European clubs' desire for greater autonomy could wreck World Cup

Dissatisfaction with Fifa's decision-making and the threat of a breakaway are casting a shadow over the draw for Brazil 2014

Two enormous green discoball hemispheres flank the stage in Rio de Janeiro's stunning Marina da Glória, where the preliminary draw for the 2014 World Cup takes place on Saturday. Even the act of pulling names from a tombola has a liberal helping of hoopla in the world of football. But what will go unspoken as Sepp Blatter excitedly announces the shape of the qualifying tournament for Brazil 2014 is that the World Cup's place as football's premier event is under threat.

On 21 January 2008 the elite European clubs signed a document that led to the dissolution of their G14 pressure group. It seemed to presage peace between the game's employers and regulators as the clubs were incorporated within the Uefa structures under the European Club Association (ECA). The document stated: "According to the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Uefa on 21 January 2008, the first term of the MoU will run until 31.7.2014 and cover in particular the Uefa Euro 2008, the Fifa World Cup 2010, the Uefa Euro 2012 and the Fifa World Cup 2014. In due time prior to the end of that first term the parties will decide on an extension for the period after 31 July 2014."

The parties are a long way from deciding on that and without an extension the clubs will not be bound to release their players for international matches. The clubs' sense of isolation from world football's decision-making structures is acute. Under football's current hierarchy Fifa effectively takes its instructions from the full 208-member congress, few of whom are interested in the financial wellbeing of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Blatter submits to this plenary body for his electoral mandate, meaning that every decision Fifa takes is designed in the interests of the national associations.

Whenever a club delegation visits the $150m Fifa House, Blatter and his general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, politely give it an audience and then inform it to state its case through the "proper channels". Although within Uefa the ECA is the clubs' route to the decision-makers, by the time it reaches Fifa its views are diluted by those of the four other confederations. The 21-nation Fifa committee for club football contains teams from Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Colombia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Honduras, South Africa and Mexico and precious few of these member clubs provide the players who generate $1bn a year for Fifa through its World Cup contracts. Aggravating matters for those who do is the fact that of the $3.7bn Fifa earned from the 2010 World Cup it yielded a total of $40m to the clubs.

"There is no legal impediment to them breaking away if they want to," said a former senior insider at G14 who, although no longer directly involved in football, remains in close contact with political circles in the game. "Last time the clubs were satisfied when Uefa began sharing their Champions League revenues quite generously with them. They chose not to go to the end of the road and attack Fifa. Now the frustration is growing again and this will have an effect.

"It depends how they negotiate it. [The Bayern Munich directors] Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are the most outspoken but Florentino Pérez [the Real Madrid president] is the same. The English are also. This is a difficult balancing exercise because Fifa are quite greedy for money and for power."

It is clear that for the time being the threat of a breakaway competition for the elite clubs remains exactly that: a threat alone and whether the clubs will have the nerve to carry it out has been questioned by several the Guardian spoke to on Wednesday. But there are rumours throughout the game that Peter Kenyon, the former Chelsea chief executive who works for the US-based Creative Artists Agency, has been working up a blueprint for a breakaway league. He hired Phil Lines, the former head of broadcasting at the Premier League – whose services are surely not cheaply acquired after his gilded contract at Gloucester Place – leading many to infer that a market-testing exercise was under way. Kenyon told the Guardian on Wednesday that he has "not been appointed and it's not even on our radar". Yet, if the clubs are to make their threat credible, a feasibility study must be carried out.

There is no doubting what motivated the timing of Rummenigge's radical statement on Tuesday and it is the ongoing corruption scandal that has put Fifa's reputation on the ropes. As Fifa reels, the clubs see this as their window in history to exercise more power. Clearly Blatter does not care for appearances: his first assignment after his election last month, which came in the wake of the suspensions of two more of his 24 executive-committee members (two had already been banned), was to visit Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Yet he may be wildly miscalculating. Back in 2007 when the hostilities were previously at their height, clubs entertained European politicians at a Champions League match between PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal. One of them, the Belgian MEP Ivo Belet, stated at the time: "We could have in five or 10 years a European Union super league. Combined with collective selling of television rights that would be the perfect solution."

As 2014 fast approaches he could very well be right.


Matt Scott

The GuardianTramp

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