A Football World Cup Every Two Years? An Expert Runs the Numbers

By Christina Philippou, Principal Lecturer, Accounting and Financial Management, University of Portsmouth. Originally published at The Conversation.

In May 2021, Fifa began exploring the idea of holding a men’s football World Cup every two years instead of four. Further plans have since been unveiled, and the proposal, which originally came from Saudi Arabia, has received support from some international organisations.

Fifa’s chief of global football development and former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger says he is “100% convinced” it is the right way forward for the sport.

Others, including fan groups, have quickly called foul on the proposal. Uefa, responsible for governing football in Europe, has threatened a boycott, with its president Aleksander Ceferin commenting: “We can decide not to play in it … So good luck with a World Cup like that.”

Arguments in favour of the scheme include more frequent quality football entertainment and the chance to raise more funds for player development in poorer countries. Those against complain of a loss of novelty value and the need to look after the health of players.

But like most decisions taken in the world of business, be it banking or sport, this is not just about pros and cons. It is about financial benefits and costs.

For Fifa, the majority of its revenue comes from the broadcasting fees, licensing rights and ticket sales of the men’s World Cup tournament, held every four years since 1930. In fact, there is a clear financial cycle in which losses accrue in three out of every four years. More World Cups could bring in more income.

So why isn’t Uefa keen to do the same? Potentially, the change could lead to it hosting the Euros more frequently (also currently held every four years) and also benefiting from increased revenue.

The main difference is that Uefa simply is not as financially dependent on a single event. Instead, it has something Fifa does not have: more than one major event that generates money. These include the Champions League (men’s and women’s) and Europa League competitions.

Shared goals?

As a result, Uefa makes much more money than Fifa does. Over the last four years, UEFA’s revenues, at US$12.5 billion (£9.4 billion), were almost double those of Fifa, which brought in US$6.4 billion (£4.6 billion).

It is also a much smoother revenue year-on-year, whereas Fifa is more dependent on a large boost every four years. Clearly, Fifa needs the men’s World Cup more than Uefa needs the Euros.

In fact, the majority of Uefa’s annual revenue comes from club competitions, which they would not be keen to disrupt. In 2016, (Euro 2020 figures are not yet available) Uefa generated €293 million (£249 million) more from club competitions that year than it did from the international tournament.

So for Uefa, as well as for the European clubs that play in those club competitions, maintaining those revenues is more important from a financial standpoint. Both Uefa and Fifa are, after all, governing bodies looking after their members’ needs – and plans for development and growth of the game at all levels costs money.

As for the clubs, there are potentially serious costs of making their players available for more international duty, such as the risks of player fatigue and injury. Large clubs are more likely to have a number of national team players and therefore more likely to face greater overall risk to their squad. Smaller clubs may have a national player as their star performer.

Spending Power

Currently Fifa’s largest outgoing – about US$500 million (£362 million) a year – is on what it terms “development and education”. It sounds like a laudable aim, and few would argue against Wenger’s aim to “provide an incentive to invest in youth programmes”.

But it is worth thinking seriously about where extra funds would come from. Doubling the number of World Cups does not necessarily mean double the money.

Income is generated from a number of sources, and in the last World Cup year (2018), TV broadcast rights made up the largest (55%) source of Fifa’s revenue (ticket sales made up only 15%).

But what broadcasters pay for rights depends on demand from the prospective audience. The more people want to watch something, the more they are willing to pay to outbid their competitors.

Making a major event less rare (and therefore perhaps less major), by having it occur twice as often, and clashing with other sporting events that people want to watch (such as the Olympics) can easily dilute value to broadcasters, making them less willing to pay.

This is the gamble. With more events but potentially less money per event, will the overall effect be a positive one for Fifa’s income? And is any extra money worth risking the wrath of Uefa, some of the world’s biggest clubs, and crucially, the fans?

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  1. Anonymous2

    It is all driven by greed, I have no doubt.

    International football has already become quite ridiculous in its demands. I happen to be a Tottenham Hotspur fan: at present some of our players are virtually never available to play for the club because they are either away on international duty or having to quarantine on their return, only to disappear again on international duty almost immediately. So the club pays huge wages to players who are hardly ever available to play.

    Something needs to change. The present arrangements are bad also for the health of the players who need more downtime.

  2. H. Toin

    It would seem this idea is already dead.

    The IOC was totally against it because of the clash between the Olympic Games and a biennial World Cup :

    And since then the South American federation (CONMEBOL), which had previously approved the scheme, has apparently changed its mind :

  3. voislav

    The main issue is the one of calendar. As mentioned, club competitions are very lucrative for the continental associations and a World Cup every 2 years would require adding extra international game windows into an already crowded schedule.

    For those who are unfamiliar, the way football works is that there are 3 levels of competition: national club, continental club and international. National club competitions are typically played on weekends and continental club mid-week. International games are slotted into special windows, usually 7-10 days long which are coordinated between continental associations.

    Mayor international competitions (World Cup, Euros, Copa Libertadores) run on a 2-year cycle. The qualifying games for the event start almost two seasons before the event as international game windows are few and far between. So during a 4-year World Cup cycle, international games are played at a constant rate, 2-year qualifying cycle for the World Cup and a 2-year qualifying cycle for the continental competition (like Euros).

    So running a World Cup every 2-years would also eliminate time available for continental competitions as World Cup qualifiers would eat up all the international game windows, running basically perpetual qualifiers. World Cup qualifying cycle typically only involves 10-12 games per team over two years, so 5-6 games a year.

    Two options to make this happen would be to make more international game slots available at the expense of national and continental club competitions. This is a non-starter for clubs, who in turn control the national associations, who elect FIFA and UEFA leadership.

    Probably what happened is that FIFA leadership was looking to increase their grift pool and floated the idea to the continental associations. UEFA was of course against it because they know that any leadership supporting that scheme would not be in power for long. CONMEBOL initially agreed and then probably received some pointers from Brazilian and Argentinian associations, leading to a change of mind. Smaller associations are probably in favour, they would gain more money from biannual World Cup than from their own continental competitions.

    1. Darthbobber

      It would also stretch the physical capacity of the players still further, since the ranks of international players are largely filled with club players. The idea of maintaining the regional cups (much less holding them more often) if the world cup were every 2 years is probably unfeasible. The present international breaks in the club schedules couldn’t handle that, and doubling them would leave no club off season to speak of.

      1. Darthbobber

        Many clubs already balk at releasing players for international duty, and can be pretty creative with the mysterious maladies that leave players unavailable for the national team but perfectly match fit for the critical league game that follows.

    1. Anon1337

      1. Because it’s boring
      2. Mens football is comparatively highly competitive and intense
      3. It’s a drag to be bombarded with lies like how US Women team is being paid less money than Men’s team

      1. JR

        It is my understanding that the the US women’s national soccer (football) team brings in more revenue than the US men’s national team (I remember reading this somewhere, though not 100 percent sure of this fact). If this fact is correct, and if one has an “eat what you kill” mentality, then the US women’s national team members should/must be paid more than the US men’s national team members.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Because the women’s game is so so and limited to a few elite countries including the US (the reason why it’s so so. Championship games are fun, but the rest are just meh) where soccer isnt even a real sport, with a reliance on international play which I doubt is the draw people think it is without a regular local league. To catch up, it’s going to take years of development along with questions of whether it will catch on.

      Saudi Arabia is on board for this extra world cup plans. It’s about what people can get from the existing pie. Player development is just an excuse to sell it to the plebes, so no one will go, “err…the Saudis?”

      As for the US, “soccer is the next big thing” articles ended their 30 run about 10 years ago. It’s not happening.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        And I hope it never does. I say that as a keen football – and I use that term in its global sense, substitute soccer if you wish – fan, who happens to hail from the U.S. I always root against the U.S. men’s team. Instead, I pledged my allegiance to the England team when I lived in the UK from ’83 until ’88 (and married an Englishman in ’86, about the time of the Hand of God catastrophe). As other long-suffering England supporters know, England needs all the support they can get.

        My reason for rooting for anyone-but-the-U.S.: If the U.S. were to become a real football power, as in so many other areas, the U.S. would throw its weight around, and try to change the rules of the game to make it more advertiser-friendly. One thing I love about football is the free flowing nature of the game: few starts and stops. No commercial breaks.

        So, I hope the US never gains a seat at the top international football table.

        1. skk

          Re: Football v Soccer
          I remember, 25 or so years ago, as a irregular regular going to the Scotland Yard pub in Woodland Hills, CA, and saying to the owner ( was a drummer in the Marmalades ) – “Can you put the soccer on (TV)”. He ignored me. Knowing he was deaf, I said it LOUDER. Nothing. I said it even louder – he says:
          “We play football”
          I muttered ” Yeah but c’mon we are in the US afterall, but ok – Can you put the footie on please ?”

          Too funny. Meanwhile, RIP Greavsie. I remember the controversy of him switching from Chelsea to Spurs in the late ’60s. Traitor :-)

          And on topic – once every 4 years is just fine else it will crowd out all sorts of other fine international class championships.

        2. Daniel LaRusso

          free flowing … have you seen them implement VAR ?

          But I’m one fo the few supporters of VAR, the refs needed it with the scourge of punditry

        3. KFritz

          With oodles of Schadenfreude! The USMNT (US Men’s National Team) has its best personnel in 20 years. The “B” team beat Mexico’s A-/B+ team in the finals of the Gold Cup regional tournament. It has a very good coach in Greg Berhalter–from Boigen County!

          I believe the US would still have to produce more revenue than it does now for FIFA in order to throw its weight around. Under the Chuck Blazer-Jack Warner regime, our regional organization CONCACAF certainly punched above its weight in terms of corruption.

      2. QuicksilverMeesenger

        > “As for the US, “soccer is the next big thing” articles ended their 30 run about 10 years ago. It’s not happening.”

        I don’t know what your measure is but it doesn’t seem to be correct. Numbers from before the pandemic:

        ‘Competition began in 1996 and MLS attendance has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, making it one of the fastest-growing sports leagues in the world. The average attendance of 21,692 in 2016 was a 57% increase over the 13,756 average in 2000. The total attendance of 7,375,144 in 2016 is more than triple the 2,215,019 total of 2002’

        1. Basil Pesto

          yeah, it’s never going to get to NBA/MBL/NFL levels but there’s more than enough people in America to keep pro soccer ticking along nicely.

          It’s interesting to me how early 20th century immigrants didn’t seem to bring their love of soccer with them to the US, even though the sport was still relatively young – it was very popular in Europe nonetheless. Assimilationist trends and tendencies? It seems to be different with latin American immigrants. Interestingly, it’s a bit different in Australia – emigré communities took to Australian Rules Football eventually but there was always some vestigial love for soccer, and strong support in immigrant communities for the former professional soccer league – the NSL. Its successor, the A-League, has a wider support base (it really got going after Australia’s excellent 2006 World Cup performance), though it’s still less popular than the dominant football codes (although in Melbourne and Adelaide, where AFL is the dominant code, I suspect it’s more popular than Rugby League, which is the dominant code in NSW and QLD)

      3. KFritz

        Women’s Association Football is in some ways more enjoyable thatn men’s game. The significantly but not dramatically slower pace allows more time to appreciate the geometric beauty of the game in real time.

    3. Daniel LaRusso

      womens football is a terrible standard. It’s not much beyond semi pro mens football. No real pace/power/athleticism. I love sport and I can watch female tennis, snooker, gymnastics, darts. But female football is a poor watch.

      1. Basil Pesto

        I sort of agree to the extent that I don’t (yet) watch women’s football (and prefer, say, women’s pro golf to men’s) but


        is only part of the equation. It’s not really clear to me why I’d watch a League One game over, say, a women’s Champions League game, if they were the only two options available to me. The superior technical quality of the latter is likely to outweigh the testosteroney athleticism of the former when it comes down to entertainment.

        There was something a bit forced and inorganic about how women’s football became a thing all of a sudden (and, indeed, how the graun’s coverage of women’s football bulked up and surpassed their coverage of the Championship and lower leagues pretty much overnight), but a thing is indeed what it is becoming. It is undeniably growing in popularity. It’s not even hard to believe when there are just so many darn people in the world. I’m sure FIFA’s acutely aware of this growing market.

      2. Darthbobber

        Well, in most countries it is effectively semipro. A large fraction of the women’s club footballers around the world are part-time footballers, who can’t afford to give up their non-football jobs.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Considering the fact that the world is still in the middle of a pandemic and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was almost a shambles due to it, perhaps this can idea be looked at in another time, at the appropriate juncture, in due course, in the fullness of time.

  5. Alex Cox

    One of the good points about the coming civilizational collapse is that I will never have to hear about football, baseball, basketball or the olympics, ever again.

  6. Basil Pesto

    I was a bit sad to see Arsène throw his weight behind this :(
    I haven’t looked at the arguments in favour in much detail (and Wenger is smart and honest enough that I’m sure there would be some) but… it just seems so unnecessary. On the other hand the “Nations League” where they’ve tried to give the usual interminable international friendlies some competitive weight is knackers. I could also imagine it redounding to the benefit of smaller nations in Europe and beyond – give them a bigger piece of the pie, improvement of player development. On the other hand, diluting the World Cup, as the article points out, risks taking the appeal away.

    I don’t trust FIFA institutionally, obviously. Nor UEFA. It is interesting to note these powerplays this past year in an industry that remains awash in cash (possibly to bezzle-acious levels, with that Michael Pettis article and the general absurdity of the transfer market in my mind) but suffered quite a bit of the shock to the system in 2020.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        And although I admit I haven’t delved into the details, something is awry if Messi had to leave Barcelona – which I think – having seen his press conference – he was genuinely loath to do.

        1. Basil Pesto

          FCB are a big mess financially with lots of debt, and politically they’ve long been a big unwieldy mess. I wish I had a good link for you but I’m not sure where to start. I’ll keep an eye out for anything good. Sid Lowe in the guardian is generally excellent on Spanish football. I feel like the European football business is in a very interesting, precarious place at the moment and people don’t really seem to get it, but who knows.

        2. Larry Y

          Spain’s financial fair play regulations have actual teeth. Can’t register the player until the spending rules are met.

          Barcelona (or Real Madrid) also don’t have an oligarch or petro-state owner to buy up the debt and restructure it.

  7. Larry Y

    The north american confederation CONCACAF already runs their regional championship every two years. This is for many of the same reasons, to give smaller countries more meaningful matches to play, and bring funding to the minnows.

    However, the tournament is always held in the US. Mexico or the US usually win it, and only a few teams are truly regularly competitive.

    The US regularly sends a B or C team to tournaments, like this year’s tournament, due to the fact that there was also a Nation’s League championship this year.

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