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Is China Ready to Host the World Cup — in 16 Years?

6 minute read
Justin Bergman / Shanghai

Maybe it was the hypnotic hum of the vuvuzelas, or Spain’s inspiring first-time victory. Whatever the cause, Wei Di, the new head of the Chinese Football Association, apparently had an epiphany at the recent World Cup in South Africa. Impressed by how the event had united South Africa and seemed to make the country’s soccer team play better, Wei decided that if China can’t qualify for the World Cup on its own merits, it should at least host the tournament. “There have been many debates on whether China should host a World Cup or when to host it,” Wei told the Beijing Youth Daily upon returning to China last month. “After the tournament succeeded in South Africa, I have to admit, China has no reason not to have a World Cup. And now is the time.”

Or, more accurately, 2026 is the time. China has missed the boat on bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups — the hosts for both tournaments will be selected in December — so the soonest it could hope to host would be 16 years from now. But while it might seem premature to discuss a World Cup so far away, Wei’s comments could have a major impact on the selection process for 2018 and 2022. FIFA likes to rotate the hosting duties by continent every four years. Because Brazil is hosting the next tournament in 2014, FIFA has been expected to give the 2018 World Cup to Europe (England and a joint Spain-Portugal bid are the favorites) and the 2022 tournament to Asia (Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Australia are in the running). But if China is seriously eyeing a 2026 bid, FIFA may decide to skip Asia in 2022 and give that World Cup to the only North American bidder — the U.S.

(See pictures of the World Cup’s would-be winners.)

One thing is fairly certain: FIFA, the organization that runs the World Cup and decides the hosts, would likely do backflips if China tossed its hat in the ring, opening up the largest untapped soccer market in the world. Wei said as much in another interview last month with Titan Sports, the country’s leading sports newspaper, noting that FIFA president Sepp Blatter told him that China’s rising influence in the world means there’s an “irresistible trend” toward China hosting the event. (Although Blatter has encouraged a China bid in the past, he’s also been forceful in his support of Qatar’s 2022 bid, saying in April, “The Arab world deserves to host the World Cup.”) In another sign of how serious China is about hosting, Wei has also made statements that appear aimed at influencing the 2022 decision, openly backing the U.S. bid and taking unsportsmanlike potshots at Qatar. “Qatar is so hot,” he told Titan Sports. “What’s the population of that country? How can they fill their venues with people?”

Wei may not see any reason for China to wait a bit longer to host, but plenty of soccer analysts do. That China has the resources and willpower to put on a successful global sporting event is not in doubt. The country has also proven itself as a sporting superpower, winning 51 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — more than any other nation. But those golds came in sports such as table tennis, badminton, gymnastics and diving, which the Chinese dominate thanks to a rigorous state-sponsored system that plucks children from their homes at a young age and trains them to become future champions.

(See pictures of World Cup posters through the years.)

China’s soccer team, by contrast, is a perennial disappointment. The squad currently sits at a dismal No. 78 in the FIFA world rankings, below such minnows as Montenegro and Benin, which have fewer citizens combined than the city of Beijing. China has only qualified once for the World Cup — in 2002 — and lost all of its opening-round games without scoring a goal. Most galling, however, is the fact that three of China’s neighbors — Japan, South Korea and even destitute North Korea — made it to South Africa this year, while China fell in qualifying matches to Iraq and Qatar. Although a country doesn’t have to be a soccer superpower to host — South Africa is a good example of that — some experts believe that if the Chinese team performs poorly on home soil, it could be embarrassing to the country and set soccer back even further. Chinese Netizens agree. According to a recent survey conducted by sports.163.com, one of China’s biggest sports websites, 51% opposed a Chinese bid in 2026, fearing the team wouldn’t be up to par.

Analysts say the government should focus its energies on improving the sorry state of soccer in China — cultivating more-talented players and coaches, ridding corruption from the domestic league — rather than wasting its time on a World Cup bid that matters only in terms of prestige and marketing potential. “The bottom line is football is nothing in China,” says Yan Qiang, vice president of Titan Media, which publishes Titan Sports, and a former soccer reporter in Europe. “In the U.S., there are millions of kids under 16 playing weekly football games, but in China, the situation is getting worse and worse … [The government] is always arguing, ‘Why can’t we make things happen in China? we’re the most populous nation in the world.’ But it has nothing to do with population. The only thing that matters is how big your football-playing population is, and in China, that figure is very, very low.”

The reasons for this are many, from the lack of space for pitches in China’s rapidly developing cities to the match-fixing and illegal betting in the domestic league that has sullied the sport’s reputation. But Wei believes he can fix the problem in time for 2026. Earlier this year, he unveiled a host of measures aimed at boosting the sport, including sending 100 teenage soccer players to Europe each year for training. For Rowan Simons, a Briton who started an amateur soccer club in Beijing in 2001 that now has 100 adult teams and 2,000 kids in training programs, this tactic misses the point. Like Yan, he believes that for China to develop as a soccer power, the sport needs to spread across the country at the grass-roots level, through community-organized clubs or school programs. “This is a huge investment in a small number of children, money that doesn’t go to encouraging thousands of kids to keep playing the game around the country,” says Simons. “The leadership must keep as many kids playing for as long as possible to have the talent emerge.”

Simons is a supporter of a Chinese World Cup bid — just not right away. He wants to see China fall in love with the game for the right reasons first. “The objective is to have millions of people enjoying themselves, not to win the World Cup,” he says.

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