On October 24th, FIFA confirmed that China will host the inaugural edition of the newly expanded 24-team Club World Cup in 2021. This is the second international association football tournament that China will host in the next five years. Previously, China had confirmed it will host the AFC Asian Cup in 2023.
The FIFA Club World Cup was established in 2000 and the current version is a yearly tournament that includes six reigning continental champions and in which CONMEBOL and UEFA representatives receive byes to the semi-finals. Due to the limited number participating teams, prize money, and the dominating performance of the European clubs, the FIFA Club World Cup is more a commercial endeavor with little prestige.
In recent years, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has received huge success both financially and for its reputation through events including the European Championships, the Champions League, and the newly established Nations League. Comparatively, the World Cup is the only highly influential tournament that FIFA has. Therefore, FIFA needs to expand its impact to generate greater revenues through new tournaments, especially on the club level. Given this context, in March 2019, FIFA decided to expand the Club World Cup competition to 24 teams and have it be played every four years by 2021. This new Club World Cup will replace the FIFA Confederations Cup, the tournament contested by national teams that included the holders of each of the six continental championships, along with the current FIFA World Cup holder and the host nation.
Besides the competition from UEFA, FIFA is also facing challenges from other sports leagues. Although football is still the most popular sport on a global scale, American professional sports leagues have accumulated a large group of fans throughout the world through successful commercial development combined with a strong cultural impact. Among all sports leagues, the American football National Football League (NFL) has the highest total revenue, almost double that of the English Premier League, the most profitable among all football leagues.
Among all global markets, China is definitely the focus of all groups. On the one hand, Chinese people have to illustrate their rising consumption power and willingness to spend on sports-related products and events. On the other hand, due to the comparatively short time developing professional sports, China does not have headquarters of any international professional sports organizations and China now has no dominant professional sports with an outstanding market share. Football and basketball are now in leading positions but other sports are also hoping to take at least some piece of the cake.
In past years, many European football teams selected China as the destination of their pre-season trips; the NBA has hosted its pre-season games in China for years; the NFL reached a digital partnership with Tencent in 2017; the MLB has opened several development centers in China to attract young talent. As for FIFA, China’s geographical location is far away from UEFA’s base of Europe, making China a place for FIFA to connect all other powers to restrict UEFA’s monopoly in the market. Back in 2017, Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, came to visit China and met with Xi Jinping to look for more co-operation between the two sides.
Recent conflicts between China and the NBA also accelerated FIFA’s entrance into the Chinese market. After Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey posted controversial words on Twitter in early October, many Chinese NBA fans decided to stop supporting this widely popular sports league in China. Hupu, one of the biggest sports commentary apps in China, was full of NBA fans who poured into the football discussion page and asked how to pick their new teams to support. FIFA, under this condition, decided to award China the Club World Cup within a few weeks of the Morey issue, which underscored FIFA’s friendly attitude towards China and determination to expand its business to this growing market. Compared to the NBA, an American entity, FIFA is an international association with even more members than the United Nations. FIFA keeps silent on all political issues, at least in public, which frees itself from the dilemma that the NBA is experiencing and reduces the risk of controversy with China.
China also needs the Club World Cup. To China, football is not only a sport that Chinese people are determined to improve at, but also a diplomatic approach to connect it with its friends around the world. There is always rumor that China is planning to bid for the World Cup in the near future and Xi Jinping has unveiled his ambition for China to host the World Cup more than once as a part of his football diplomacy blueprint. However, although China has successfully hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and many other international tournaments, there is still a lot of doubts over whether China has enough football stadiums nationwide for the World Cup. Certainly, through hosting the Club World Cup and the Asia Cup, China could construct football-related infrastructure and build new stadiums to demonstrate its capacity for a global football carnival.
Meanwhile, China also needs opportunities to raise people’s passion for football and soften critics of current radical policies, including naturalization. Firstly, after hosting several international sports events, many people are doubting whether it is worthwhile to invest so many resources into more sporting events, questioning the marginal benefit of hosting the World Cup in China. What’s more, given China’s comparatively low competency in men’s football, a big concern that might block China’s bid is whether China would produce an embarrassing performance in the World Cup as the host country. Every host country has progressed through the group stage and into the knockout stage, except for upstart South Africa in 2010, but they still managed to defeat France, saving face for the team. In order to improve the performance of the national team within the short term, besides developing the youth training system, China has naturalized a group of foreign athletes, including a handful of players with no Chinese blood, to represent China in international games. This policy has sparked numerous controversies, especially to those who are not following football and cannot understand why football is such an important thing in many people’s lives. From this perspective, the Club World Cup is also a promotion to increase people’s support on China’s potential bid for the World Cup in the future and an attempt to tackle the obstacles for football’s development in the country.
In Xi’s meeting with Gianni Infantino, both sides vowed to deepen cooperation. Having the first 24-team version of the Club World Cup in China is just the first step of this long march.
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