The defeat of the Chinese men’s football national team on November 14 2019, by 1:2, including an own Chinese goal, by a make-shift opponent from war-torn Syria plunged China’s hope for qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to a new nadir. Few would doubt that reaching the World Cup is a goal yet again one step further for China. But FIFA is bringing its enriched cups repertoire towards China.

On October 24, the FIFA Council met in Shanghai to unanimously appoint China to host the pilot edition of the revamped Club World Cup 2021. Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, reformed the Club World Cup to be played by 24 teams from six continents in the summer every four years starting from 2021. 

The participating team number, timing, and potential broadcaster and Club World Cup sponsorship values are promising. “We can expect the impact of the Club World Cup to be proportional to two-thirds of a World Cup eventually,” says Zhang Bin, football commentator of China Central Television (CCTV) and an active blogger. “China is the first choice over anywhere else to give all it takes to reboot the run-of-the-mill Confederation Cup matches to become a new mega-event.”

Although China’s national men’s football team is notoriously poor, the country has a growing ambition to become a leading player on the FIFA turfs. This ambition justifies the choice of the location to baptise the new Club World Cup.

The potential commercial values of staging the matches in front of the 1.4 billion Chinese people in the world’s second-biggest economy are a reinforcing factor. But the nation faces the challenge of readiness in match logistics in the short term leading up to the kick-off and a more helpless essential element of football-playing in the long run.

Powerless football power

People on the top has kicked off the mutual move for FIFA and China to get closer. In the early years after assuming the leadership of China in 2012, Xi Jinping was happy to be known as an avowed fan of football, particularly of the World Cup. He made public his three World Cup dreams are for China to play, host, and win the finals. Even in his January 2017 visit to the International Olympic Committee, his gift to President Thomas Bach was a roll of art depicting ancient Chinese playing, hence having invented, so he claimed, football some 2,000 years ago. When he and FIFA President Infantino finally met in Beijing six months later to discuss deepening cooperation between China and FIFA, Xi used modest terms to promise “raising the level of Chinese football step by step”. 

Although Xi Jinping’s football fandom is less publicised, his subordinates have not stopped the steps in recent years. On August 22, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) appointed a new chief who vows to restructure further the nation’s football governing body, an initiative started in 2017, to be more autonomous and independent from its former boss of the State General Administration of Sports. Further, CFA will withdraw from its one-third shareholding role from the consortium managing the China Super League, which registered 1.6 billion yuan ($227 million) revenues in 2018 to become a new professional league governed by market forces. As a result, CFA seems to focus more on enhancing the international profiles of Chinese football showcased by its national teams.

Unfortunately, the Chinese men’s team has proven to be a powerless mob. After the November 14 defeat, Manager Marcello Lippi pronounced them helpless as having “no grit, no anger, no heart, no personality”. After only six matches, he resigned immediately from his second tenure, leaving a fat annual pay rumoured to net 20 million Euros. The CFA said the match result was “less than satisfactory” in a written statement and has not been reachable for comments.

China has had a plan since 2016 of becoming a first-class football power by 2050. But FIFA does not seem to want to wait for that long. In his recent visit to Shanghai, Infantino said China should play a role in world football to match its status as a powerful nation, according to Xinhua News Agency.

“Many people across the world misinterpreted this statement as meaning ‘the Chinese men’s national team will win the World Cup by 2050′”, says Dr Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University. “China’s stated intention of becoming a leading FIFA nation by 2050 is now beginning to tangibly manifest itself so that one might even argue that China has already become a leading FIFA nation”.

The manifestations include that since 2013 China has secured one of the 37 seats in the FIFA Council. The incumbent member from China, Mr Du Zhaocai, is a vice-minister level government official, which means he should wield more power and resources than his two predecessors could at home.  One of Du’s current internal jobs is to organise the Club World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup in 2023 in China.   

The 2021 Club World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup demonstrate a commitment to host such events on the part of the Chinese government and a willingness among football’s higher global echelons to entrust the staging to such competitions to China. “As such, China’s ascendance to a position of global football power is in full flight,” Dr Chadwick says. “But also more is to come. I suspect 2021 will be a step towards the country hosting the World Cup, either in 2030 or 2034.”

Money matters

Both sides have strong motivations. “China has ambitions. And the world of football has needs from China,” says Mr Zhang Bin. However, whereas eventually hosting the World Cup will realise at least two of Xi Jinping’s dreams, FIFA has reasons to have positive financial expectations in China.

Chinese businesses have already left a strong track record of spending money on FIFA events, with a growing number of partnerships with Chinese corporations that serve both as FIFA partners and FIFA World Cup sponsors and as suppliers.

The first pot of gold came from the e-commerce Alibaba in December 2015 for an eight-year title sponsorship deal to the FIFA Club World Cup till 2023. Alibaba was tight-lipped about the deal sum. But at the signing press conference, an Alibaba executive acknowledged that the aim is to let the Club World Cup play first in China and reach the objective four years later. In March 2016, Wanda Group, then China’s No.1 real-estate developer with ambitions of venturing in sports and entertainment, followed suit with a 15-year FIFA Partner deal till 2030. Two of China’s richest men then respectively held the helms of Alibaba and Wanda. Their buy-in to FIFA rights appears to be politically correct moves to demonstrate their loyalty to President Xi.

Shortly before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA secured a few quick wins in China. First, FIFA sealed a deal with Hisense, a home appliance manufacturer, in the estimated worth of $100 million according to many Chinese media in early 2017. In the meantime, FIFA brought in then little-known mobile phone brand VIVO for two terms till 2022. It also sold the regional sponsors package to DDMC, which signed up three Chinese companies, including Mengniu, the No.2 dairy producer in China for Russia 2018.

“For 2021 Club World Cup, FIFA can bag one or two Alibaba and Wanda-scale deals with venturesome companies speculating in the opportunities related to 2030,” says Dr Lingling Liu, a sports consultant. “However it is more likely to strike deals similar to the VIVO level for two four-year terms or a bit less for the short-term like Hisense for one term.”

The sponsors have expressed intense interest in opportunities when the world’s most popular sport and China are combined. Such opportunities so far often have been embodied in the Chinese men’s team, despite its abject performances. At present, 14 brands have backed the national football team with total fee payment of up to 300 million yuan ($43 million) per year, according to the Shanghai-based online media The Paper. The leading sponsorships include a Nike deal for 12 years with an annual minimum of 100 million yuan ($14.3 million). Other main sponsors, such as Continental, TagHeuer, China Ping’An, an insurer, and Yanjing Beer, pay no less than 50 million yuan ($7 million) yearly. Lower level sponsors and suppliers pay a minimum of 10 to 20 million yuan ($1.4 to 2.8 million) annually.

China speed

Soon after awarding China 2021, a FIFA delegation toured match candidate cities for a shocking reality check with the venues.

For reasons such as Beijing being committed to hosting the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan Province, for the Universiade 2023, many cities had to decline to throw their hats in for the 2021 Club World Cup.

The discovery in 10 candidate cities was depressing, with none of the candidate cities, including Shanghai, China’s most economically developed metropolis, constructing a new football pitch in its Pudong area, having a venue fit or ready for FIFA-standard match playing.

In Tianjin, some 130 kilometres south of Beijing, the FIFA group visited the Taida Arena, wherein 2003 hosted the inaugural match of the Chinese Super League. They discovered that a giant chemical warehouse explosion 1,500 meters away damaged the stadium’s geological structure four years ago. Qingdao, an eastern China coastal city famous for a beer bearing the same name, a brand-new venue built using 19 months, presents many unacceptable faults in safety and security details.

There are about 19 months to go to kick off the China 2021, returning a FIFA event bearing the World Cup name to China 14 years after the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It puts CFA’s organisational competence to test to sort out the venue readiness, especially when this one bears more resemblance to the World Cup that China and its leader Xi Jinping covets. Therefore, the short infrastructural supply seems more urgent than not having a good enough team.

The Chinese government is known for pulling off mega-events quickly at any cost. “Hosting FIFA games provides a superb opportunity to Chinese cities to upgrade their football facilities,” says Mr Zhang Bin of CCTV. “The short lead-up time may just as well a chance to demonstrate the China Speed.”