LONDON — Imagine a World Cup without Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. In other words, soccer’s premier tournament shorn of its biggest stars.
Such an unthinkable idea is being openly discussed among the sport’s highest authorities, according to leaks of behind-the-scenes discussions involving some of soccer’s leading clubs. The discussions have included the possibility of a collective breakaway league. Such a competition, seemingly the brainchild of the Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, would render the teams and players in it as pariahs to the rest of the soccer world, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, said.
“You are either in or you are out,” Infantino said on Wednesday at a round-table discussion with a small group of international media organizations, including The New York Times, following what has been yet another tumultuous week for global soccer.
The planned breakaway, essentially a cash grab by soccer’s richest and most popular teams, is one of a number of revelations to have been made public in what seems to be a coordinated attempt to obtain confidential data from within the soccer industry.
The disclosures come at a sensitive time for the sport. FIFA is in a major dispute with UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, after Infantino unveiled plans in March for a new tournament for clubs backed by billions of dollars from a group led by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. A club breakaway — something that top clubs have also threatened to do in the past before backing down — would be far more damaging.
Without the support of soccer authorities, any such league would effectively be considered a rogue competition.
“If there are players who don’t play in organized football they don’t play organized football, and that encompasses everything — national leagues, confederation competitions, the Euros and the World Cup,” Infantino said.
Under one version of the so-called super league plan, more than a dozen of Europe’s biggest teams would consider leaving their domestic competitions to play one another beginning in 2021. Real would be joined in the league by soccer’s other super clubs, with the likes of Juventus, Barcelona, Manchester United and Liverpool all seen as key partners in the plan drawn up by Key Capital Partners, the Madrid-based advisers to Real Madrid and Pérez’s construction company, A.C.S.
“It sounds like an idea cooked up at 5 a.m. in the pub,” said Javier Tebas, the president of Spain’s professional league, La Liga. Real Madrid has not commented.
Infantino has also been personally damaged by details published in recent days. He said some of the information was misleading, though he did not provide details of what was inaccurate and said FIFA under his leadership is a far better organization than the one he inherited in 2016 after the fall of the longtime president Sepp Blatter and a major corruption scandal.
Not everyone is impressed by his efforts. “He’s had sufficient time in order for something to happen and he hasn’t done it,” Tebas added.
Tebas’s opposition to Infantino’s leadership might also be linked to the FIFA president’s recent comments that he would oppose the Spanish league’s plans to play an official game in the United States early next year.
Infantino is using the controversy of the alleged breakaway to talk up his plans for an expanded FIFA-operated tournament for clubs, suggesting that without it the likelihood for teams walking out would be higher.
“If the price to pay is to give proper values to clubs participating in a Club World Cup and this allows us to put 25 percent into solidarity and give one million to Haiti, who has nothing, or Mongolia, then we should be doing that.”
The crisis appears to have led to a thaw in the troubled relationship between Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin, the leader of European soccer’s governing body. The two men haven’t held face-to-face bilateral talks since Infantino announced his Club World Cup plan. The two spoke by phone on Wednesday and could meet soon, he said.
The talks included discussions of the expanded 2022 World Cup in Qatar to include 48 teams, a move that will almost inevitably require the Gulf state to share games with regional neighbors, potentially involving the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two powers behind a punishing economic blockade against Qatar.
“In light of the current circumstances in the region we all know about, I would be even happier if this could happen and football can build bridges,” Infantino said.
FIFA is sending a team of specialists to Doha this week to study the feasibility of changing the dimensions of the tournament, which must be played within 28 days, in order not to further affect European league seasons. The tournament is being shifted from its June-July timetable to November and December to mitigate the affects of high temperatures in the Middle East.
“We may have to play matches simultaneously, this kind of thing, and compare the value of that with the positive impact.”