China’s top brass not only wants World Cup but world sports domination – and they usually get what they want
Miraculous chain of events that allowed the mainland to reach the next stage of World Cup qualifying only adds to their aura of control
Be it fishing and building lighthouses in disputed waters or walking into autonomous zones to capture and re-educate dissident minds, China appears to do what it wants in this part of the world and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Indeed, grumblings around the world identify Chinese hegemony of East Asia as a threat to global security ... because anything the rest of the world cannot control is deemed a threat to global security.
Politically, though, Chinese domination is probably restricted to East and Southeast Asia – at least for now. Sporting wise, China’s plans take the form of a wider, and some say darker, James-Bond-villain-esque vision ... total world domination.
Football, in particular, is to play an integral role in this plan and China wants a big piece of the global soccer pie. President Xi Jinping has demanded that China host and win a World Cup. And, like many things Xi wants, it appears nothing can stop them, with the country’s corporate elite scrambling to lay the groundwork for Team China’s rise to the top.
Last month, The Wanda Group became the first Chinese company to sign up as a Fifa Partner, an expensive honour that puts them among the elite sponsors of football’s world governing body.
This means prime sponsorship rights for the next four Fifa World Cups and the company will have rights to all Fifa competitions and corporate activities up to and including the 2030 World Cup, which China is expected to host.
Even before this, China flexed its buying power by snapping up some big-name players for its burgeoning China Super League football tournament.
According to Transmarkt, CSL clubs spent US$366 million during the recent transfer window, nearly US$100 more than that of clubs in the English Premier League, which is recognised as the world’s most popular league. The record amount of fees is four times more than China’s previous record and also more than the money spent by Spanish, Italian, German and French clubs combined.
Jiangsu Suning topped the buying spree by beating out Liverpool for the signature of Brazilian striker Alex Teixeira for €50 million (HK$441 million).
Ex-Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez joined Guangzhou Evergrande – partly owned by the Alibaba group – for €42 million while former Chelsea midfielder Ramires also joined Jiangsu for €28 million. These were the top three transactions globally during the window.
Chinese investment in foreign clubs has also exploded. In December, Chinese consortium, CMC, bought a 13 per cent stake in English side Manchester City. Chinese interests have also ploughed money into Spanish clubs Atletico Madrid and Espanyol, France’s Sochaux and ADO Den Haag, of the Netherlands.
Clearly, money plays a major role in China getting what it wants. Well, if the world really wants to stop China’s march towards sporting and football hegemony, surely the best place to do that is on the pitch.
No so fast. Last week, China defied all odds to reach the next phase of the World Cup qualifiers.
In truth, China had no right to move into the final 12 after a relatively poor group campaign that included two intense 0-0 draws with Hong Kong and a loss to pool favourites Qatar.
But the sea seemed to part for the Chinese team as they beat Qatar 2-0 at home in their last game, while a handful of other teams who had to lose in order for China to go through duly lost.
This included North Korea, who lost 3-2 to the mighty Philippines, having squandered a 2-1 lead with minutes to go. This meant China were able to qualify for the next stage as one of the four best second-placed teams.
While even the most optimistic of China supporters will admit that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is still a major challenge, given the presence of Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others, the mainland development machine is already into overdrive.
A major programme to groom young players is already in the works with more than 200,000 kids involved.
Despite a population of close to 1.4 billion, China’s problem in the past has been a poor development system. In 2008, an Asian Football Confederation study into China found that there were only 30,000 registered players in the whole of the mainland. Only a fraction of these players were involved in some sort of organised football. Now, with Xi’s kickstart, the numbers are starting to grow exponentially.
Once 1 million players are identified, how difficult is it to find 22 to win the World Cup?