The Chinese dream of one day hosting a World Cup edged closer to reality on Thursday, when international soccer governing body FIFA announced it will bring a major club tournament to China in 2021.
That year, 24 of the best club sides from around the globe will compete on Chinese soil, in a revamped and expanded edition of the FIFA Club World Cup.
“This is a historic decision for football because the FIFA council decided unanimously to appoint China as the host for the new FIFA World Cup for clubs,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said following a meeting of the organization in Shanghai.
FIFA also confirmed that the tournament in China will be dramatically different from past events, with the new format more closely mirroring that of the World Cup for nations.
Instead of seven teams, 24 teams will compete, drawn from the best performing sides from each of world soccer’s six major confederations－Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Oceania and Europe. And the formerly annual contest will now be held every four years.
“The new (tournament) will be a competition anyone who loves football is looking forward to,” Infantino said. “It is the first real and true world cup for the best teams and clubs in the world.”
In the eyes of FIFA executives, the tournament will likely act as a litmus test for China, a country with well-known aspirations to eventually host the World Cup.
“Securing the rights to host the tournament is part of a long-term trajectory, and also a prelude to China bidding for the world’s biggest football tournament,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in the United Kingdom.
China officially declared its interest in hosting a World Cup back in 2016, when the government released a 50-point plan to transform the country into a soccer superpower, and increased Chinese involvement in the Club World Cup followed.
“Current government policy has set a target for China to become a leading football nation by 2050,” said Chadwick.
In 2016, Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group signed on as a corporate partner for the Club World Cup, which is also sponsored by tech company Alibaba Cloud and car brand Alibaba E-Auto, two subsidiaries of Chinese internet giant Alibaba.
“The deal to host the Club World Cup is one that I have been predicting for some time,” said Chadwick. He added that the sponsorship deals showed that China has a “vision of its football future, but also of the opportunities it might have to invest in and engage with the sport”.
A lot rides on the success of the 2021 contest, for FIFA as well as China. Infantino has long sought to raise the prestige and popularity of the Club World Cup, which so far has failed to gain traction among fans and clubs in Europe in particular.
Europe’s elite teams will often field weakened or experimental sides in the contest, as they do not yet view it as a priority. Many clubs have pushed back at the revised format, which will require a greater commitment of time and resources.
Earlier this year, the European Club Association, which represents 232 European clubs, threatened to boycott the competition as it now means adjusting the international match calendar which was previously set through 2024.
The FIFA Club World Cup is scheduled for June and July 2021, which could conflict with two other major contests that summer. The African Cup of Nations is scheduled to take place during both months, while North America’s governing body for soccer is holding its Gold Cup tournament in July.