THE REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE to the NBA, the globally expanding dominant professional basketball league in the United States, over its handling of a tweet by an official of one of its teams supporting the Hong Kong protestors does not seem to be deterring FIFA, world football’s governing body, from doing (more) business with Beijing.
FIFA is set to award hosting the finals of its inaugural world club championship in 2021 to China, according to press reports. The tournament is critical to FIFA to create a second lucrative revenue stream to lessen its financial dependence on its World Cups, but controversial within the game, especially among the powerful European clubs. FIFA’s executive council is due to vote shortly on which country will play host, but China is the only candidate.
Football has just as covetous eyes as basketball when it comes to the Chinese market. The games of the leading foreign leagues are widely broadcast. The leading clubs around the world assiduously cultivate fan bases in the country — and their willingness to buy club merchandise — but also development partnerships in a country that is investing heavily in becoming a world power in the game.
China’s domestic game at club and national level trails that ambition, despite an ingestion of foreign stars by its clubs and official aspirations to host a FIFA World Cup. It has also only recently shrugged off its corruption-laced past.
For its part, FIFA is no stranger to cosy relationships with the governments of the countries staging its tournaments, especially under its disgraced former president, Sepp Blatter. The organisation has since sought to clean up its act although it has, for example, struggled to deal with the racism currently afflicting the European game and to a lesser extent with match-fixing scandals.
One accusation against Blatter-era FIFA is that Qatar bought its award of the 2022 World Cup (an allegation that the emirate denies strongly). Calls persist for it to be stripped of the event. The competition that the new club tournament will replace, the Confederation Cup, was traditionally used as a tune-up for the host nation of the following year’s World Cup. Might China conceivably get its coveted World Cup ahead of plan?
The question would then be if Beijing would judge the prize worth the cost of being more tolerant of chatter not to its liking, or will the money talk, and football folk have to keep their lips closed tighter than a cup-winning defence.