Could Chinese president Xi Jinping’s dream of hosting football’s World Cup come true as early as 2018? That was one of the questions doing the rounds on Chinese social media this week as news broke that embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter had agreed to step down.
Blatter, who saw seven of his colleagues arrested on US-initiated corruption charges last week, had said days earlier that China would have to wait until at least 2030 to host the world’s most-watched tournament.
But Blatter’s decision to resign in response to the arrests, and a Swiss decision to investigate the process by which Russia and Qatar were award the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals, could mean China has the chance to stage the event sooner.
“If Qatar or Russia lose out China could be next in line,” speculated one weibo user. “Even if we don’t get Qatar’s slot, we can still bid for 2026 now,” said another.
As readers of WiC will know, China is currently in the grip of something akin to a state-sponsored football mania. A variety of films and TV shows about soccer are currently in production or on air (see WiC279). These include a documentary following the lives of youngsters around the country who are taking up the sport as part of a massive government campaign to create the champion players of the future.
The ultimate aim of such programmes – as the widely publicised football dreams of Xi make plain – is for China to host and win a World Cup, though not necessarily at the same time.
So how likely is it that China could host in either 2018 or 2022? Despite the early excitement of Chinese football fans, the chances are slim. Firstly even if the Swiss find evidence that Russia and Qatar secured the tournament illegally, FIFA may still not revoke their right to host it. Secondly, if a new location did need to be found, Beijing might well demure for political reasons.
As one netizen pointed out: “If we took the competition from Russia we would be accused of choosing profit over friends.”
But the changes at FIFA – whose name sounds amusingly like the word for “illegal” in Chinese – is still widely viewed as a good thing because it might allow China to bid for and win the 2026 competition.
Moreover it has emerged that Chinese media and football fans have almost as much disdain for Blatter as their counterparts in the US and Europe. The China Youth Daily called him a “dictator” and Xinhua said he had turned FIFA into a “private kingdom”.
Some media also pointed out that China has just spent a decade cleaning up its own domestic football scene (a process reported on regularly in WiC) and so tolerance of corruption in the game’s governing body would be detrimental to that effort. “Chinese soccer is now at a critical stage in its development. The world is paying high attention to us at the moment and we should take FIFA as an example and develop strict methods of supervision to avoid corruption,”commented Xinhua.
Interestingly, however, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has had next to nothing to say about the scandal. On the day of the arrests the head of China’s football association Cai Zhenhua and Blatter renewed FIFA and the CFA’s collaboration agreement and issued a statement in which Cai said: “We highly appreciate FIFA’s support in helping China to develop the full potential of football in the country. China has benefited from FIFA’s programmes for many years at both administrative and technical levels. We will endeavour to enlarge the scope of beneficiaries of this new memoradum of understanding through our full cooperation with FIFA and are confident that we will achieve more in the coming years.”
Two other officials, Zhang Jilong, who normally represents the CFA at FIFA, as well as Zhang Jian, also travelled to Zurich for last Friday’s FIFA leadership battle.
However, it’s not known how China voted in that election – which Blatter won – or what, if any part, it took in the behind the scenes machination that subsequently ousted him.
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