FIFA awards China 2021 Club World Cup despite NBA dustup, ire of human rights groups

Even after the NBA’s troubles in the country over the past three weeks, FIFA announced Thursday it will host the expanded Club World Cup in China in 2021.

The decision predictably drew the ire of human rights groups, which blasted the organization for giving China an opportunity to “‘sportswash’ its tarnished international reputation.”

FIFA announces China as unanimous choice

The Club World Cup will be expanded for 2021 to include 24 of the world’s biggest club teams, such as Real Madrid and Liverpool. It’s been played annually every winter in the past, but now it will replace the eight-team Confederations Cup in the summer and only be played once every four years. How the teams are chosen and what 10 cities will host will be determined at a later date.

In announcing China as the FIFA Council’s unanimous choice — it was the only one considered — FIFA president Gianni Infantino called it a “historic decision for football” during a press conference in Shanghai, per The Guardian.

“The new FIFA World Cup for clubs will be a competition which every person who loves football looks forward to. It is the first real and true world cup for the best teams and clubs in the world.”

FIFA was expected to choose China, according to early reports by the New York Times, and it has drawn concern from human rights groups especially on the heels of the NBA’s business issues with the country this month and ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

FIFA criticized on human rights grounds (again)

The United States government and human rights groups have condemned China for incarcerating more than 1 million members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the western region. The U.S. blacklisted 28 Chinese entities earlier this month. It’s also a country with restrictive censorship laws and is suppressing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Allan Hogart, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, released the following statement alleging the country is being allowed to cover up its “darker reality” by presenting an image of “openness and toleration.”

“China being chosen to host the FIFA Club World Cup in 2021 presents Beijing with yet another opportunity to try to ‘sportswash’ its tarnished international reputation.

“It’s likely the Chinese authorities will see the competition as an opportunity to project an image of openness and toleration, whereas the much darker reality in the country is one of pervasive censorship, relentless round-ups of dissidents, and the shocking mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

“China has an atrocious human rights record and FIFA must use its considerable influence to push for human rights improvements in the country.

“Any club involved in a China-hosted Club World Cup — from players through to coaches and backroom staff — should be ready to speak out on human rights issues in China.”

FIFA published its “landmark Human Rights Policy” in 2017, stating it “is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.” That policy has further provoked backlash since many believe FIFA isn’t living up to its own policy.

It was under pressure last month after “Blue Girl,” an Iranian soccer fan, committed suicide by setting herself on fire when faced with potential jail time for attending a soccer game in Iran. The organization put pressure on Iran to allow women into the stadium for the World Cup qualifier. That becoming the norm seems unlikely.

Infantino defends China decision

Infantino defended the organization’s role during a press conference from Shanghai and avoided the conversation of China’s role in human rights. Via the New York Times:

“As a FIFA president and as a human being as well, I think that we need all to reflect a little bit, to reflect on our role. There are problems in this world, everywhere, in many countries in the world.”

“It is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world. The mission of FIFA is to organize football and to develop football all over the world.”

Following blowback from awarding the men’s World Cup to authoritarian countries (2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar), FIFA required human rights reviews before granting bids. It did so for Morocco and the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup and knocked the United States and Canada for certain issues.

When Infantino was asked if FIFA would follow the rule it set in place for itself and review China’s human rights resume, Infantino did not answer. The New York Times reported he “spoke at length in general terms instead about how he believed that football had helped improve conditions in many countries.”

What FIFA could have learned from NBA

FIFA saw opportunity in China the way many other sports leagues and organizations, including the NBA, have seen it: money.

China is pouring money into its soccer program and FIFA sees potential in growing the sport in the country. It’s the same thing the NBA has done over the years with its own China arm and preseason games played overseas.

That crashed down this month when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests. It caused issues with China, which retaliated by pressuring the league to fire Morey, cut ties and sponsorship deals with the Rockets, mandated the cancellation of every media availability while the league was in its country, and reportedly did not air any opening night games this week. Activists are now taking a stand at arenas and games around the league to bring awareness to Hong Kong. The league has already lost a substantial amount.

As more sports look to China to grow the game, the human rights issues will continue to be problematic for all. The NHL announced two months ago it was looking to China and confirmed to The Athletic this week it has not strayed from that even after watching this month’s events. The 2022 Winter Games will take place in Beijing, and unlike it did for the 2008 games, China made fewer promises about at least temporarily improving its human rights approach and political openness.

Some argue that leagues and events will be able to put pressure and global attention on China. Others believe it’s only giving the country and its policies more power.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended the decision to host the Club World Cup during a media session in Shanghai, China. (Fred Lee - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended the decision to host the Club World Cup during a media session in Shanghai, China. (Fred Lee - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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