Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari businessman whose canditure challenging incumbent Sepp Blatter for the presidency of world football’s governing body, FIFA, was announced earlier this week, says he is running on his record of raising the profile of Asian football, which is the fastest growth market in the world sport. “Asia is the future not only on the field but off the field,” he said during a campaign stop in Seoul this week.
Bin Hammam heads the confederation of Asian national football associations and was instrumental in helping his native emirate land the World Cup in 2022. One country that could use his help is China, which trails in the shadows of East Asia’s footballing powerhouses, South Korea and Japan–it ranks 76th in FIFA’s world rankings; the other two are in the top 30–yet the Chinese Football Association (FA) harbors ambitions to host a World Cup.
It is not just a lack of playing success. The country’s professional league has been wracked by a series of match-fixing, illegal gambling and bribery scandals and the FA has had its top administrators cleared out with some put on trial on corruption charges. Matters have reached the point where its main sponsor, Italian tyre manufacturer, Pirelli (the company makes truck tyres in Shandong), scrapped its three-year contact worth a reported $6.8 million a year a year early just ahead of the opening of the new season last Friday. The league also doesn’t have a national TV coverage. State broadcaster CCTV is said not to be prepared to show games until after the corruption trial of former football association head Nan Yong.
While it is still far too early to prognosticate, should bin Hammam win the FIFA presidency vote on June 1, the most splendid thing he could do for football in China during his term of office might just be to be the FIFA president to announce that China had won the bidding to host the 2026 World Cup. But Chinese football has to do a lot of internal housecleaning first.
Update: Another sign of Asia’s growing importance to football and, indeed, all Western professional sports: The Wall Street Journal’s Exchange blog draws a straight line between China and the stake taken by U.S. basketball star LeBron James (the American Yao Ming) in Liverpool, the English Premier League football club sponsored by Hong Kong’s Standard Chartered bank and owned by Fenway Sports Group, American owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and which will be marketing James globally as part of their new deal.