In public, Gianni Infantino has disowned the doomed European Super League project. But a confidential document seen by Josimar strongly suggests that, in private, he has encouraged it, and that Fifa has been playing a double game all along in order to extend its control over world football and weaken its greatest counter-power, UEFA.
By Philippe Auclair
At least things were clear in January.
“In light of recent media speculation about the creation of a closed European “Super League” by some European clubs, FIFA and the six confederations (AFC, CAF, Concacaf, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA) once again would like to reiterate and strongly emphasize that such a competition would not be recognised by either FIFA or the respective confederation. Any club or player involved in such a competition would as a consequence not be allowed to participate in any competition organised by FIFA or their respective confederation.”
The signatory whose name appeared in first position at the bottom of this statement was Fifa president Gianni Infantino, followed by the presidents of all six confederations.
Fast forward to 18 April, when the football world seemed about to shift on its axis, following the publication of multiple reports in British and US media that the long-feared European Super League was to become a reality, that a so-called ‘Dirty Dozen’ of the continent’s ‘superclubs’ had, indeed, come to a formal agreement. A few hours later, one by one, all of the conspirators had released their own statement, confirming the original leak.
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So, how would Fifa react to what, judging by the January statement, constituted a direct affront to its authority? By threatening the offending clubs – and their players – with an automatic suspension from all official Fifa- and Confederations-sanctioned tournaments? Far from it. Whilst Uefa, whose Congress would take place a matter of days later, immediately declared war – at least a war of words – on the twelve instigators of the breakaway competition, the Zurich-based organisation published a statement on its website that did not mention the word ‘exclusion’ once. Quite the opposite, in fact: it adopted the lofty tone favoured by neutral arbiters in an international dispute, as if it wasn’t really party to the conflict, and only wished it to be resolved as peacefully as possible. Fifa stood ‘firm in favour of solidarity in football and a model of equitable redistribution that can contribute to the development of football as a sport, especially worldwide‘. It called ‘on all parties involved in heated debates to engage in a calm, constructive and balanced dialogue for the good of the game and in a spirit of solidarity and fair play. FIFA, of course, will do whatever is necessary to contribute to a harmonized path towards the general interests of football‘.
In other words: ‘calm down, children, Daddy will sort you out’.
As could be expected, this conciliatory message went down like a lead balloon within Uefa, so much so that Gianni Infantino was compelled to change his tune when he addressed the Congress of the European Confederation in person on 20 April.
Marriage of convenience
Another factor had made it impossible for him to remain as non-committal as he’d been in the first instance: the astonishingly strong reaction of ordinary football fans, especially in England, which found a echo among players past and present, managers, national associations and, indeed, almost every single club which wasn’t involved in the project. And then, the clincher: within a matter of hours, it had become clear that the European Super League was doomed to fail. Fifa could not be associated in any way with such a shambolic enterprise. It had to change its tune, and Fifa did.
“We can only strongly disapprove the creation of the Super League,” Infantino told the Uefa Congress, “a Super League which is a closed shop, which is a breakaway from the current institutions, from the leagues, from the associations, from UEFA and from FIFA. […] If some elect to go their own way then they must live with the consequences of their choice. They are responsible for their choice. Concretely, this means either you’re in or you’re out. You cannot be half in or half out.”
This went down rather better with the European delegates than Fifa’s previous pronouncement, even if ‘disapproving’ and ‘condemning’ are far from the same thing and Infantino held back from proposing actual sanctions against those who did ‘elect to go their own way’. Yet Uefa president Aleksandr Čeferin could thank the Fifa president in these terms: “You showed that you care about the values of football. And if we stand together, we are unbeatable.” To the outside world, this suggested that Fifa and Uefa would at least be united in a common goal: the defeat of the rebels’ plans.
Except that all of this was a façade which fooled absolutely nobody within Uefa, as everyone within Uefa believed that Fifa had played a different hand in this game from the beginning, a hand it couldn’t show to the world – not yet. There were multiple clues that, far from being an adversary of the European Super League, Fifa had been party to its tractactions and had at least cast a benevolent eye on a plot it knew everything about. La Liga chairman Javier Tebas put it even more bluntly on 11 May at a sports conference in Madrid: “Infantino is pushing behind the [European] Super League and I told him so, in person.”
How could he be so sure?
The African Model
To start with, let’s change continents. From Europe to Africa.
One of the major criticisms levelled at the European Super League was its abandonment of the pyramid system. With promotion and relegation no longer applied as reward or punishment for performance, football would lose the very foundation on which it had built its competitive worthiness for a century and a half. The way clubs could circulate from one division to the next according to their merit had been the lifeblood of competition. To apply the tourniquet would kill the whole organism.
In this context, Infantino’s mention of a ‘closed shop’ in his address to the Uefa Congress appeared to show that the president of Fifa shared this belief in the sacrosanct nature of the pyramid system. The problem was that what he had repeatedly said elsewhere demonstrated that this was not the case. The idea of a ‘Super League’ gathering clubs which wouldn’t have to fear demotion – ever – did not bother him. On the contrary, this was exactly the idea that he’d been advocating and actively promoting for a while – for the ‘good’ of African, not European football. To wit, this is what he’d said in December 2019 while on a visit to Lumumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
“We have to take the 20 best African clubs and put them in an Africa league. Such a league could make at least US$200 million in revenue, which would put it among the top ten in the world.”
He had reprised the theme two months later, at a meeting with the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) in Budapest:
“I want to create a real pan-African league that would feature 20-24 clubs with a maximum of maybe two clubs per country that would still play in their national leagues but that would play during the year so we can really crown the club champions of Africa.”
The use of ‘I’ will have grated with many Africans, who would have thought that it was perhaps up to them, at least up to their Confederation to decide what was best for their football. Thankfully for Infantino, he now had this Confederation, CAF, at his heel since installing his ‘great friend’, South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe, as its, or should it be ‘his’ president in March, following an electoral campaign of which Fifa controlled every aspect, which Josimar analysed in detail. The creation of an African Super League remains very much on Fifa’s agenda, as was confirmed by a rather indiscreet tweet posted – on the very day of Motespe’s election in Rabat – by Barbara Gonzalez, the CEO of Simba SC, the up-and-coming Tanzanian club which belongs to another billionaire, Mohammed Dewji.
“It was great catching up with @FIFA.com President, Gianni Infantino on the sidelines of the #CAFElections2021. The rollout of the African Super League with 20 permanent member clubs is underway. We look forward to having @SimbaSCTanzania participate soon.”
The telling word in this tweet is ‘permanent’. The African Super League which Infantino is trying to establish and ‘is underway’ would seem to leave even less room for outsiders than the European model he ‘strongly disapproved of’, which at least kept a minimum of five of its twenty slots for clubs other than its founding members. It goes without saying that Motsepe’s own Mamelodi Sundowns would be one of the twenty lucky clubs, as would TP Mazembe, the property of another key African Infantino ally, Congolese billionaire businessman and would-be politician Moïse Katumbi.
It could be objected that the dire state of the finances of African club football, as well as the almost complete collapse of interest in domestic competitions there, makes it indispensable to think of strategies which cannot be applied elsewhere. Infantino, therefore, could defend an idea which would be of benefit to African football, but could not be transposed in a different eco-system; but this would be forgetting that the reason why Real Madrid, Juventus and the others decided to go along with their own plan is precisely that: the dire state of their own finances, which poses an existential threat to their very existence – at least as members of European football elite. It always was all about the money, stupid.
Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez and Juve’s Andrea Agnelli may be many (mostly unpleasant) things to many people, but they are not exaggerating when they warn about an impending catastrophe for the European football economy, with the pandemic acting as a kind of super-booster. Official accounts show that the ‘dirty dozen’ have accumulated over 800 million euro of combined losses in 2019-20. The 2020-21 results will be even worse. Milan, for example, has registered losses of 486,1 million euro over the last three seasons. The ‘economic’ argument is, mutatis mutandi, applicable in Europe as it is in Africa. Conversely, if Fifa is so vocally in favour of a Super League on one continent, why should it oppose it on another when the very principle of a ‘closed shop’ doesn’t seem to cause it much concern in itself? The answer, Tebas would say, is that it doesn’t, and that he has proof of it.
The Document – An Agreement With ‘W01’
The ‘proof’ is a 10-page confidential document of which Josimar has obtained a copy, which has been shared at the highest echelons of football’s governing bodies since last January. Its authors must remain anonymous for the time being, but its authenticity is not in doubt. Crucially, the mass of granular detail it offers on the projected Super League model (such as the location and structure of the controlling company, the format of the competition, the names of the clubs taking part, the amount of money offered to the founding clubs and put aside as solidarity payments, etc) was corroborated when the actual project was made public three months later. Every single particular was correct. This means that the rest of the information contained in this document – the part that was not made public in April – can be viewed with confidence. It makes for fascinating – and, for Fifa, extremely embarrassing – reading.
Gianni Infantino himself appears twice in this document, on page 3, barely disguised under the code name ‘W01’, as in ‘world number one‘. ‘A WCC [World Club Cup] Team Sheet is “agreed with W01 (Fifa?)‘, we read. And ‘it is also said that there is a “partnership” with W01″ for €1bn solidarity payments‘.
It is no secret that the set-up of a revamped, enlarged Fifa Club World Cup (CWC) remains one of Gianni Infantino’s main ambitions, even if his plan to have it in place as early as this year first floundered, then foundered when the pandemic hit. The competition which was supposed to welcome twenty-four teams in China, with financial backing widely believed to come from Saudi Arabia via Japanese financial group SoftBank, has now been moved to December 2021, when only seven teams will travel – or so it is hoped – to Japan.
However, as Infantino put it at a press conference held in December 2020, an expanded Club World Cup is “still on the agenda, we just haven’t decided when it will take place“. What he did not say then was that the fate of the Club World Cup he had in mind would be linked so closely to the fate of the European Super League that had been in development from 2017 at least. He is just as unlikely to say it now.
According to the document we have seen, the new-look CWC (theoretically starting in the 2023-24 season) would comprise, not of 24, but 32 teams, of which twelve would be the founder members of the European Super League. The tournament, taking place over three weeks in January, would be staged annually, not every four years as initially mooted. It would also be a full knock-out competition, in order to accommodate the greater number of teams taking part within the three-week window allocated to the tournament in the international calendar.
The advantages for Fifa would be clear. Continental Super Leagues, if organised by club consortiums and not by confederations, would provide the perfect feeder tournaments for its own flagship competition, which it could then brand, promote and sell as ‘The Best’, short-circuiting the existing continental cups (slow-killing them, in fact), and thereby weakening the economic and political power of confederations, two of which Infantino’s Fifa perceives as a threat to its desire of total dominance, South American CONMEBOL and European Uefa. The establishment of a Super League (in all but name) in Africa would represent a stepping stone. In Europe? Already a consummation.
It is in this light that Infantino’s more recent statements in the media should be seen. The president of Fifa first chose French sports daily L’Équipe to make a plea for forgiveness of the clubs which had defied Uefa (and, presumably, Fifa itself). “Certain actions should have consequences, and everyone must assume their responsibilities”, Infantino said in what was presented as an interview, but read more like a statement, echoing the words he’d used at the Uefa Congress. Then came the all-important caveat. “But you always have to be careful when you talk about sanctions. It’s said quickly that you have to punish. It’s even popular — or populist — sometimes. By punishing a club, for example, you are also punishing players, coaches and fans, who have nothing to do with it. [..] I always prefer dialogue to conflict, even in the most delicate situations”.
Infantino then moved on to Spanish AS, which is part-owned by a member of the Qatari royal family. “We stand by UEFA in rejecting the Super League”, he said. “We are against it and we will always be against any competition which is not part of the international structures of football and that threatens the unity and solidarity that should always exist in the football pyramid, which links grassroots and amateur level to the top stars. Having said that, it is also my duty to advocate that all the parties should enter into a profound and hopefully constructive dialogue in search of positive solutions”.
As ever, the devil lied in the choice of words. Most people would read this as a condemnation of the Super League; but it can also be understood as just the opposite, as the only way to keep the Super League option open in the wake of its dismal failure.
“Any competition which is not part of the international structures of football“. But what about a competition which, indeed, would be ‘part of the international structures of football’, i.e. devised in consultation with Fifa? Something similar to what Fifa fully intends to put in place in Africa? Now, that would be a different story.
One wonders what ‘W01’ would think of it.