Among the numerous politicians and business leaders to attend the 10th Annual Jerusalem Post Conference on Tuesday at the Museum of Tolerance was FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
The 51-year-old Swiss–Italian global soccer czar was elected to the position in 2016 and was reelected in 2019. In 2020, Infantino was also elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
Traveling to the Holy Land for the first time, Infantino was interviewed at Tuesday’s conference by Israeli television host and sports broadcaster Sharon Davidovitch.
The talk began with consolatory words about the blue-and-white’s 3-2 stoppage-time defeat by Scotland over the weekend in the qualifying round for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which all but sealed Israel’s fate of not participating in global soccer’s prestigious quadrennial event for the first time since 1970.
“You see 1970 was the year I was born, so I think it was a good omen that Israel qualified then and I am here now,” said Infantino. “I can officially report that I received a request from the Israel Football Association to change the rules and stop matches in 90th minute, maybe that would help.
“But seriously, there will be other chances soon enough.”
Asked about the possibility of Israel ever hosting the World Cup, Infantino initially demurred, but then noted that “nothing is impossible. We need to think big. Today hosting a World Cup is a very, very big venture. It is more than a sports event. It’s an event for which three-and-a-half to four million tickets are sold. More than a million visitors to the county and four billion people watching on television for the men’s event and 1.2 billion watching the women’s.
“You need to have visions, dreams and ambitions. We have been speaking a lot in recent months after the UAE and Israel signed their normalization agreement. So perhaps co-hosting is an option. The next World Cup after Qatar will be hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States – obviously three huge countries. So why not Israel? The World Cup is magical in that it brings people together, is such a uniting event and transcends every notion of negativity.”
Speaking about Qatar, Infantino addressed the criticisms of the Arad nation being awarded the tournament.
“We are now 13 months before the next World Cup in Qatar. It is going to be a very different World Cup, very unique because it will have all venues within a very small amount of space – maybe 50 kilometers total. It will be like a child in Disneyland for soccer fans because you are getting all the best in one place – a great atmosphere, a great ambience. It will also be a chance for the world to meet a region that is often in the news headlines for the wrong reasons.
Pressed on whether Qatar was the right place to host, Infantino continued: “I was elected in 2016. We organized the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we will have 2022 in Qatar before we go to North America. The bottom line is that wherever the games are hosted, we have to make the best event. Football is celebration, joy, passion, chance and opportunity. I am sure it will be a fantastic World Cup.
“I understand some of the criticism. But let’s just wait and see what the spotlight of the World Cup can have on change in a country. With things such as worker’s rights, for example, Qatar has gone through in a few years what would normally take decades in other places. But that is because of the World Cup.”
Recently, growing voices have raised the issues of perhaps increasing the amount of teams at the World Cup and having it every two years instead of every four years, a notion that Infantino appeared open to.
“Football has to be a truly global sport. This is certainly my vision and the vision of a vast majority of fans across the world. Everyone loves to say it's a global game, but then when you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that at the top level, it is really concentrated to a small number of countries and even then to just a few clubs within those countries.
“But football is played everywhere, so we have to bring it to the world and create opportunities without harming the game. A World Cup with 48 teams has already been decided. Whether it will take place every two years or four years, that is under consultation. definitely believe in having more prestigious events, whether the World Cup or anything else.”
As for the concern that any changes may lead to a reduction in the magic of the World Cup, Infantino was dismissive.
“Precisely because it is a magic tournament is perhaps why it should happen more often. The prestige of an event depends on its quality not its frequency. You have the Super Bowl every year, Wimbledon or the Champions League every year and everyone is excited and waiting for it.
“I was recently listening to an interview with former coach of Israel and Ghana Avraham Grant – who has been coaching in Israel, England and Africa for a very long time – and he was saying ‘why just because some people decided 100 years ago that the tournament should be every four years should we not revisit the issue?’ So we are revisiting the issue.”
Asked about the expansion of events run by FIFA at club level, Infantino was right on point.
“We are looking into expanding our FIFA World Cup, which right now is a small event for just a few teams. We would like to increase the value of national championships and domestic leagues. So maybe it makes sense for the Israeli league champion to have the opportunity to play against other champions from other countries. We need to find the right format that won’t be too disruptive to the calendar and all the other events.”
Infantino was also not worried about how fans will deal with the twilight and post-career of legendary players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“There are really so many talents around the world. We want to give opportunities to kids around the world to play football, boys and girls, no matter where you are born. Whether you are born in Hanoi or Tel Aviv, we want to give the opportunity for kids to become the next Messi or next Ronaldo.
“Also, maybe if the World Cup takes place every two years, even Messi and Ronaldo can play in a few more of them.”
Asked finally about who he thought will win the 2022 World Cup, Infantino went with the diplomatic answer.
“Qatar will win for sure and the world will win. And I hope the referees will be good!”