Today’s Sensemaker is something a little different. In a special episode showcasing our sister podcast, the Playmaker, we look at Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, and how he’s leading the change to hold the World Cup every two years not four. Is this an innovation too far from one of football’s change-makers?
Claudia Williams, narrating: Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
We’re actually doing something very exciting on today’s episode, and in a moment I’m going to be handing over to my colleague Chloe who presents one of our sister podcasts, the Playmaker.
Claudia: Hi Chloe…
Chloe Beresford: Hi Claudia.
Claudia: So tell me about the Playmaker podcast, what is it?
Chloe: Well it’s in the same format as the Sensemaker in that it’s one story every day to make sense of the world of football and we’ve covered everything from cocaine abuse to the transfer guru to leading women in football.
Claudia: Sounds really interesting, so tell us about today’s episode.
Chloe: It’s about Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, and he’s stiring up a bit of a hornet’s nest of trouble because he’s asking for the World Cup to be played every two years, rather than every four.
Claudia: Well thank you so much Chloe and over to you for today’s episode.
Chloe, narrating: Arsene Wenger published his autobiography recently, My Life in Red and White, and in it he talks about his early life in a small village in Alsace in France.
His parents ran a bistro, and there he says he saw everything that disgusted him, “alcohol, brawling and violence.”
So it was no surprise that when he arrived at Arsenal in 1996, he set about eradicating that same behaviour from his squad. Binge drinking was the norm in English football at the time, but one of Arsene Wenger’s first acts was to close down the players’ bar.
He got involved in what they ate as well as what they drank. Twenty five years ago we were still in the dark ages in understanding how eating well could improve performance. But Wenger is responsible for beginning the nutritional revolution in the Premier League. He’s widely regarded as a genuine innovator in English football.
Graham Norton: “Very quickly I just want to mention Arsene Wenger, because he was here before Christmas and you were there at Arsenal for that changing of the guard. Were you one of those guys who were really unhappy with all the new dietary requirements? All the discipline that he introduced?”
The Graham Norton Show
Ian Wright: “I was devastated. You’re talking about a black man that needs seasoning on his food. You know so Arsene Wenger came in talking about… we’d probably just have to eat that in it’s form, like it is… No salt, no anything, all we could do was drink water and eat food, like the chicken was literally just boiled and it just looks like… just wrong… everything was just for fuel.”
And now he works for FIFA as their chief of global development. It’s a perfect job for someone who wants to challenge the status quo – but as Arsene Wenger’s found, you have to be prepared to ride a storm of criticism when you challenge the establishment.
Wenger has become an advocate for plans to hold the World Cup every two years. And it’s become a huge talking point in football.
It might just be his greatest challenge yet, as all the biggest powers in the global game take care of their own interests. Arsene Wenger’s plan puts FIFA who run the World Cup in direct confrontation with UEFA who run the Euros.
Squashed between them, Arsene Wenger is in a really uncomfortable position.
Let’s not beat around the bush. A lot of this is about money. Since 2015, FIFA have made a loss every year except for 2018…the year the World Cup was held.
But the UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said that the proposal would “kill football” and that European Countries could boycott the competition if the idea goes ahead.
“More is not always better. You have probably heard that FIFA is conducting a feasibility study about the World Cup every two years. Well, we think that the jewel of the World Cup has value precisely because of its rarity.”Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA president, Sky Sports News
In England, the Premier League and the EFL have also come out against it. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is not a fan.
“In the end it’s all about money. That’s how it is… It’s always one main interest and all the rest is not interesting. There must be a point when UEFA, FIFA and all the other confederations sit together and start thinking about the game…erm…about the game! And not only about their benefit. But I’m already 54, I’m not sure I will be alive when that happens.”Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool Football Club’s manager, Sky Sports News
The South American football federation don’t want to go to a bi-annual tournament either. But I guess you’d expect some pushback from the established World Cup countries.
But let’s stand back for a minute from all the arguments over the pros and cons, because it’s interesting to look at the actual idea that Arsene Wenger is advocating.
He says he wants to only hold international fixtures that “have meaning”. So he’d scrap tournaments such as the UEFA Nations league, as well as the current system of international breaks. At the moment, players go off for international duty in September, October, November and March.
This season, for example, the Premier League had only played three games in the new season before players were called to represent their countries. In other European Leagues, teams had only played twice before the break.
Wenger’s plan – which was first proposed by the Saudi Arabian football federation – would see the current stop/start of domestic football changed for one five-week break in October to play qualifying matches.
Or, alternatively, that five-week break could be split into two by adding a second break in February. Wenger says that would mean players could dedicate themselves to their clubs from March until June.
That would certainly cut down on the amount of international air travel, and as a result, the huge carbon footprint of the current system would be reduced. Covid complications would also get easier… you can hear more about that in our Playmaker episode dedicated to Everton’s Richarlison.
Under Arsene Wenger’s plans, players would have 25 days of holiday guaranteed each year. And that’s important when you consider that Spain’s Pedri played a mind-blowing 72 games last season – he looked pretty dreadful at the end of it all.
“If I was inside the clubs, I would sign with two hands that programme. Because it would give me time to have the players at disposal, get their focus on what is important for the club and er…of all, I would say that better separation between club and national team football would improve the quality of the concentration on both sides.”Arsene Wenger
Wenger says there would still be an 80/20 split in favour of domestic football. And there would be more chance for diversity in terms of the extra nations that would be involved in the tournaments.
If Arsene Wenger can help FIFA to pull this off, it would be the biggest change he’s made in football yet.
But if the European sides won’t participate, it’s essentially a non-starter.
And for all that some of Arsene Wenger’s arguments make sense, the crux of the matter is that the World Cup is so special because we have to wait so long for it.
If it comes around too often, there’s a very real chance you could lose what gives the tournament its magic.
Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford and produced by Imy Harper.
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