Why China will be in line to host the 2026 World Cup
The world's second biggest economy and the might of the mainland market could mean their hosting the event in future
The last remaining vestige of integrity around Fifa is actually the World Cup competition itself. Invitations to the most popular sporting event in the world still have to be earned. Well, mostly earned. Despite the on-going legal issues that have ensnared the odiously corrupt governing body of world football, it looks for all intents and purposes like Russia 2018 will go ahead.
But Qatar hosting in 2022 is still not a certainty. Endless investigations, both internally and externally, in regards to corruption in the bidding process are now playing out.
Let's assume for a moment that the status quo holds and both Russia and Qatar host the event. Russia has successfully qualified for three of the last six World Cups and under the former Soviet Union they made it to seven tournaments.
The Russians have done nothing of note in the World Cup recently other than qualifying but that alone is a massive achievement in comparison to Qatar.
The Qataris have never earned a place in the event and by the time 2022 rolls around that record of futility should be intact.
Their performance on the pitch has been totally overshadowed by their performance off it and they will likely be participating in the event for the first time thanks to the host receiving automatic qualification.
None of this, of course, is lost on the Chinese Football Association. With the exception of their participation in the 2002 World Cup, China's qualifying record for this event is as woeful as Qatar's.
Once again they are in danger of missing out on the 2018 tournament and are ranked 84th in the world, two spots behind Antigua and Barbuda with a population of 89,000 people, or roughly three city blocks in a small town in the mainland.
Football is easily the most popular sport and while the country has distinguished itself in other athletic endeavours, the fact that the national team playing the national game continues to be an abject failure is the source of endless embarrassment among tens of millions Chinese.
Nothing has seemed to work either from an assortment of highly paid foreign coaches to the shuffling of football association executives. The only thing left to do, it seems, is to take the Qatar route by actually hosting a World Cup and this past week steps were seemingly taken to help make that happen.
It may sound somewhat convoluted to think that the eight-year partnership deal signed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to be the sponsors of the Fifa Club World Cup is a precursor to mainland interests pursuing the 2026 World Cup, but what else could it be?
Granted, Alibaba and executive chairman Jack Ma are quite active these days. This week's Hollywood Reporter had a gushing interview with Zhang Wei, president of new Tinsel town heavyweight Alibaba Pictures, while Ma has already bought, ahem, an English language newspaper and now this; a deal with arguably the world's least popular entity. Reeling from one scandal to the next, this is the first new sponsor Fifa has signed in over two years.
"It's not easy to sell," said Fifa marketing Thierry Well, as he redefined the parameters of general understatements. "You can imagine in the given period and given circumstances what's going on at Fifa." Oh yes, we can understand all too well the level of toxicity that is the Fifa brand and Ma understands it, too. No doubt he got this property at a cut-rate price.
The Club World Cup, taking place in Japan, is hardly a blue ribbon event. Any self-respecting European football team will tell you their continental champions league title is far more desirous. However, the best team in China is Guangzhou Evergrande, the Asian champions. They are the only mainland team doing well internationally so that in itself assures a semblance of support for this event in China.
But, more importantly, Alibaba's sponsorship in the event is a huge strategic in with Fifa for China. No one truly knows what Fifa will look like once the dust settles. One thing is certain though; at some point they will have to select a host for the 2026 World Cup.
Japan and Korea co-hosted the only Asian World Cup in 2002 and since then virtually every area in the world has hosted. It should be Asia's turn, which really leaves only China and Australia capable of hosting it and you know Fifa would much prefer the massive mainland market. The heavy lifting is now being done. Look for China to emerge soon as a clear favourite for 2026.