BOGOTÁ, Colombia — FIFA President Gianni Infantino will ask members of his executive council to approve plans for a new global women’s league this week.
The proposed competition would feature 16 of the world’s top women’s national teams and begin play as early as November 2019. FIFA also plans to add four regional leagues to encourage the development of women’s soccer globally and to allow the best performers from those regions a chance to win promotion to the top division in a system of promotion and relegation.
The move is part of an effort to increase the visibility, quality and appeal of women’s soccer and to boost Infantino’s standing before his bid for re-election next year. Investing in the women’s game was a plank in Infantino’s campaign platform in 2015.
Under the format, the 16 teams will be divided into four groups and play in minitournaments before the winners face off in semifinals and a final to determine a champion. The top teams would only play in an annual November window, perhaps mitigating the effect of the competition on clubs and other longstanding international tournaments. The smaller regional leagues also would play matches in a spring window.
The rationale behind the idea is to grow interest in the women’s game, which until now has been largely financed by the billions of dollars FIFA makes from selling the quadrennial men’s World Cup tournament and currently has only two marquee global tournaments every four years: the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics.
Also, with few opportunities for women around the world to play professionally, the overwhelming majority of countries have struggled to field teams that can legitimately compete with the five or so best teams in the world.
The new event also would give countries that have not had a chance to host a FIFA-branded event the opportunity to hold one, something that plays well for Infantino as he prepares to run for a second term.
Infantino needs the support of the majority of the organization’s 211 member nations next year to retain his post, and as he quietly campaigns he has been busy creating or expanding events to woo nations considered to be at soccer’s furthest outposts. In February, for instance, FIFA arranged a summit meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Infantino discussed tentative plans for the women’s competition there, without providing details. Those may emerge from this week’s FIFA meetings in Colombia.
“We are also thinking of creating a world women’s football league so that all federations can participate, because we should not lose sight of the fact that 50 percent of the world’s population is female,” Infantino said at the meeting in Mauritania, according to news reports. Like his now disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter, who relied on African support for his near two-decade run as president, Infantino has devoted significant time to cultivating the region’s soccer bosses.
But the new women’s tournaments also are in line with promises the 47-year-old Infantino made when he won the FIFA presidency in 2016. He said then a greater focus needed to be given to the women’s game, and he first mentioned the possibility of a new event to supplement the Women’s World Cup at FIFA’s Congress in Bahrain last year.
FIFA also has taken note of the growth of tournaments like the United States-hosted She Believes Cup, a four-nation tournament that just completed its third year, and the longer-running Algarve Cup in Portugal. FIFA officials believe adding the governing body’s branding and support to the new event would attract greater sponsor and fan interest, though some women’s soccer advocates fear it risks cannibalizing those existing events.
The question is whether an annual, FIFA-branded women’s league with national teams will make the quadrennial tournaments less special. Also, members briefed on the plans for the women’s game have not been provided with any financial projections for the tournament, or a commercial strategy.
While FIFA has made women’s soccer a focus, there remains much work to be done on developing a strategy for the game. Some of FIFA’s financing requirements for national federations require them to operate a women’s program, though how that works as part of an overall strategy is unclear.
Many nations — notably the United States, Canada and a host of countries in western Europe — have made significant investments in the women’s game, but in broad swaths of Africa, Asia and South America, and even in soccer powerhouses like Italy and Spain, it often remains an afterthought.
FIFA expanded the Women’s World Cup to 24 teams from 16 for the 2015 edition in Canada, and under Infantino it already has agreed to expand the men’s World Cup to 48 teams from its current 32 from the 2026 edition. Similar changes are part of new formats for youth tournaments that will also be discussed at the FIFA Council meeting in Bogotá.
Council members will be asked to agree to scrap longstanding biennial Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups in favor of a new Under-18 event to be played annually. The number of teams would be increased to 48, and the tournament, in keeping with Infantino’s effort to include member federations in more events, would be played in multiple countries. Similar expansion proposals for women’s youth tournaments will be considered, too.
The council also is expected to discuss plans for an expanded 24-team Club World Cup, to be played every four years instead of annually, that would feature a minimum of 10 European teams. It is unlikely any decision would be made on that plan amid requests from European soccer officials for more discussion about the project. The tournament, if approved, would replace the Confederations Cup, the struggling tuneup event staged one year before the World Cup.
It’s unclear whether Infantino will be able to push through all of the changes at the speed he desires, with some seniors soccer officials privately suggesting that he is trying to make too many changes too quickly, and without adequate consultation. To gather information and opinions, Infantino and his close aides traveled the world hosting summits in at least a dozen cities. The most recent one took place in Lima, Peru, earlier this week.