What would your reaction be if the Canaries announced that their latest close season signing was Liao Lisheng?
Never heard of him? No, neither had I before today.
Liao plays for Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande. The Chelsea, if that’s possible, of a country that aims to be a world football superpower by 2050 and, as it does so, develop a national team of winning the World Cup.
Something that counts massively in their favour in these twin goals is that the nation’s football authorities have massive governmental backing. President Xi Jinping has declared that China is to have at least 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. The country also has designs on hosting the World Cup in 2030, the year that, up until quite recently, was expected to finally see a bid from England to host said tournament be accepted by FIFA.
Except that FIFA have recently moved their own goalposts. Originally the FA had hope with FIFA’s statement that the current rotation policy meant that the 2030 tournament could not be hosted by an Asian nation only eight years after it had been held in Qatar.
But last month, ahead of a FIFA congress held in Bahrain, football’s Governing body announced that the ban on another Asian Federation member from bidding for the tournament in 2030 would be rendered void “…if circumstances require”.
Which neatly coincided with the Chinese property and cinema giant, the Dalian Wanda Group becoming a FIFA partner last year, issuing, in the process, a statement that declared that, “…as a partner of FIFA, Wanda will be better placed to play a role in the bidding process to host major football events, such as the World Cup”.
I think we can all now safely assume that, if China wants the 2030 World Cup, then China will most certainly be awarded the 2030 World Cup and that all bets and alternate bids are off – and if they aren’t then they should be.
Memo to the FA: Bidding for another World Cup you’ll never get could cost you around £21 million (based on 2018 prices). How about allocating any money you might have put away for a bid for the 2030 tournament to the grass roots of the English game instead?
Then there’s the Champions League.
The competition that is still remembered by many as the European Cup is now simply referred to as the UEFA Champions League. It isn’t, nor has it ever been, referred to as the European Champions League.
Which means that participation in the tournament is down to the whim of UEFA.
You might think that means that the tournament is still, by that definition, open to clubs from European nations only.
But that isn’t the case.
Some UEFA members are transcontinental states (countries that border Europe and Asia); these include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan (formally a member of the Asian Football Confederation), Turkey and Russia, while Israel has been a fully-fledged member of UEFA since 1994.
Thus, with two of UEFA’s current full members (Russia and Kazakhstan) bordering China, is it really that unrealistic to suggest that UEFA will not find a way of inviting Chinese clubs into their flagship tournament in the not too distant future?
I’ll go a step further than that by predicting that, by 2025, a revamped UEFA Champions League will include the leading club sides from China. And for the simple reason that UEFA can’t afford not to invite them into the tournament.
What’s more, if China was to find itself as a member of UEFA by 2025, it would also circumvent the World Cup bidding rules because, as a UEFA member, China would be more than eligible to bid to host the tournament in that year.
Wanda are one of seven major FIFA ‘partners’. The other six are Adidas, Coca Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai, Qatar Airways and Visa.
Clearly, if you want to host a World Cup, the trick is to get one of your countries blue chip companies into bed with FIFA.
Germany, home of Adidas, hosted the tournament in 2006. Russia (Gazprom) are hosting it next year whilst Qatar are, of course, the hosts in 2022, the USA are the current favourites to host it in 2026 with China likely to be successful in 2030. That just leaves South Korea, whose President, Moon Jae-in made waves only a few days ago by suggesting that a unified bid from his country and North Korea could be made in 2030.
What price a co-hosted tournament between Korea and China then?
It would seem that until a major British company seeks to become FIFA’s eighth official partner, we can officially forget our chances of ever hosting a World Cup again.
Barclays maybe? Or BP? They’ve both got the financial clout and world renown, after all. With the former coming from, wait for it, Chinese investment to the tune of $3 billion in Barclaycard and $2 billion in BP.
It’d be ironic if our best chance of welcoming football back to its old home at some point in the next few decades came courtesy of investment from China. But make no mistake about it; they’ll want their own World Cup before anything like that happens. So I’d suggest you put your bottom dollar on their hosting the tournament in 2030.
With clubs like Guangzhou Evergrande gracing the Champions Cup in the years that precede it.
This, of course, brings us neatly back to the question I opened with.
Namely Liao Lisheng and the reaction of Canaries fans if he was to sign for us.
It’ll never happen of course. The meteoric growth of football in China and the dominance it will have in the game, both in a sporting and commercial sense, within the next 10-15 years means, of course, that there is next to no chance of a player like Liao Lisheng coming to play in England, let along at a club like ours.
In the past however, such deals were met with an unhealthy dose of scepticism, with fans of the clubs involved wondering if it wasn’t part of a deal that was made with commercial reasons rather than footballing ones in mind. After all, when Everton signed Li Tie in 2002, the club were open about the prime reason for the signing being to help the Toffees expand their commercial interests in the Far East, helped, of course, by the fact that Everton’s shirt sponsors that season were Chinese company the Shenzhen Kejian Group – a business that had a massive presence in Asia but next to no profile in the UK.
Not that it mattered to Everton. The presence of Li Tie in their ranks, together with his compatriot Li Weifeng meant huge coverage for them in Asia, which is exactly what Kejian had hoped for when the one year deal was arranged.
A modern day equivalent might be that of Gazprom, whose pitch side and TV advertisements bombard us throughout Champions League coverage in the UK despite the company in question having a very low profile in this country.
Yet they are still the second largest provider of gas and electricity in this country with their largest client being McDonalds.
Who just happen to be a frequent corporate partner of UEFA and FIFA.
What a tangled web football weaves.