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Playing for time: will China try to score early or leave it late in its bid to host the Fifa World Cup?

A week is a long time in football, so will China really have the patience to wait 20 years to realise its World Cup dream?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 4:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 4:50pm

The United States, Canada and Mexico recently announced they will make a joint bid to host football’s 2026 World Cup. If successful, the countries would become the first to co-host the tournament since Japan and South Korea did so in 2002, and the first trio ever to stage football’s biggest national team competition. If Donald Trump survives for two terms in office, it would also presumably be a competition played against a backdrop of defensive walls (both on and off the pitch).

Many observers feel that all bets are off when it comes to who will host the tournament in 2026, not least because of Fifa’s rotation policy. This dictates that the World Cup cannot be held in the same region more than once every 12 years. With Asia planning host to the event in 2022 (Qatar) and Europe in 2018 (Russia), and with the Cup having taken place in South America (Brazil) in 2014 and in Africa in 2010 (South Africa), any US-led bid appears to be a shoo-in for 2026.

Or perhaps not? One country’s name now appears set to emerge whenever the World Cup bidding process is mentioned; indeed, it will continue to be mentioned until such time that the country eventually hosts the tournament: China. The country’s ambitions are clear: in its football development plan (published in 2016) becoming a leading Fifa nation, hosting the World Cup and winning the trophy by 2050 have been identified as key Chinese targets.

In theory, China cannot bid for the right to host the 2026 World Cup due to Fifa’s rotation policy. Some observers would argue nor should the country do so; although lavishly funded and vigorously pursued, China’s football is still rather fragile and unlikely to be in a world-beating state within the next decade. That said, the Chinese government may want to see a return on its football investment sooner rather than later, particularly as the longer the country waits for the World Cup the more cynical its people and observers across the world may become.

Furthermore, China’s corporations have been spending big on supporting Fifa in moves that have had a dual strategic purpose: to create a degree of financial dependence and to establish some control over decision-making networks. Dependence upon the Chinese has been built through a series of sponsorships, which Fifa acknowledges has rescued it from the financial mire inflicted by years of fighting organisational corruption. At the same time, the likes of Wanda has taken control of organisations such as Infront Sports and Media, key Fifa partners.

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It is not, therefore, beyond the realms of possibility that China may decide to exercise its power and control by making an early bid to stage the World Cup, in 2026. This would nevertheless require a change to Fifa statutes, a move that would potentially antagonise China’s fellow Asian Football Confederation (AFC) members even more. The country’s relationship with the AFC is rumoured to already be somewhat strained following the country’s moves to create and stage the China Cup (the first iteration of which took place earlier this year).

The general feeling from within China however is that 2026 is too soon for the country to realise its World Cup aspirations. Instead, it’s more likely there will be robust Chinese activity over the coming decade which may ultimately result in a bid to stage the 2030 tournament. We should consequently expect considerable posturing and positioning by the Chinese government and its entrepreneurial lieutenants ahead of such a bid.

An obstacle to this would still be that be Asia, technically, would not be able to host the World Cup as it would only be eight years since Qatar. However, Fifa’s financially lucrative sponsorship deal with Wanda comes to an end in 2030, and China is likely to want a return on its investment in the form of a positive hosting decision by football’s world governing body. Posturing and positioning would again become important, especially in the form of intense behind-the-scenes political pressure aimed at influencing the 2030 hosting decision.

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Cynics will no doubt question whether even 2030 is too soon for the Chinese men’s national team to be good enough to avoid the country being embarrassed during the competition. As recent events have shown, China is acutely concerned about losing face in football. Nevertheless, in the country’s 2016 football development plan, while 2050 was set as the target date by which China should win the World Cup, no date was set for hosting it, nor did the plan clarify whether hosting and winning the competition should coincide with one another.

All of this has led some observers to speculate that 2034 is the more likely date for China’s hosting of the World Cup. This would give the country 20 years from president Xi’s 2014 proclamation that he wants China to win the competition, enabling a generation of players to be developed that might enable its national team to hold their own at home against the world’s best, in theory at least. Moreover, it would mean Fifa need not change its statutes to accommodate a Chinese bid, and that China would not have to antagonise its AFC rivals quite so much.

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But in a sport where the legend is that a week is a long time, 20 years to wait for a return on its spending on football might be too much to countenance for some in China. The pace and intensity of Chinese football’s great leap forward has been such that expectations have been raised, with some stakeholders consequently wanting success sooner rather than later. Indeed, if popular protests taken in response to the national team’s loss to Syria late last year are anything to go by, China’s population may not have the patience to wait until 2034.

Xi, his advisors and a multitude of stakeholders in Chinese football therefore face a crucial decision about the country’s inevitable World Cup bid: wait longer and play a patient build-up game, or go route one all-out attack in the hope of early victory? Wanda owner Wang Jianlin’s place sat alongside Sepp Blatter at the latter’s presidential re-election in 2015 indicates that China has both the stomach and the savvy to play the politics of the World Cup bidding game. Though for the time-being at least, what the country considers to be the ‘optimum’ point for an actual bid will presumably remain confidential within Beijing’s corridors of power.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum, an academic blog based at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.