Despite woeful performance from the hosts, the China Cup is a huge success and shows the country is ready to host a World Cup
Track record with Beijing Olympics and existing infrastructure across the country means a bid looks increasingly likely
When the China Cup was announced to the world in 2016 the headlines were of bringing the biggest names in the game to China for local fans to see in the flesh and making sure that the national team improve.
Wanda Group boss Wang Jianlin, who launched the tournament, saw his sentiments echoed by the vice president of the Chinese Football Association Yu Hongchen, who said that they were “duty bound ... to vigorously develop Chinese football”.
So, two tournaments in, has the China Cup met its aims?
It’s an emphatic ‘yes’ when it comes to the star players performing: Gareth Bale bagged a hat-trick, Luis Suarez scored a penalty, and Edinson Cavani a brace – one a scissor kick and the other the only goal of the final.
The only failure on that count was that there could have been more local fans in the stands to watch them.
Sadly it is an emphatic ‘no’ on improving the national team.
Wales romped to a 6-0 win and, despite taking the lead, China then lost 4-1 to the Czech Republic in the third-place play off. While China came third in last year’s inaugural competition, this year they finished last with a minus-nine goal difference over two games.
But what if there is a third aim for the China Cup – to prove that China is ready for a World Cup?
The on-pitch evidence shows that the team are not ready to qualify but off-the-pitch is the country ready to host?
If the China Cup is such a case study then it makes sense why it would take place in Nanning, a city of seven million (more than Wales and Uruguay’s populations combined) in Guangxi Autonomous Region, near China’s border with Vietnam. The lure of Wang’s real estate holdings in the city aside, which include one of the Wanda Theme Park resorts that the group developed to challenge Disney, it’s also one of the furthest places you can be from Beijing and still be in the country.
There is no doubt that Beijing and Shanghai are able to hold international sporting events. The capital hosted the 2008 Olympics to international acclaim and has the stadia to host games and the infrastructure to cope with the large number of visitors from around the globe. Similarly, Shanghai had the Expo and has had years of experience with the Grand Prix and various other visiting sports from the NBA to UFC.
Shanghai SIPG’s new ground could be completed as soon as 2019 and while Shanghai Stadium, the side’s current home, could do with a lick of paint, much like Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, it has the capacity, central location and transport capacity to deal with a World Cup game without breaking a sweat.
But being able to successfully stage international football in a city such as Nanning is proof that China is World Cup ready.
There are scores of cities ranked above Nanning in China’s tier system – Nanning is in the bottom third of the 30 second tier cities – and there are 15 new first-tier cities plus Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen above those.
Already, Nanning is much more organised than some of the Brazilian host cities were in 2014 and it has existing infrastructure in place.
There were 12 host cities in Brazil and will be 12 venues across 11 cities in Russia this summer. The controversial Qatar-hosted tournament is set to be played out in eight venues in seven municipalities, of which only two are built right now and one of them needs to be expanded to ensure its capacity increases to 40,000.
China can point to at least one stadium of that size in each city that is second-tier or above.
If fears that the Qatar World Cup need to be relocated come to pass then China should be considered as the new host because it could cope logistically with little effort.
Plus, as a fellow member of the AFC it would not upset the apple cart in the global distribution of World Cup hosts.
As time goes on, a China World Cup looks increasingly likely.
The combined bid from Canada, Mexico and the US for the United 2026 bid – the first World Cup after the expansion from 32 to 48 teams – has put forth 24 venues in 23 host cities.
The current president’s own bid to put a wall between two of the bidding partners might prove problematic and open up another opportunity for China to step in, providing the competing bid from Morocco is not accepted by Fifa this June.
China would not be troubled by the expansion of teams taking part, although it still might be a World Cup cycle too soon for the hosts to get out of the groups.
Yes, there are still things that will need to be worked on – the fan experience in the ground, as one example – but surely Fifa brings something to the party for its huge tax breaks?
“Founding the China Cup is just one way to revive Chinese football,” stated the press release ahead of the first tournament, “helping the Chinese national team propel from the China Cup to the Fifa World Cup”.
Maybe they have done that, just not the way they intended.