By Tariq Panja
FIFA plans to grant China the rights to host the inaugural version of its expanded Club World Cup, a 24-team tournament scheduled for 2021 that will feature some of the world’s biggest club teams and provide a significant cash infusion for world soccer’s governing body.
The decision to award the hosting rights to China will be announced on Friday in Shanghai after it is confirmed in a vote of FIFA’s governing council at its quarterly meeting, according to several soccer officials with knowledge of the council’s intentions. European soccer officials, who had strongly opposed an expanded tournament for clubs when the plans were raised, now appear set to go along, and to provide a third of the teams in the expanded tournament.
The new quadrennial event, announced in March, will replace the unpopular Confederations Cup, an eight-team national tournament that in recent versions had acted as a tuneup for World Cup hosts. It also will mean the demise of the Club World Cup as an annual event; under its current format, seven teams will play in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, both this year and next year.
In choosing China as the first host of the expanded Club World Cup, FIFA will be rewarding a country that, since a 2015 government edict made soccer a national priority, has spent billions of dollars on coaching programs, sponsorship agreements and investments in a big-spending domestic league that has lured top players with some of the biggest salaries in world soccer. Hosting the new club championship also could be a boost for a Chinese bid to host the 2030 World Cup, but it also will force FIFA to navigate the same tricky political ground that recently caused serious damage to the NBA’s commercial relationship with China.
FIFA declined to comment on Friday’s vote, with a spokesman saying only that the agenda for the meeting in Shanghai would be released on Monday.
As it does for the World Cup, Europe will provide more competitors for the event than FIFA’s other five regional confederations. Under FIFA’s plan, Europe would have eight places in the 24-team field. South America would have the next largest allotment, with six, and the remainder would qualify from the other regional confederations, including three from CONCACAF, the representative body for North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
The new event is likely to produce a significant increase in revenue for FIFA, which has traditionally relied on the men’s World Cup for almost all of its income. FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, was forced to back out of a deal to include the tournament in a wide-ranging (and initially secret) deal worth as much as $25 billion with a consortium led by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. Those secret talks led to a bitter and public breakdown in relations between Infantino and Alexander Ceferin, president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body. Infantino and Ceferin did not speak for a year after Infantino, at a meeting in March 2018, asked FIFA’s board to let him conclude a deal within 60 days with a group he refused to identify.
Infantino had wanted to include 12 European teams in the inaugural event but eventually backed down amid continued opposition from UEFA, which has grudgingly dropped its objections to the concept of the expanded tournament.
Deciding the identity of the participants will be the next step. And with the confederations wanting to take charge of that process, it will likely prove just as controversial as the decision to expand the event itself. Europe’s eight places are expected to go to the winners of its two top club competitions — the Champions League and the Europa League — over each four-year period. Under that proposal, the participating teams from Europe would include the likes of Liverpool, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Atlético Madrid.
Other confederations are expected to send the winners of their own continental club championships, though the details of how the slots would be awarded could be contentious.
Infantino hopes to use the expanded Club World Cup as a springboard to raise the profile of teams outside Europe, notably in Asia and the United States, which will host the 2026 World Cup and is the likely site of the second expanded club championship in 2025.