MICHAEL PAYNE’s AFC ELECTION ANALYSIS: The member associations of the Asian Football Confederation have come together, once again, to vote to fill the remaining four places for Asian representatives on the expanded FIFA Council.
It is around this time that debates re-emerge about how serious are FIFA and the footballing family about taking the sport to new countries or whether sticking with established footballing elites remains the order of the day.
Asia, more so than any other continent, is the breeding ground for this debate as it remains, but for a few established nations, a hugely untapped football market.
For few places in Asia is this more true than China.
China is the world’s second biggest economy and has a population of 1.3bn. Yet China’s men’s national team are ranked 81 in the world. It is clear that China wants to change that and developing football in the country has become a strategic priority for the national government.
Over the past three decades I have been privileged to witness first-hand the evolution of the sports industry in China.
I first visited China in late 1989 to begin formal discussions as to how China might proceed with bidding for the Olympic Games, a goal that it eventually succeeded in staging nearly two decades later in 2008, as the country truly stepped out on to the world stage.
Subsequently, with Bernie Ecclestone, I oversaw the staging of the first F1 in China in Shanghai and have continued to watch the country closely as more new events are staged there.
With Beijing scheduled to become the first city to host both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, after its election as host in 2022, of the major events left, China is now missing only the World Cup.
It is surely no longer a question of if China will host the World Cup but when.
The country’s growing interest in football, fuelled by a personal passion for the sport by President Xi, has seen huge investments in football infrastructure.
By the end of the decade there will be 70,000 football pitches across China. There will be 4,755 new specialist football academies among the primary and middle schools and pilot football projects in 31 countries and districts.
China’s huge consumer market will also provide significant opportunities in technology and media. More than 70 million people in China tuned in to watch the country’s 1-0 win over South Korea during the FIFA World Cup qualifying round in March with another 12.6m streaming online through PPTV sports.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Mobile usage data is increasingly dramatically in China and between 2012 and 2014 rose by 600pc.
For any rights holders of competitions Chinese consumers want to watch, whether it is FIFA or AFC events, this represents an enormous opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Super League is spending astronomical fees and wages to ensure that some of the world’s best players and coaches now play in China and there is little sign of this slowing down.
There is no doubt that China is going to be the major engine in football’s growth in Asia over the next 10 years and beyond. But the AFC’s selection of who should represent it on the FIFA Council will potentially have an important impact on Asian football’s future.
China Football Association’s Zhang Jian has been elected today to represent the AFC on FIFA Council.
Given the role China has to play in the future of Asian football and the fact it is not represented on the FIFA Council, Zhang’s election was a no-brainer.
As FIFA looks to take the beautiful game to unchartered territory and realise its significant potential in untapped markets, of course they would want a man who represents the biggest untapped market of them all, on the inside.