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Powerful Clubs Ready to Challenge FIFA

Despite tickets to World Cup matches, and accompanying five-star hotels and first-class travel, not to mention cash to be earned from World Cup bidders, now is not the right time to work at FIFA, soccer’s governing body.

FIFA’s attempts to reform itself haven’t fooled anyone, so reform may well be forced on it by an increasingly powerful group, the European Club Association. The ECA, founded in 2008, represents hundreds of soccer teams. Its leader, German soccer legend Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, is FIFA’s most dangerous enemy.

The ECA is a lobby for European clubs. Except that the ECA’s financial clout rivals that of FIFA.

However enormous the debts of European soccer teams might accrue, the earnings of these organizations can reach hundreds of millions of dollars per year. And in the end, money always wins.

Clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona spend tens of millions of euros paying and training their players. National associations, such as the Argentine Football Association, call up the likes of Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain once a month to play for the national team.

Federations such as the AFA win trophies, get famous, and earn revenue, all off the backs of European clubs who care for the day-to-day management of players.

Messi and Higuain are fit and able to play because Barcelona and Real Madrid take care of them. The clubs are compelled to release players for international fixtures. Barcelona and Real Madrid aren’t compensated for players missing games.

The clubs agreed to cut some fixtures so as to accommodate the international calendar. ECA president Rumenigge explains that clubs “gave up the second group phase of the Champions League because we believed that it would be good for our players to have more rest. But what happened? The national teams took up those dates.”

If Messi or Higuain get injured while playing for Argentina, their club will be forced to go on paying their hefty salary. In the United States, law firms would make millions off cases resulting from such disputes, but unfortunately MLS players don’t get paid enough for a suit to be necessary.

In Europe the ECA looks set to take matters into its own hands. Rumenigge threatens to found another soccer league that would be independent of FIFA.

Such drastic action isn’t necessary for now, but serious steps need to be taken. Most players delight in the opportunity to play for their country, and limiting their possibilities isn’t an option.

If the ECA had its way, international soccer as we know it would end. Matches would be sporadic. Underdogs could never get into the World Cup, as there would be no qualifying competition.

The World Cup and European Championship would be ruled by cliques, as the lack of a qualifying competition would protect the ruling castes from outsiders.

FIFA and UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, derive substantial revenue from their international tournaments. This revenue is more than enough to compensate clubs who are hurt financially or provide insurance coverage.

Naturally, an independent commission needs to be set up to review each case, and decide on the necessary compensation. To prevent petty claims by clubs exaggerating damages, a fine must be charged to the losers of a suit, with the proceeds going to the team’s competitors or to the organization of future events.

Spending cuts will nevertheless be necessary to fund this. Countries that host the World Cup or the European Championship must rely less on FIFA and UEFA funds. Aid packages for member associations must be terminated.

After all, soccer doesn’t get more popular because FIFA gives countries checks. The amount paid to the U.S. Soccer Federation is a drop in the bucket compared to what MLB, NBA, and NFL franchises have at their disposal.

Yet, most member associations don’t have enough money to fund themselves. These checks are a lifeline. And these impoverished associations are enough to win any presidential election. Perhaps they are funded so that their votes would be secure in elections.

Such cynicism isn’t out of place in reference to scandal-ridden FIFA. The organization’s failings are precisely the reason for which nobody, least of all the clubs, has any confidence in the soccer government.

It’s time for the FIFA executives to do their job. They have wrecked a once respectable organization. And they are about to destroy international soccer.

It shouldn’t be hard for FIFA and the ECA to find common ground. When they do, we’ll all be better off.

Theodore Furchtgott is a RealClearSports soccer columnist. He can be reached at Theodore.Furchtgott@gmail.com.

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