A 2021 Club World Cup can deliver on both Chinese and Fifa ambitions

China's President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with Fifa President Gianni Infantino in Beijing on June 14, 2017. (Photo by Fred Dufour - Pool/Getty Images)

  • First expanded Fifa Club World Cup to take place in China in 2021
  • Major step in a growing accord between rights-holder and state
  • Short timeline creates big organisational challenges for China

“It is a historic decision for football,” said Gianni Infantino in October, as he announced Fifa’s 2021 Club World Cup – the first expanded edition – would be held in China.

It continues the slow coalescence – on commercial and strategic levels – between Fifa and the world’s most populous country. Speaking at the Fifa Council meeting in Shanghai, the Fifa president continued:

“The new [tournament] will be a competition which anyone who loves football is looking forward to. It is the first real and true Club World Cup where the best clubs will compete.”

“It will allow us to generate significant revenues, but I want to underline this, very, very clearly: Fifa will have zero out of this because we will reinvest this in football.”

The new format, which will see the tournament expanded from seven to 24 teams, will have a commercial impact in China “more or less …proportional to two-thirds of a World Cup”, says Zhang Bin, a football commentator for state broadcaster CCTV, and a key opinion leader in Chinese football media.

“China has football ambitions. And the world of football has needs from China,” adds Zhang.

Brand ambition

Bringing the Club World Cup to China has certainly been the main aim of the Chinese brands that Fifa has courted so successfully in recent years. When Alibaba signed on as the presenting partner of the Club World Cup in 2015, for eight years until 2023,  executives were tight-lipped about the deal value but completely clear about the company’s objective to bring the competition to China.

Real Madrid lifts the 2018 Fifa Club World Cup trophy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Subsequently, Fifa has grown its portfolio of Chinese partners, adding Wanda Group on a long-term contract until 2030, and electronics company Hisense and smartphone manufacturer Vivo on shorter deals.

“For the 2021 Club World Cup, it is possible for Fifa to bag one or two Alibaba and Wanda-scale deals with courageous companies speculating in the opportunities related to 2030,” says Dr Lingling Liu, head of China at consultancy JTA Sports. “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 Chinese perspective

For the Chinese state, hosting the Club World Cup is a firm step on the pathway to football prominence, at a time when the long-held dream of hosting and even winning a World Cup looks no closer.

The mutual move for Fifa and China to build bridges of cooperation has been instigated by senior leadership on both sides. 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, and particularly of the World Cup. He made it public knowledge that his three World Cup dreams are for China to play in, host, and win the World Cup finals.

The 2-1 defeat of the Chinese men’s football national team in November by makeshift opponents from Syria has damaged China’s hopes of qualifying for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Once again, reaching a World Cup appears to be an elusive goal.

Fifa will argue that China’s growing ambition to become a leading player in world football, despite struggling national teams, justifies its choice of the country to baptise the new format of the Club World Cup. The commercial value of staging matches in front of 1.4 billion Chinese, in the world’s second-biggest economy, is demonstrably a major factor.

But the nation faces logistical challenges to be match-ready in the short-term leading up to the Club World Cup, and a more long-term challenge of getting its national football structure to get to the required level.

Chen Xuyuan, CFA Chairman. (Image Credit: CFA website)

Although Xi Jinping’s football fandom is now less publicised, the Chinese government has maintained its push to raise the level of Chinese football.

In August, the Chinese Football Association appointed new a new president, Chen Xuyuan, who vowed to further restructure the nation’s football governing body, an initiative started in 2017, to be more autonomous and independent from the State General Administration of Sports, who previously oversaw the organisation. Fifa has strict rules around government interference in national federations, and the move is intended to convince the world governing body that the CFA has the requisite level of independence from the ruling party.

Furthermore, the CFA will withdraw from its one-third shareholding role in the consortium managing the Chinese Super League, to let it become a a commercially independent league governed by market forces.

China has had a plan since 2016 to become a first-class football power by 2050. But Fifa is impatient, and does not seem willing to wait that long. In a recent visit to Shanghai, Infantino said China should play a role in world football to match its status as one of the world’s two superpowers.

“Many people across the world misinterpreted this statement as meaning ‘the Chinese men’s national team will win the World Cup by 2050,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University.

“In fact, China’s stated intention of becoming a leading Fifa nation by 2050 is now beginning to tangibly manifest itself, to the extent that one might even argue that China has already become a leading Fifa nation”.

One key indicator is China’s seat on the 37-member strong Fifa Council. The incumbent member from China, Du Zhaocai, is a vice-minister-level government official in the CCCP, meaning he should be able to wield a greater amount of power and resources than his two predecessors could at home. One of Du’s current internal jobs is to oversee the organisation of the Club World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, which will also be held in China.

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

Much to do, little time

Soon after the decision to award the 2021 event to China, a Fifa delegation toured match candidate cities, and received a reality check in terms of hosting venues.

With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, and Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan Province, staging the 2023 Universiade, several key cities had to exclude themselves from bidding for the competition.

While there are ten candidate cities, none of them – even Shanghai, China’s most economically-developed metropolis – have a venue fit to host a Fifa-standard competition.

Chen Tao of Tianjin Teda celebrates his goal during the AFC Champions League match between the Melbourne Victory and Tianjin Teda. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

In Tianjin, some 130km south of Beijing, the Fifa delegation visited the Teda Arena, home to the inaugural match of the Chinese Super League in 2003, only to see the pitch sunken by structural damage.

There are about 19 months until kick-off at the Club World Cup. The timeline is a test for Chinese organisational competence, but the country has a justified reputation for pulling off mega events at any cost.

“Hosting the Club World Cup provides a superb opportunity for Chinese cities to upgrade their football facilities,” says Zhang. “The short lead-up time may just as well provide a chance to demonstrate the speed China has in shaking things up.”

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