Xi Jinping likes his soccer. So much so, in fact, that the game put him out of action for two weeks last year while he was playing with his staff, sparking rumors of a mysterious disappearance, according to the South China Morning Post. He also likes to talk about the beautiful game: way before his “Chinese Dream” became de rigeur, he had a soccer dream – that China would first qualify for, then host, and finally win, the World Cup.
The first two of those three things may happen in his lifetime – though each is far from certain – but the third one most certainly will not, which is perhaps why his latest comments on the sport – made ahead of a recent trip to Indonesia – have sparked so much derision. When asked to predict the performances of the Chinese and Indonesian soccer teams during Asian Cup qualifying, Xi said:
“Soccer is a team sport that calls for good team work…. That’s one of the reasons why I like soccer. Its charm lies in its unpredictability… I also hope that China and Indonesia will make it to the World Cup finals in the not-so-distant future.”
Soccer is unpredictable, but China’s failure is a dependable constant. There’s a top-level upset somewhere in the world every week without fail – but those one-off upsets level out over the round-robin of qualifying, with the best teams going through in the end. And China’s is not one of the best teams. A quick summary:
- China boasts a single World Cup appearance in 2002. The team lost all three games, conceded 9 goals and scored precisely zero.
- Successful managers stay in their jobs. It’s been nearly two decades since the Chinese national team had a manager last significantly longer than two years. In that time they’ve had 5 foreign coaches, 3 Chinese coaches and 4 caretaker coaches.
- The last manager to get the sack was Jose Antonio Camacho. His coup de grace was losing 5-1 at home to a young Thailand side, placed way below them in the FIFA rankings.
What Xi Jinping was asked about last week was the Asian Cup. If China (world ranking no. 99) manages to qualify from a group with Iraq (no. 105), Saudi Arabia (no. 109) and Indonesia (no. 170), the team would then face far stiffer competition from the likes of Australia, Iran, South Korea and Japan in the real event. And that’s just the Asian Cup…
Of Xi’s three hopes – qualifying, hosting and winning the World Cup – hosting is clearly the easiest for China to achieve. If China can persuade the IOC to let it stage the Olympics, who’s to say it can’t pull off a comparable feat with FIFA?
Here are the World Cups for the next few years:
- 2014 – Brazil [CONMEBOL]
- 2018 – Russia [UEFA]
- 2022 – Qatar [AFC]
Under current FIFA rules, a continent cannot bid if it has hosted either of the previous two tournaments, but joint bids are allowed.
- 2026 – US are strong favorites with UEFA and AFC bids not allowed.
- 2030 – Joint bid from Argentina and Uruguay is likely to mark the centenary of the World Cup
- 2034 – China’s next realistic shot, though Australia would provide strong competition, as would a bid from western Europe
Hosting the World Cup would, of course, allow China to play in it, if not actually ‘qualifying’ by right, since the hosts get a free pass into the tournament. That’s still more than two decades away, so there are an untold number of variables, but it would still be great for Chinese soccer. The venues would be spread out across the country to hedge bets on pollution and it gives the team plenty of time to improve so as not to repeat their previous World Cup shambles.
So there you have it. All Xi Jinping needs to do is live into his 80s and two-thirds of his dream may yet come true.