So what is the key problem? Broadly, there just isn’t enough time.
It’s no secret that the football calendar is now having to cope with progressively more competitions and matches. The internationalisation of the game has brought additional relevance – and often scheduling clashes – to the intersection of club and national team football, as scheduling, travel and player welfare all come to the fore.
With no agreement on the structure of the men’s calendar after 2024, FIFA is responding to requests from players as well as a sizeable majority of its member associations to reassess the schedule and make it appropriate for the modern game.
“Basically, our mission is to shape the football of tomorrow and to improve global competition,” Wenger explained. “There are many complaints that in football we play too many games and that we should play games with meaning: quality rather than quantity.
“First of all, that means less travel for players. We have consulted specialists in recovery and what came out as the most harrowing factor for players outside of the playing of so many games, is the repeated travel through the season, and climate shock. So, something that I took into consideration is to be less ‘stop-go’”.
It has to be remembered that FIFA serves football globally through its 211 member associations and Wenger notes that fewer than 40% of those have ever had the chance to play on the greatest stage of all at the World Cup. Five of the last six global men’s tournaments have been won by European nations and as their clubs have extended their economic dominance, they have continually attracted the best players from other continents, whose travels back to represent their nation have helped a gradually increasing global imbalance. South American stars, for example, can travel eight times more than their European counterparts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these existing issues into sharp relief in the past 18 months as teams and players struggled with reorganised and often condensed calendars.
So, what could be done?
Among Le Professeur’s ideas is to play more meaningful international football fixtures, slashing intercontinental travel and increasing the engagement around national team football. In short, the current ratio of national team and club football matches (20:80) would be upheld, but Wenger believes that its improved organisation would allow today’s high-class athletes to operate at peak performance, providing the quality matches that all stakeholders are calling out for.
Under the in-depth suggestions, domestic championships would run in one, long block, giving coaches the time to work with and develop their players unhindered by excessive global travel.
“The reforms benefit the clubs as well,“ smiles Wenger. “I was a manager of a football club for long enough, and I would have loved to have my players together for a long period, like from November to May.”
National team tournaments qualifying structures would be overhauled, reducing the number of matches and playing them in one or two annual windows, leaving the time for national team tournaments at confederation and world level. Less interruptions of the national leagues would mean that the players will have less release days from their clubs and that the leagues could end earlier than usual. This would allow not only the organization of a national team competitions in the end of each season but also – and most crucially – a mandatory rest period to players that Wenger proposes to establish of 25 days.
“Contrary to what has been suggested, I am not proposing to increase the number of games: we are very conscious of that,” insists Wenger. “Fans and players demand more meaningful matches and we must respond to that expectation, but the key is that the calendar must include a mandatory rest for players. They must be protected.”
Most of the headlines have been focussed only on the suggestion that the World Cup could take place in two-year cycles rather than the four-year gap between tournaments that has been the case since Uruguay first lifted the trophy in Montevideo 91 years ago, which Wenger says is an outdated concept in a fast-moving world with changing behaviour in society.
“FIFA has to try and minimise the differences between the confederations,” he says. “My wish is ‘to give every talent a chance’ because I personally struggle with the idea that I work for football and a boy who was born somewhere hasn’t the same chance as another guy who was born in a country that is gifted with structured football and talent development.
“We are all proud when our national team does well in top-level competition and more opportunities to develop because I also believe that when you have more frequent top competitions, you can improve your level: more chances to participate and host the World Cup would achieve that for sure.”
But this huge task is about more than the frequency of the world’s biggest sporting event, and as such FIFA is facilitating debate from all involved in football worldwide; from fans, players, coaches, member associations, clubs, confederations, media and partners and believe that only through hearing diverse opinions can they serve everyone in the sport.
“The status quo is possible to me, but I will not decide that,” concludes Wenger. “I personally think it is neither practical nor efficient. So, I’m thinking about regrouping qualifiers to make those matches more important. I’m not saying that my ideas are all the right ones, but we are all open to other ones that can solve the problems that we have in football’s calendar.”
The work currently being undertaken is a huge opportunity to provide the structure for the further improvement of football and the on the pitch product, based on the realities we are now conscious of regarding the impact workload and international travel have on elite athletes.
As Monsieur Wenger told us, the current proposals will continue to be shaped or adapted through further work with the game’s key stakeholders but most importantly the conversation has been opened on a subject that was high on everyone’s list. What exactly this revised calendar will look like remains to be seen, but you suspect Arsenal fans could well be correct in their assertion: “Arsene knows”.