Thursday, December 06, 2007

China 2018

Anybody who’s ever been to China knows that this is not a country that does things by half. That’s why a Chinese bid for the 2018 World Cup, should it materialize, will be need to be taken very seriously.

A Chinese bid will fundamentally be built around the country’s three obvious strengths.

First, China – as every marketer knows – is an enormous market that football’s powers-that-be would like to make more pro-football. Right now, football is not a particularly popular sport in China. Attendances at Chinese Super League matches are often MLS-sized. Basketball (and even ping-pong) get a lot more exposure at a day-to-day level in the country and the NBA at least is making serious hay of this.

But no other sporting event engages the Chinese like the World Cup final – tens of millions of them stay up through the night to watch it. The trick for the sport of football is to convert that enthusiasm for one-off events into a more lasting passion. The experience in USA 94 shows that this can happen – given enough time.

Second, the country already has a lot of very modern stadia which will require little renovation in 2018. The country has hosted two major tournaments in the last four years (the 2004 AFC championships and the 2007 Women’s World Cup) and has a great deal of infrastructure to show for it.

Shanghai’s 80,000 seat stadium (picture, above) is only ten years old; Guangdong’s 80,000 seat stadium is of even more recent vintage. Qingdao, Nanking, Wuhan, Tianjin, Chongqing and Dalian all of have stadia that are less than ten years’ old and seat over 55,000. In Beijing, the 66,000-seat Workers Stadium may be nearly sixty years old in 2018, but it had a major facelift in 2004 for the AFC Championships in 2004 and no doubt the newly-built “Birds Nest” Olympic Stadium can be pressed into service as well.

Third – and this is the important one – if there’s one thing the Beijing Olympics has already proved, it is that the Chinese government will do absolutely anything to make sure that large, prestige infrastructure projects go off well. Money? No problem. Labour? No problem. Given the infrastructure worries already dogging the run-ups to 2010 and 2014, the importance of this factor shouldn’t be underestimated.

On the flip side, China doesn’t have a stellar football culture as we would understand it. When it comes to professional sports – still a relatively new concept in the People’s Republic – the Chinese are phenomenally fickle. Attendance at top flight games correlates rather sharply with the home side’s league position. The attraction is to the aura of winning rather than to the club itself. This probably won’t affect the World Cup much, but it speaks to the shallowness of the game’s roots in the country.

A more troubling issue for the country is the lack of a substantive World Cup record. Given that the host team gets a free pass to the finals, this is not an academic matter: they have to at least be able to put on a good show, and that’s not guaranteed with the squad they currently have. Indeed, in the postwar era no country has ever been awarded the World Cup without qualifying at least twice for the finals under their own steam – and China is still one short of this modest requirement.

The prevalence of local gambling syndicates will also presumable be a source of concern. Agents of these syndicates have fixed or attempted to fix games as far away as Scandinavia and England and the domestic league is still haunted by a series of refereeing scandals in 2001 known as “Black Whistle” which eroded much of the league’s credibility with fans. Given the country’s addiction to betting – all of it illegal outside of Macao – there would have to be considerable attention paid to the possibilities for outside parties to influence to flow and outcomes of games.

Then there's the perennial concerns about human rights and pollution. Given FIFA's track record of coddling to dictators and insisting that "politics and sports are separate", I doubt very much the former will be an issue. Pollution is likelier to cause problems for China, but I'm not sure that's as big an issue in football (where teams compete against each other and will be equally handicapped) as it is in athletics (where individuals are at least in part trying to break world records set in other, more pristine environments). Mexico City has nearly as miuch particulate matter floating around as do smaller Chinese cities, and the complaint of visiting teams is usually altitude, not pollution.

In any case, most of these issues are comparatively minor compared to the larger geopolitical issues involved in FIFA’s decision for 2018. By then, Europe will have gone without a World Cup for a record 12 years. It may well be that the powers that be will simply decide that the game must return to its heartland. If so, China’s chances are doomed regardless of the quality of its bid.

But if the bidding is in fact open – watch out. As long as the Chinese FA learns to play politics well over the next four years and courts its CAF counterparts properly (perhaps in conjunction with Chinese companies who are making real inroads all across Africa), a potential Chinese bid has to be seen as one of the front runners.

A version of this article was published earlier today at (if you don't already visit this site regularly, you're missing out) where some of my work will be appearing over the next few months.


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