by Tariq Panja
Faced with mounting concerns and daily updates about the crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic on the global soccer industry, FIFA is drawing up plans for an emergency relief fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The fund, should global soccer leaders sign off on it, would amount to the biggest response from any major sports governing body to the financial effects of the pandemic.
As in other parts of the global economy, movement restrictions to reduce the spread of the disease have halted the cash flow in a business in which long-term financial planning is typically treated as a luxury, with gate receipts and broadcast and sponsorship income largely committed to player salaries and transfer market trading.
That has led several federations, clubs and leagues to declare themselves to be in a state of financial distress. This week, MSK Zilina, a seven-time Slovak champion, declared bankruptcy, and Uruguay’s federation laid off 400 staff members because all soccer activities had been suspended.
Even the biggest teams have not been immune to the first shutdown of its kind since World War II. Barcelona and Juventus announced pay reductions for their multimillionaire playing roster, and others have followed suit.
“FIFA is in a strong financial situation, and it’s our duty to do the utmost to help them in their hour of need,” FIFA said in a statement Tuesday after publication of this article online. “Therefore, we confirm FIFA is working on possibilities to provide assistance to the football community around the world after making a comprehensive assessment of the financial impact this pandemic will have on football.”
North African football is coming together during the #COVID19 crisis, showing that football truly is the “beautiful game” ❤🌍
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) March 28, 2020
The scale of the crisis was brought into focus in a letter sent to the members of the European Club Association, an umbrella body for more than 200 top division clubs in Europe, by the organization’s chairman, Andrea Agnelli.
“We are all football executives responsible for the well-being and sustainability of the clubs we manage, which are faced with a real existential threat,” said Agnelli, who is also president of Juventus, the record 35-time Italian champion.
“As football is now at a standstill, so are our revenue flows on which we are dependent to pay our players, staff and other operating costs. No one is immune, and timing is of the essence. Meeting our concerns will be the biggest challenge our game and industry has ever faced.”
Now officials at FIFA want to take advantage of one of the biggest cash reserves among global sporting bodies and use it to shield some of the worst-hit parts of the industry, a move that would be similar to how governments around the world have acted to buttress parts of their economies in the face of the pandemic, according to the people, who declined to speak publicly because the plan has yet to be formally agreed upon.
According to its latest annual report published last year, FIFA had cash reserves of $2.74 billion. The organization is considering putting some of those reserves to use in the effort to prop up the ailing soccer economy and is also willing to borrow against its future television and sponsorship income to raise money for what is being described internally as a “football relief fund.”
The fund would require the approval of the FIFA Council, a 36-member group made up of soccer officials from the sport’s six regional confederations, before the plans can move forward.
The fund would be managed differently than FIFA’s current development structure in which the organization’s administration is responsible for delivering $6 million across a four-year cycle to each of its 211 member associations whatever their size or needs.
Officials at FIFA, based in Zurich, are making an assessment of the short- and medium-term effects of coronavirus on global soccer to work out how it can help the member associations, and who it will likely ask to act as a clearinghouse for requests for assistance in their countries. The fund could provide bridging loans and even emergency grants. There are concerns over whether the money will be directed to the most in need and not be misused, but the urgency of the situation has made that concern a secondary issue, according to one of the people.
The relief fund, according to the plan, would be managed independently from FIFA’s leadership to avoid the risk of being contaminated by political issues that have long roiled the soccer world. Relations between FIFA and some regional soccer leaders have soured as its president, Gianni Infantino, has moved to grow its influence beyond national team soccer and development and into club soccer.
The crisis, though, has soothed some of those tensions for now, with stakeholder groups coming together to hash out ideas for coping with the effects of the soccer shutdown. Last week, representatives of global leagues, clubs, regional federations and player unions joined FIFA to discuss setting up guidelines to deal with the most pressing issues.
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