Great hope for China - New format lifts chances of returning to World Cup

Sports | 12 Jan 2017

China's football chief and state media hailed Fifa's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026, saying it could help realize the country's "dream" of returning to the sport's grandest stage.

Chinese Football Association president Cai Zhenhua called the expansion an opportunity for the country, who currently languish at 82nd in the world rankings, sandwiched between St Kitts and Nevis (population 60,000) and the Faroe Islands (population 49,000).

"The 2026 World Cup is still far off but you could say that China will have more chances after the expansion," Cai was quoted as saying by the Beijing Youth Daily.

State mouthpiece Xinhua said in a commentary that the 48-team World Cup will complement official efforts to improve the standards of football in China.

"Even if the levels of skill and strategy in the Chinese men's football do not grow in leaps and bounds by 2026, the initial objectives of football reform will have been realized," said the commentary.

"By then, with the added bonus of World Cup expansion, it is highly possible that China's return to the World Cup will no longer be just a dream."

Fifa voted on Tuesday to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48, with their president Gianni Infantino saying more countries needed a chance to shine in a tournament dominated by Europe and South America. However, critics derided the move as driven by profit and politics.

The decision is likely to mean Asia doubling their guaranteed World Cup finals allocation from four to eight countries, with the ninth-placed qualifier facing a playoff.

Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said the continent's size and economic power merited more than its current allocation of teams. He also said the decision would have a "positive impact on Asian football."

China has the world's biggest population and a cash-rich domestic league that has in the past month broken the Asian transfer record with Shanghai SIPG paying 60 million euros (HK$489.18 million) for Brazilian Oscar, while making Carlos Tevez the world's highest-salaried player at Shanghai Shenhua.

But the national team have qualified only once for the World Cup finals, in 2002, where they failed to win a match or score a goal.

President Xi Jinping has set China a target of hosting and winning a World Cup.

Meanwhile, Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said Fifa's move "recognized the growth of the game outside of Europe and South America."

Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said the expansion "makes sense," while Japan Football Association chief Kozo Tashima "would like to see the extra profits shared with many countries."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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