Fifa’s presidential candidates weigh in on China’s attempts to become a football power and host the World Cup
Is Xi Jinping’s grandiose vision realistic? Will the country one day host the World Cup? Here is what the candidates had to say
On Friday, football’s powerbrokers meet to elect a new president for Fifa, the world governing body that has been embroiled in a corruption scandal since police arrested several key figures on the eve of the last election, in May 2015.
Since then, president Sepp Blatter has been suspended for eight years (though he is appealing). His successor will likely be Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, the Bahraini head of the Asian Football Confederation, who has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses under his watch (he denies them).
His main rival is Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino, only standing because his boss Michel Platini was also suspended over the same ‘disloyal payment’ that felled Blatter.
Other candidates are Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein and Blatter’s former right-hand man Jerome Champagne. Though South African Tokyo Sexwale is also standing, he is seen as less than a no-hoper even by his own FA.
Over the past few weeks, the South China Morning Post posed questions to the four realistic candidates about the future of the organisation, with particular interest in their thoughts on China’s attempts to become a world football power. Here are their collected replies.
How important is China to world football?
Salman: China will eventually become a serious football power if it continues on the path of technical development and investment into grassroots football. A nation that has well over a billion inhabitants will find 11 players who are world class. Of that I am certain. But nothing can be done without determination and commitment to development. I believe that China is ready to take the next big step and with the support of the president the future of football in China is very bright.
Infantino: Of course, China is a very important member of the global football community and Fifa has a responsibility to ensure that each member association has the tools, structures and investment to develop football locally so they all can contribute to the overall growth of the game. I am convinced that in the future China can and will play a major role in world football. This is certainly one of my objectives.
Ali: China is incredibly important to world football. From audience figures and marketability, to investment in coaching and training methods, China has and will continue to have an important role with world football. China has already been active, and I support what it has done so far. The international network many clubs have built with larger European clubs has been effective, with this sharing of information something I would love to see around the world. Further to this, we have begun to see the talent of China abroad as well. Sun Jihai’s stint in the Premier League is perhaps the most well-known, but there needs, and I believe there will be, more Chinese players given the opportunity to play overseas.
Champagne: It’s fundamental. What was clear was that the plan of Mr Blatter was to go to South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018, the United States in 2022 and then in 2026 to have a World Cup for Asian federations. We would have had traditional bids like Japan and Korea but we would have had new countries bidding for the World Cup. Indonesia, the first Asian country to compete at a World Cup in 1938, we would have had a bid from India and we would have had a bid from China and that was the goal. All that was changed when some people inside the Exco betrayed their promises.
China is very important not only because of the size of the population and the size of the economy but also because we have seen a huge change.
First in the province of Linzi [actually the capital of Qi during the Warring States period] they have a tradition saying that football was created in this province a few thousand years ago.
Secondly in the past few years we have seen a huge growth. In 1990, Liaoning won the Asian Club Championship, then there was a long period of silence, now suddenly we see this growth, with Guangzhou Evergrande again champions of Asia and clearly what is very, very important for me is the fact that President Xi has created a clear goal, with creating these schools of football everywhere and with these three objectives: participating in the World Cup, hosting the World Cup and one day winning the World Cup. And that’s my objective because definitely China is important for the strategic future of the game.
In China, president Xi Jinping has declared that the country must become a soccer superpower. How could you help the country achieve those goals as president?
Salman: As AFC president I have taken a number of steps to support China’s football development. First and foremost, it is China itself who needs to dedicate itself to grassroots programmes, without which there can never be sustainable development. The AFC is actively contributing to that in many ways and through numbers of initiatives.
Infantino: As a man of football, I’m glad that a great nation like China wants to commit even more in developing football. Fifa has a responsibility to help all member associations grow and develop football in their nations. Building on Fifa’s existing development programmes, we need to ensure that local investment projects deliver positive results so more people, and especially young girls and boys, have greater opportunities to experience football. But different countries have different needs, so I would be very interested in knowing in depth how can Fifa help China reach higher levels of development in football and we will do our best to help China reach that goal. For instance, we can explore ways of how certain football nations can share their expertise and best-practice learnings to further stimulate football development.
Ali: My experience is that Chinese fans love the sport and want to see their nation succeed. Therefore, these fans need a Fifa that helps harness this passion.
The large clubs in Europe have recognised the power of Chinese football fans. They know the importance of building a Chinese fanbase, not only for their purchasing power, but because of the love for the game and the passion for seeing football of the highest standard. China deserves a Fifa that will help it build a league that will attract the top players in their prime, to their own clubs as well as having a league that can compete at the highest level. Chinese football is moving in the right direction and will no doubt one day host a World Cup.
Helping to encourage, coach and recognise young talent is very important, as is the education of these young players – through football – about different cultures and nationalities. China has started recognising the importance of this, with initiatives such as the Grassroots Football project, yet I believe there needs to be more done by the clubs. Fifa can help, and should have done more already.
President Xi Jinping has led in rooting out corruption in football. He has become a champion for the cause. His role is an example because it elevates the sport. Fifa must follow president [Xi]’s lead to ensure that the authorities always take action against those responsible.
Many see the World soon Cup going to China. But given the controversy over 2018 and 2022 re workers / human rights abuses etc, would you want more bad headlines along the same lines if it went to China?
Salman: I find it difficult to fathom how the world continues to do business with China but at the same time raise the alarm bells each time sport is in the limelight. We need less hypocrisy and more constructive support from the very people who are happy to criticise when it suits them and always prepared to judge when it does not.
Infantino: The bidding process has not even opened yet and there are no candidates for this election, so it would be inappropriate to speculate on the possible host of the 2026 Fifa World Cup.
Ali: With correct procedures, proper due diligence and a transparent bidding process there would be no bad headlines. China has hosted a successful Olympics and would make a worthy and successful World Cup host too.
Champagne: It’s a completely different situation. You cannot compare an autocratic regime like Qatar to China. China has to face also some issues but definitely it’s a country where the situation is much better, there’s no doubt. But in the case of Qatar it’s not an issue of human rights it’s an issue of the worker’s rights. Organising a World Cup means building new stadiums or revamping old ones. In Brazil unfortunately seven workers died in building the stadiums. That’s a tragedy. In the case of Qatar it’s about systemic exploitation of poverty.
Secondly, football is a very democratic sport. It’s a cheap sport, everyone can play, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment so football is by definition very democratic and it’s by definition anti-racist because the biggest star in football is a black man, Pele – who by the way supports me. So you see, football and human rights are very close. But I’m not afraid about the situation in China and I do hope we have the World Cup.
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The only problem we have is that World Cup 2022 is going to take place in Qatar, in Asia and in Fifa there is a rule that a continent cannot bid for two World Cups in a row which means that we can expect that 2026 will go to North America and that Asia and China will be able to bid for the World Cup only in 2030, 34 or 38.
So you see that the plan of Mr Blatter to go to Asia in 2026 is creating a problem because it is postponing the moment when China is able to bid. I regret that but I would definitely be in favour of that.
What is also very important today is that we can see the growth of the Chinese leagues, we can see the growth of Chinese investment in football, buying shares in clubs like in my country France with Sochaux, investing in other clubs in Europe, also investing in the content with Wanda buying for example the InFront group and building one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates.
For me it’s clear China is the future. But for now we need to find a moment when China will be able to bid, that’s very important.
What would a China World Cup mean for the global game?
Salman: It would certainly add to the enthusiasm in the whole of Asia and showcase our sport in a region where two-thirds of the world population live.
Infantino: I believe Fifa should encourage all member associations to explore the possibility of hosting Fifa competitions, including the Fifa World Cup, the Women’s World Cup and youth tournaments. It is key to develop football around the world and give fans everywhere the chance to experience the excitement of these major events. The spread of the global game to new parts of the world is something that should be
Ali: Every country should have the opportunity to host the World Cup. It would also be a great boost for the game itself and open the world’s eyes to different cultures through football. Football has an unmatchable ability to create opportunities and bring different communities together. The potential good a country with the size, reach and power of China could do for the game is unimaginable.