Mystery group offers Fifa €20 billion for control of two tournaments

Gianni Infantino told delegates at a meeting in Colombia but didn’t reveal identities

Real Madrid won the Club World Cup last year. Photo: Getty Images

Real Madrid won the Club World Cup last year. Photo: Getty Images

 

The sheer size of the number stunned the room.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino told his top board last month that a fund of investors from the Middle East and Asia wanted to pay about €20 billion to buy an expanded version of Fifa’s Club World Cup as well as the rights to a proposed global league for national teams.

According to several people with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in Bogotá, Colombia, last month, details of the offer were scant. Infantino did not reveal the identity of the investors to the assembled Fifa Council, though he said the group wanted a speedy decision on its offer.

Such an agreement would be unprecedented. Fifa has never sold control of its events to the highest bidder, and never to an investment fund.

The council rejected Infantino’s request to push forward with the proposal, saying it needed more information. But the fact that Infantino would even entertain such a proposal illustrates global soccer’s current state of flux. The sport’s top clubs, its leading figureheads and deep-pocketed investors are dueling with one another to try to unearth new ways to capitalise on the world’s most popular sport.

Selling the competitions to a third party would also represent a major shift in Fifa’s business model, which relies on the sales of tickets, sponsorships and media rights for revenue. Under the proposal delivered to Infantino, the consortium would even decide where the new competitions are held.

The proposal could help Infantino, who was elected as president in 2016, on his quest to increase revenues and restore profits at Fifa, which were hurt by a major corruption scandal in 2015. He also wants to make good on a promise of a fourfold increase in development funds to Fifa’s 211 member nations. He faces re-election next year.

But many members at the Bogotá meeting were frustrated by Infantino’s lack of candor as they met at the cavernous Ágora Convention Center, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the meeting. Infantino said he had committed to a nondisclosure agreement, but he wanted the council’s permission to push ahead to complete an agreement with the mystery group.

Fifa declined to comment on Monday.

Few details are known about the potential deal, which would be for as many as three editions of the tournaments. But, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting, Infantino received a proposal earlier this year to bring the club tournament to China and Saudi Arabia, two nations that are committed to expanding their leisure and entertainment sectors.

At the Fifa Council meeting, members received a briefing on a proposal for an expanded Club World Cup, which is currently contested annually by the seven clubs who win their regional tournament. The briefing outlined plans for a quadrennial club tournament similar to the Fifa World Cup that would feature a minimum of 12 teams from Europe, home to sport’s richest and most-popular clubs.

The document, however, gave no hint of the €20 billion investors offered. Infantino delivered that information verbally.

European representatives were resistant because the competition could compete with the Champions League. A group of African council members also withheld support because they were frustrated that Fifa had not been more supportive of Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid.

At a news conference after the meeting, Infantino, without referencing his talks with the consortium, said discussions about the future of Fifa’s club competitions would continue, and would be addressed at the next council meeting, in Moscow in June. The current Club World Cup is worth less than €81 million.

Europe’s clubs and leagues complained to Fifa and to Uefa ahead of the March meeting about what they perceived as a lack of transparency and consultation over plans that would directly affect their operations. Sensing moves were afoot to formalise a new competition without their approval, groups representing clubs and leagues sent letters to Infantino and to Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, who also has called for more discussions to take place.

“To be presented with Fifa’s ‘solution’ as a fait accompli and claim this to be consultation defies all definitions of best practice and good governance,” Richard Scudamore, the executive chairman of England’s Premier League, wrote to Infantino on March 9th after learning the Fifa Council might vote on expanding its club tournament. Scudamore was writing in his capacity as chairman of the World Leagues Forum, a consortium representing top leagues from four continents.

The European Club Association, a group representing more than 200 of the continent’s biggest clubs, rejected any plans to create a new club competition at its annual meeting in Rome last month. The ECA’s president, Andrea Agnelli, who is also chairman of the Italian club Juventus, said the clubs wanted fewer games, in order to protect player health. He said no new tournaments could be created before 2024. Infantino wants to launch the new club event in 2021.

“When we think about the calendar going forward we must also take into consideration weeks when players can actually rest and or train,” Agnelli said last month.

Fifa has long coveted a worldwide club competition that would be as popular as the Champions League, which generates billions of dollars annually. Uefa will collect €12 billion during the current four-year cycle. Fifa will rely on the quadrennial World Cup for almost all of the roughly €4.5 billion it will collect during the same time period.

The national-team competition would include preliminary round, regional play and a final tournament featuring a handful of top teams.

Traditionally, sports organisations like Fifa and Uefa have been able to decide which tournaments and leagues players can participate in, though a European Union ruling against the International Skating Union late last year has led to concerns that the status quo could be upended by a rival with determination and deep pockets. The EU said the skating body’s prohibition against skaters taking part in a new unsanctioned event was an “extreme” restriction that served to protect its own commercial interests.

Some of Europe’s top clubs have previously threatened to create their own competitions, though that has long been seen as a negotiating tactic to ensure they retain the largest share of Champions League revenues. – New York Times service

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