Interview: NZ Football boss raises concerns over radical World Cup proposal

New Zealand Football has yet to commit to a position on FIFA’s plan for biennial World Cups, but NZF President Johanna Wood admits she has some player welfare concerns over the proposal.

Wood also has questions over the mooted international match calendar revamp, around whether NZF and other Oceania nations would have the “capacity and capability” to commit to the proposals being discussed.

The radical World Cup idea has been polarising.

UEFA has been vehement in its opposition, with suggestions of a possible tournament boycott, along with a recent protest by a six-nation Nordic bloc. The South American confederation has expressed opposition, along with many notable figures, from the Adidas chief executive to top coaches.

A cohort of former players support the idea, while it is expected that the majority of nations outside Europe and South America may be in favour, due to the financial implications and the perception of more qualification opportunities.

Wood, who sits on the exclusive 37-member FIFA council, said New Zealand was taking a wait and see approach.

“We don’t agree with saying, ‘Yes, we will go to World Cups every two years’, until we see all of the feasibility,” Wood told the Weekend Herald. “Woven into that is the international match calendar.

“We need to have all the information in front of us. What are the commercial implications? What will be the benefit to football in New Zealand, if any?”

As well as the biennial World Cups, there are proposals for a sweeping overhaul of the global match calendar. That includes compressing all international fixtures into either one (October) or two windows (March and October) for men and either two (March and November) or up to five for women.

Annual 48-team Under-17 World Cups (instead of biennial) are also on the table. Another mooted possibility are yearly 48-team Under-16 and Under-18 World Cups.

“The youth one for us in New Zealand is an issue,” said Wood. “For example, an Under-16 annual tournament – I can’t see how we could do that.”

Wood said the ever-increasing demands on players, especially at the senior level, need to be carefully considered.

“We haven’t discussed it as a board yet so this is my opinion – I really believe that we need to look at [the proposals] from a well-being point of view and with a well-being lens.”

Wood said the views of a select group of ex-players – who were flown to Qatar in September for a think tank– need to be balanced.

“There has been some consideration around it,” said Wood. “But pulling together a whole lot of ex-players, who have forgotten possibly what it was like to commit to all those trainings, to commit to this, to commit to that….we view things with rose-coloured glasses sometimes.”

Wood was part of Thursday’s (NZT) FIFA Council meeting, which fixed on a global summit in December to further discuss the calendar. FIFA president Gianni Infantino admitted the meeting was “heated” at times, but Wood felt it was fairly civil.

“I’ve been in meetings where people are just about climbing over tables, wanting to get their point across,” said Wood. “It [wasn’t] like that.

“I think what you hear is, you can hear the emotion in people’s voice. They are making a particular stand around something, but the UEFA president was the first one to say, when more consultation and another summit in December [was proposed], ‘I fully agree with this’. So that is not heated at all. I was expecting a little bit more.”

The NZF board will consult with technical staff, coaches and senior leadership over the next two months.

Along with the Oceania Football Confederation, they will seek the full suite of information from FIFA to make the best possible judgement.

Wood assured that they wouldn’t be dazzled by the allure of biennial World Cups.

“There may be a proposal that says let’s have World Cups every two years,” said Wood. “But then it would be – how is that aspirational for a) each confederation and b) each member association?

“Or there may be a proposal that says, ‘OK, we’ve looked at this, we don’t think there should be a World Cup every two years’.”

Wood added that increasing frequency and expanding the number of teams at a tournament wasn’t always a straightforward equation.

“It’s one of the things that sometimes gets played on, particularly for smaller nations – ‘Well, we are expanding it, so there are more opportunities for more [countries] to be involved’,” Wood said. “But you’ve got to come back to capacity, capability and player welfare.

“I’m all about continuous improvement, if there could be improvements to the international match calendar, which then influence what happens at the next level.

“Let’s keep World Cups as the icing on the cake, as the ultimate goal, [but] what can we do to truly develop our member associations?”

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