After Beijing Olympics, China eyes World Cup goal

After staging both a Summer and now a Winter Olympics, there is one major international sports event left for China to host — soccer’s World Cup.

President Xi Jinping, a noted soccer fan, has said he wants China to stage and even win the men’s World Cup one day, and the country has been building and renovating stadiums in apparent anticipation.

But analysts say Xi’s dream faces a number of obstacles, starting with the dismal performance of the national team.

The men’s side has only ever qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, when they failed to win a point or even score a goal.

Their already failing 2022 Qatar World Cup hopes ended for good in a humiliating 3-1 defeat against Vietnam this month.

As the host, China would automatically qualify for the World Cup, but the current Chinese side would be in real danger of humiliation.

“Many believe China doesn’t want to host a World Cup until they can be more confident the national team can perform well enough so as not to embarrass the country,” said Cameron Wilson, founder of the Wild East Football website, which specializes in Chinese soccer.

Chinese soccer became famous a few years ago for splurging on famous foreign coaches and players, but those days are now long gone.

No long-term vision

China has been naturalizing players, many of them Brazilian, but the national team remain stuck in 75th in the FIFA rankings.

Qatar was also a soccer minnow in 2010 when it won the right to stage this year’s World Cup.

But they have improved since, going from 113th in the world to 52nd today.

However, Wilson warned that the changes needed for China to follow in those footsteps and become a football power are “massive and fundamental.”

China's men's team has already been eliminated from contention for a spot in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. | REUTERS
China’s men’s team has already been eliminated from contention for a spot in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. | REUTERS

“Currently, Chinese football is dying because it is controlled by political, not sporting forces,” he said.

China needs to “reduce pressure on ordinary people so they are more willing to let their kids spend time on anything other than endless hours spent doing homework”, he added.

“They also need to replace their football management structure with something much less top-down which allows football people to make decisions about the sport, not politicians.”

Soccer has found itself in the crosshairs of the ruling Communist Party’s purity drive in recent years, with players told to remove or cover tattoos and sometimes join military camps for drills and Marxist-style “thought education.”

Mads Davidsen, ex-technical director of Chinese Super League side Shanghai Port, believes China has the “facilities and logistics to handle big events” — the Beijing 2008 Games and just-finished Winter Olympics in the capital were evidence of that.

He expects China to make a bid for either the 2034 or 2038 World Cup.

“When I was in China, I advised them to make a 8-10 year vision and plan and forget the next World Cup, but build a solid platform of a Chinese football vision and the demands of the modern game,” he said.

But there is a “lack of investment in the long term” and too much focus on immediate success, he said.

Intense competition

China managed to generate substantial interest in cold weather sports after winning the bid for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which ended on Sunday and saw the host come third in the medals table — easily their best performance at a Winter Games.

Experts say that shows the country has the capacity to drive mass interest when needed.

Despite doom descending on Chinese soccer after a number of clubs folded in debt, including the former CSL champions Jiangsu Suning, former Japan and Qatar head coach Philippe Troussier believes China’s national side is “improving year by year.”

China's only men's World Cup appearance came in 2002 when the country lost all three of its group-stage games. | REUTERS
China’s only men’s World Cup appearance came in 2002 when the country lost all three of its group-stage games. | REUTERS

“Chinese football has evolved a lot” with many club academies which “now invest in the detection, selection and training of young players,” said Troussier, who worked for several Chinese clubs and is now Vietnam’s U-20 coach.

But the Frenchman warned there is still not yet enough infrastructure or coaches, and others warned having a competitive team alone is not enough for a successful World Cup bid.

Bo Li, professor of sports management at Miami University, said soccer’s world governing body FIFA is interested in awarding the competition to host countries who can share — something which seems unlikely in China’s case.

“The competition … is a lot more intensive compared to the Olympic bid,” he said, pointing out that the voting format “requires the interested country to have a great relationship with the majority of FIFA members.”

“Given the current diplomatic relations, it does not seem that China could work with any neighboring nation for a co-bid,” he warned.

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