Gianni Infantino, president of global soccer’s governing body FIFA, is facing widespread condemnation for bizarre comments made yesterday, in which he seemed to suggest that a good reason for doubling the frequency of the quadrennial FIFA World Cup would be to give hope to Africans who might otherwise risk drowning in the Mediterranean.
Infantino, during a speech to the Council of Europe yesterday (January 26), said: “We need to give hope to Africans so they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find, maybe, a better life - but more probably death in the sea.
“We need to give opportunities … by allowing the rest of the world to participate [in a biennial World Cup].”
These comments, which have been interpreted by many as attempting to link doubling the frequency of the World Cup with slowing the levels of African migration into Europe through dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean, have since been described as “completely unacceptable” and “disgusting| by human rights campaigners, however.
Currently, teams from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) receive five slots at the 32-team World Cup, although for the 2026 North American edition, that number will almost double to nine.
Even taking into account the rise, however, five teams will only represent 17% of the eligible African sides - 54.
FIFA is currently pushing its agenda of holding the quadrennial World Cup once every two years instead of once every four, with Infantino having repeatedly said the governing body sees this as a way of both reshaping the international calendar into a more orderly structure and of ensuring that countries that have so far not made it to many (or any) World Cups now get their chance through giving them double the number of opportunities to qualify.
Of the 54 CAF members, 41 have never qualified for the World Cup, and CAF said last year that it is willing to approach conversations about a biennial World Cup with an open mind.
However, the president’s comments have been criticized heavily over the last 24 hours as being tone-deaf and offensive.
Tony Burnett, chief executive of the UK-based anti-racism charity Kick It Out, said: “It is completely unacceptable to suggest that a biennial World Cup, predominantly set up to drive further profits for FIFA, could be a solution for migrants who risk their lives, sometimes fleeing war-torn countries, to seek a better life.
“If FIFA has a genuine commitment to tackling inequality, they should be investing time and resource into charitable causes on the ground, rather than disguising what appears to be a profit-making biennial World Cup as the answer to any existing problems.”
Andrew Stroehlein, media director of the Human Rights Watch Europe charity, added: "My colleagues at HRW interview refugees around the world pretty much every day. They never mention the timing of World Cup tournaments.”
Ronain Evain, executive director of the Football Supporters Europe organization, said the comments were “disgusting.”
Later, Infantino said his original remarks were misinterpreted and claimed: “My more general message was that everyone in a decision-making position has a responsibility to help improve the situation of people around the world.
“If there are more opportunities available, including in Africa, but certainly not limited to that continent, this should allow people to take these opportunities in their own countries.”
FIFA has been attempting to lay the groundwork for a biennial World Cup since May when the idea was first formally proposed by the Saudi Football Federation (with a feasibility study having been voted through at that point).
Proponents of the biennial World Cup proposal have said it will give smaller nations a greater chance of competing on the world’s biggest stage and play more top-tier tournaments, while those who stand against the idea have said it will overwhelm the international fixture calendar and lead to an increase in player fatigue and injury.
From the start, however, the project has been greeted with entrenched opposition from several key stakeholders in the game, including from the governing bodies of soccer in both Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL).
In late December, Infantino said, when asked if he was prepared to make enemies of bodies such as UEFA and CONMEBOL by pushing this through: “This is not a threat to anyone - my role is to bring everyone on board …
“We will continue to debate this topic in a respectful way, having in mind the good of the sport and not of any one particular person or organization.
“I don’t believe we are making enemies - my job is to try and work together with everyone.”
He also said there was no specific timeline in terms of when a final decision would be made, which is partly due to the continued substantial opposition from both the European and South American nations.
The original suggestion for a biennial World Cup from the Saudis was referred to by Infantino as “an eloquent and detailed proposal” earlier this year, and the subsequent vote to set up a feasibility study secured 166 votes in favor from the various worldwide national federations, with only 22 federations standing against.
The next men's FIFA World Cup is set for November and December 2022 in Qatar.