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23 June 2017

Was the meeting between President Xi Jinping and FIFA’s Gianni Infantino simply symbolic, or a sign of things to come? Simon Chadwick looks at the future relationship between China and the global game’s governing body.

A meeting between arguably the two most powerful men in world football just took place. Their impact could be so pervasive over the next two or three decades that this meeting may profoundly change the balance of power across global football. At the very least, these two men are likely to shape what happens between now and 2030.

China’s President Xi Jinping and FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino were the two men in question, their meeting having taken place at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The choice of venue was telling, as the Great Hall is used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party of China. Indeed, the view from China seems to have been that the meeting’s symbolism, rather than its content, was the most striking feature of Xi and Infantino’s encounter.

The Swiss head of FIFA is still a relative newcomer to his presidential position, having been elected to replace the much-maligned Sepp Blatter. Infantino’s compatriot presided over one of the most turbulent periods in FIFA’s history, as the governing body became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. Infantino faces a huge task in turning around the organisation, although the way in which he attempts to do so will have important ramifications for world football.

Looming large on Infantino’s supposedly reformist agenda is China, with some of the country’s biggest corporations having already thrown FIFA an economic lifeline. Faced with several financial challenges, not least those inflicted by FIFA’s corruption crises, lucrative sponsorship deals with China’s Wanda, Hisense and Vivo has helped alleviate some of FIFA’s problems.

Infantino may, therefore, have simply dropped by Beijing to say ‘thanks’, although a post-transaction courtesy call is unlikely to have been the principle motive for his visit to the Great Hall.

Xi’s desire for China to become one of the world’s leading football nations by 2050, as well as for it to host and win the World Cup, was surely the pretext for the ‘smiles and handshakes’ photo opportunity. Put another way, a football administrator does not get invited into the heart of Beijing’s political machine without good reason.

If symbolism rather than content characterised the meeting, then it implies that Xi and Infantino will meet again soon (although Xi had already met senior FIFA officials when he was in Davos earlier in the year for the World Economic Forum). One assumes that on their next meeting, substance rather than show will be the premise for their get-together. The key question is, what will be on their agenda?

The World Cup was presumably the elephant in the room. China wants to host the tournament and, probably, FIFA wants to award the tournament to it. There are two years which are likely candidates for the World Cup heading east: 2030, coincidentally when Wanda’s sponsorship deal comes to an end, and 2034. If Wanda’s deal is to be renewed and provide China with an appropriate return-on-investment, one suspects China will be the World Cup’s host in one of these two years. Yet there are other matters on China’s football agenda that will surely be discussed with FIFA in due course.

Next up could be a discussion about the World Club Cup. The upcoming two editions of FIFA’s premier club tournament will take place in the United Arab Emirates, though what happens from 2019 onwards is currently under discussion. Which country will host the event is still to be decided; Infantino has floated plans for an expanded championship which will involve more teams and require more venues. Hence, a country with the infrastructure needed will form part of FIFA’s checklist of appropriate hosts. China is already well-placed to make a hosting bid, ably supported by not only Wanda but also Alibaba E-Auto, a presenting partner for the tournament through to 2022.

FIFA’s Federations Cup event in 2021 is also probably up for grabs; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has already been rescheduled from June to December, as the country will otherwise be too hot to host the competition. This move has already caused a great deal of consternation among football’s domestic governing bodies across the world. The Federations Cup normally takes place in June, which therefore poses the same climatic challenges as the 2022 World Cup does. Any attempt to move it to an earlier or later slot in the year would be hugely contentious, so it is likely to remain where it is. One suspects that China is already being constructive in the support it is providing to FIFA as the organisation seeks a solution to the problem.

Despite official denials published following Xi and Infantino’s meeting, the World Cup’s staging in 2022 would also now appear to be drifting across China’s radar. There is some enduring criticism of FIFA’s decision to award the hosting rights to Qatar. Yet recent diplomatic unrest in the region has intensified the calls from some quarters that 2022 should be staged elsewhere. This unexpectedly provides China with an interesting diplomatic opportunity.

China has maturing relations with Qatar, symbolised by the two countries’ agreement to jointly build the stadium that will stage the final in 2022. Furthermore, Qatar is party to China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. As such, China is unlikely to want to antagonise its Middle Eastern partner. Instead, it may see difficulties among Gulf Cooperation Council members as a chance to mediate and to provide a safety net. This would be a win-win for Beijing, from which it could emerge either as the country that helped negotiate a settlement and saved 2022 or else as the ‘helpful’ partner that rescued its allies, Qatar and FIFA, from an impending crisis by hosting the tournament.

At the next meeting between Xi and Infantino, it also seems likely that the former will remind the latter of China’s plans to have 70,000 football pitches and up to 50 million school children playing football by 2020. These breath-taking numbers are in one sense a mere footnote to the power-plays China is now making across world football. In another sense though, such children will form the basis for the squad that Xi ultimately hopes will win the World Cup.

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