning, where Ceferin outlined UEFA’s continued opposition.
In other news Friday, the FIFA Council agreed to push ahead with plans to expand the World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams, an undertaking fraught with complexity amid an ongoing diplomatic and economic standoff between Qatar and a group of its Gulf neighbors.
A study conducted by FIFA recently found Qatar, a desert state smaller than Connecticut, could not host an event with 16 more teams on its own. Unless the blockade — led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — is lifted, only Oman and Kuwait could be considered viable partners in the region. But both countries would be required to spend significant amounts on the infrastructure required to meet FIFA standards.
Greg Clarke, a FIFA vice president from England, told the meeting that FIFA must consider the human rights records of any additional host country, according to people present at the meeting. Qatar has been forced to adopt new workers regulations amid a backlash over its treatment of construction workers building the stadiums there. That scrutiny would likely shift to its neighbors, Clarke told the council members.
“How can you not think of human rights wherever you go? It must be an issue,” said Evelina Christillin, a FIFA Council member from Italy.
A delegation from Qatar, which was awarded the World Cup almost a decade ago, was also present in Miami. Hassan al-Thawadi, the executive responsible for 2022 World Cup preparations, said Qatar remained open-minded about expansion, provided it benefited Qatar as much as it did FIFA. He failed to answer when asked to provide one example of a benefit that his country could derive from an expanded tournament.
“We are open to exploring the options,” al-Thawadi said, adding it would be a “big, big challenge” to host a 48-team event if the blockade, now in its second year, continued. FIFA must make a final decision at a meeting of its 211 members in Paris in June; qualifying for the tournament begins that month, and teams and federations would need to know how many places are available.
Should the World Cup be enlarged, FIFA would need to play six matches per day to ensure the tournament can be completed within 28 days, a stipulation it agreed with European clubs after moving the tournament to November to avoid the searing Gulf summer. That would mean rest periods for some teams of as little as 48 hours, and a potential risk to athlete’ health, according to the largest players’ union, FIFPro
“At international competitions like the World Cup, the minimum rest period between matches must be maintained at 72 hours,” FIFPro said in a statement.