The prestigious FIFA World Cup has been expanded from a 32 team tournament to a 48 team tournament. Aside from the obvious political motives from the newly elected president Infantino, what are the implications? From a financial stand point, it’s clear that FIFA is going to grow the tournaments total revenue with about 20% - clocking on a estimated €6.5 billion and an increase of €606 million in marketing revenue.
Recent exploits by Iceland and Wales, have given FIFA the perfect argument that underdog teams can surprise and add to the legacy of a tournament. However, the prestige of qualifying for a World Cup could deminish. As Belgians, we all know the nail-biting moments for the country to qualify for the final group stage of the tournament. Being there was a privilege. Albeit the 16 new spots still need to be allocated, the sheer magnitude will make it less of an accomplishment.
Hosting a World Cup will also become a problem. The upcoming hosts (Russia and Qatar) have been under scrutiny and the social pressure we saw in Brazil will have put future candidates on notice. Now, these potential hosts do have to facilitate 16 extra teams. The list with possible candidates shrinks even further. In the short term the financial gains and larger exposure could benifit the growth of football in emerging markets like India or China. Balancing commercial succes with sporting prestige is a delicate tightrope to walk and in the long run the loss of prestige may see the lessening of the national pride in a sport in which clubs are already more powerful than the national federations.
Eyes on the East
To be frank, all evidence points to wanting to conquer the Chinese and Asian market. While football is a massive commercial succes in Asia – the top European teams have done summer tours in Asia for decades now, and many European clubs have financial ties to Asian investors – the Asian national teams have never reached a semi-final in the male football World Cup. Since 2015, Chinese President Xi has launced a new plan for China to develop a sports culture. One of the sports they want to focus on is… Football.
The governmental blessing was the start of a spending drift in Chinese club football. It started with older players like Drogba and Anelka, but now it has begun to attract players who are considered to be in their ‘prime’ (Witsel, Pellè, ao.). The Chinese clubs need those players in order to attract crowds, but they need the European clubs to attract the know-how of youth development and give the star players the possibility to play in the most competitive competitions.
Xi’s goals with football is clear: he wants to host a World Cup, he wants China to be competitive with the Mannshaft or the Seleçao. Infantino’s bet on the Chinese market is perfectly in line with the new trend in world football. But the verdict is still out. Will it awaken a sleeping giant with a population of 1.3 billion, or will the turn-off from the ‘old’ European market put the whole plan in ruins? In no uncertain terms, Infantino’s legacy is now bound with Xi’s resolve to put China on the world stage.