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Igor Stimac backs Arsene Wenger’s plans to redraw international calendar

To the list of those backing Arsene Wenger’s plans that include holding the World Cup every two years – it includes Brazil’s Ronaldo and Pep Guardiola – add Igor Stimac. Having played every game in Croatia’s dream run to the third place in the 1998 finals, Stimac knows all about being on football’s biggest stage. 

“Being there means everything to a player. Going to a World Cup and probably winning it is the biggest dream for a footballer,” said Stimac, who has 53 caps from a 12-year international career. 

That is why the India head coach gets it why 166 affiliates of Fifa have backed a relook at international football, including the four-year World Cup cycle. “I would want a biennial World Cup because it doubles chances of countries like India to qualify for one,” said Stimac in an exclusive interview over the phone from Split in Croatia.   

Of Fifa’s 211 affiliates, only 79 have qualified for the World Cup, 21 of them once and 38 have played in three or fewer finals. “The current four-year cycle was established in 1930, yet 133 countries have never been at the World Cup,” Wenger has said. A World Cup, expanded to 48 teams from 2026, every two years would double Fifa’s approximate revenue of $5.5 billion per every four-year cycle and that money can be ploughed back to countries that need it to develop the game, Wenger has said. 

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Having played four seasons at Derby County, two at West Ham apart from three stints at Hajduk Split, Stimac also knows all about the power of clubs in Europe. “One is wish, the other is reality. Let them first introduce that plan,” said the former defender when asked about the feasibility of a World Cup every two years.   

“But please understand that when someone like Arsene Wenger has come up with a plan, it will be based on a deep study, with a very serious approach to the topic. And it will be beneficial to everyone,” said Stimac, 54. 

Wenger, Fifa’s chief of global football development, has listed a raft of proposals after Saudi Arabia mooted a feasibility study, backed by 166 Fifa members. The proposals are likely to come up at the Fifa Congress next May or at an extraordinary congress earlier and would need a two-third majority to go through. They include biennial World Cup and continental championships in alternate cycles – the World Cups in even years and the rest in odd years. The former Arsenal manager has also proposed two international windows instead of six – one in October and the other either in March or after the club season. And he has proposed a guaranteed 25-day break for players. 

The last two proposals got a ringing endorsement from Stimac. “The current system of Fifa windows is unsustainable. It can be somewhat easier for countries that have top professionals playing for them but for a lower ranked or an average team, what can a coach do in three days before an international game apart from ensuring that the players are fresh,” he said.   

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There needs to be a maximum of two international windows where coaches will get the players for a longer time, said Stimac. “That is how teams can settle down and organise themselves. The other problem with internationals being spread through the season is that the team is constantly changing due to injuries or loss of form.” A national team coach thus has to deal with the double whammy of not getting players for long and not having a settled line-up. 

Players getting a planned off-season too is why Stimac said he is in Wenger’s corner. Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic played 74 games in one season, he said. Barcelona and Spain’s teenage midfielder Pedri played 73 games including the Olympics, the most by any player last term. It was one more than Manchester United and Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes who, however, had more minutes. According to goal.com, Fernandes played 5,509 minutes in 20-21 and Pedri 4,996. 

“Most top players play over 70 games per season; you couldn’t imagine this 10-15 years ago. There are just too many games.” 

The proposals have the support of most Fifa affiliates barring Europe, which is where football’s money, power and success is concentrated. Of the 14 countries that have played in over half of the 21 World Cups, 10 are from Europe. The powerful European Club Association which had 234 members in 20-21 has opposed Wenger’s plans with vice-chairman Michael Gerlinger saying the two-year World Cup would be “impossible.” The World Leagues Forum, which has top European leagues as members, too is against the idea saying doubling the frequency of the World Cup would turn the “exceptional into commonplace.”

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