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2018 Fifa World Cup Asian qualifying

‘World Cup expansion could mean even more embarrassment for China football,’ fans joke

China might finally qualify for a 48-team tournament, but long-suffering supporters are not getting their hopes up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:07pm

China’s football fans were successfully managing to contain their excitement at the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams, if comments on Weibo were any guide.

Fifa’s decision to let another 16 teams into the tournament – almost a quarter of their 211 members – has been branded by critics as a money-making wheeze.

And it is widely assumed that Fifa want China in the tournament at all costs, no matter how bad their team is, given the country’s massive potential market.

“It will expand and expand, until China are almost certain to be in, because there is nothing Fifa love more than a dictatorship with a few quid,” wrote influential Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel on Wednesday, summing up a common opinion.

Similar cynical opinions were being expressed on China’s version of Twitter, after state newspaper The People’s Daily put out a post asking readers for their thoughts on the expansion.

“More embarrassment [ahead] for Chinese football,” said one of the most popular comments.

“If the expansion were to 224 teams I guarantee the Chinese team would enter the World Cup,” said another. “Not necessarily!” came a reply.

Another commenter pointed out that China would be far from guaranteed qualification even under an expanded system. The details have not been confirmed, but it is expected that Asia will get 6.5 to 8.5 places, up from 4.5 (the ‘half’ is a place awarded in a play-off with another confederation). China is currently the eighth-best team in Asia with a position of 82 on Fifa’s world rankings.

“Most realistically, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan would qualify if there were two more places,” wrote the commenter. “The most realistic is if the 2026 World Cup is awarded to China – hosting 48 teams is a big test and China may have the biggest advantage in this regard.”

Another had a plan to achieve qualification: “Give two places to the Antarctic and let China join the Antarctica [football confederation].”

As if to underline fans’ pessimism, a reserve China side were losing 2-0 to Iceland as the World Cup news was announced on Tuesday.

The match was the first in the inaugural ‘China Cup’, a four-team tournament launched by Wanda Group and the Chinese Football Association with Croatia and Chile taking part.

“Our players were not in their best form, and most of them earned national caps for the first time,” China’s head coach Marcello Lippi said, Xinhua reported. “They are way less experienced than the Icelandic players.”

China’s population is more than 4000 times that of Iceland, underlining how far behind it is compared even to a European ‘minnow’ – albeit one that impressed at Euro 2016 and humiliated England, whose pundits are almost universally critical of World Cup expansion.

Wanda recently agreed a deal to become one of Fifa’s top sponsors, and its owner Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men, seems determined to bring the World Cup to the country as President Xi Jinping has demanded.

“We hope that the China Cup will become a great platform for the Chinese national team to play against top-class teams in the world, and also a great opportunity to promote the development of the sports industry in China,” Wang said before the match, Xinhua reported.

Cai Zhenhua, leader of the Chinese Football Association, was optimistic the expansion plans could boost China’s hopes of hosting the World Cup.

“The 2026 World Cup is still far away, but you have to say the World Cup expansion [gives] China increased opportunities,” he said at the match, according to Beijing Youth Daily.

Europe’s leading powers are critical of the expansion plans, but other confederations greeted the news warmly.

“We understand that this decision has been made for political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable,” said the powerful European Club Association.

“I am not happy with the decision and would have wished that all the important questions about the organisation and the format had been completely resolved,” said Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association.

“It’s terrible. If you want to ruin something, this is the path you should take. I just don’t understand it,” said Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish league.

Victor Montagliani, president of the North and Central American and Caribbean Confederation, insisted: “Some countries are maybe spoilt because they go all the time, like Germany, so maybe they take it for granted but, for a lot of countries making it to the World Cup, it’s the biggest thing to happen to that country.

“I think it’s an opportunity to have that dream expanded throughout the world ... Even on the sporting side it’s a win.”

Alejandro Dominguez, president of the South American Football Confederation added: “This is a success for world football, from the perspective that we are here to develop football and everyone should have a chance to play with the ball.

“We have a new development which is very important for everyone ... from now on, we have to sit down and work out how to put it into practice and how it will affect each one of the confederations.”

Additional reporting: Agence France-Presse, Reuters