Shanghai, where ‘no ball games’ signs adorned the public open spaces not so long ago, is the stage where FIFA is expected later this week to award China the first hosting of the expanded 24-team Club World Cup.
Item four on the agenda for Thursday’s council meeting of world football’s governing body focuses on the 2021 Club World Cup, the appointment of the host nation and the participating clubs.
Ramping up and rebuilding what is currently an unloved seven-club event every December has always been among the priorities for Gianni Infantino ever since he was elected FIFA president in succession to disgraced Sepp Blatter in 2016. Shanghai . . . colours of a new football world in the east Infantino knew all about the popularity and wealth-generating power of the club game from his years as general secretary of European federation UEFA which is overflowing with cash courtesy of the success and worldwide appeal of the Champions League.
China has been in line for a major FIFA competition ever since major Chinese corporations led by Alibaba signed up as commercial partners at a time when other multinationals were running away for fear of reputational contamination from the FIFAGate corruption scamdal.
Football U-turn Wanda then signed up only three weeks after Infantino had been elected. This was confirmation of a revolution in China’s attitude to football which was derided for many years and a byword for corruption and matchfixing.
All that underwent a remarkable U-turn after Xi Jinping, supposedly a football fan, rose to power as Paramount Leader in 2012 and Chinese businessmen hurried to invest heavily in clubs both at home and abroad. That change of policy included widespread removal of prohibitions on ball games in many public parks and open spaces.
Simultaneously, Infantino began serious discussions about formats for an expanded Club World Cup in 2017.
The project hit a snag briefly the following year after leaks suggesting a will to package the Club World Cup and a proposed global nations league for a mystery $25bn rights offer from an international consortium with significant interests in Japan and Saudi Arabia.
European federation UEFA was opposed to the expansion out of a concern that it might infringe on the visibility, status and financial strength of the Champions League.
Ulitimately it had to concede defeat because of the support Infantino garnered easily from council representatives of all the other five regional confederations.
UEFA concession The one concession to UEFA appears to be a reduction from the proposed 12 European clubs to eight for the initial tournament which is – as both a thankyou and encouragement to China – almost certain to be staged there in June 2021.
The eight could be the winners of Champions and Europa Leagues over the prior four seasons. South America would send five or six clubs with the rest being allocated between Africa, Asia, central/north America and Oceania.
The tournament will start with a first group stage comprising eight groups of three with the winners proceeding to knockout quarter-finals. This means clubs would play a minimum of two matches and maximum of five.
A club award to China may assist Infantino in deliberations about the bidding process for the 2030 FIFA World Cup which will also be on the agenda in Shanghai.
China has been thought keen to stage that as well but Infantino insisted in his 2016 election manifesto that he favoured a rotation system by which no host region could apply to stage the next two World Cups.
Since Asia’s Qatar is playing host in 2022 that would rule out the possibility of a Chinese World Cup until at least 2034.