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Politics

Xi Jinping ready for FIFA chief's curveball

China will have to mull South Korean pitch for four-nation World Cup

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Xi Jinping kicks a football during a visit to Ireland in 2012. The Chinese leader says his dream is to one day host and win the World Cup.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Beijing on Wednesday, as the soccer aficionado dreams of bringing the World Cup to the Middle Kingdom.

Infantino will receive the full red carpet treatment, including a reception at the grandiose Great Hall of the People.

While Xi makes a passionate pitch about why China should host the 2030 World Cup, he will also have to deal with a curveball from Infantino -- one originally delivered by South Korea's new liberal president when the FIFA chief was in Seoul on Monday.

President Moon Jae-in suggested that the 2030 World Cup be jointly hosted by South Korea and North Korea, along with neighboring countries in Northeast Asia, which is seen to mean China and Japan.

"If the neighboring countries in Northeast Asia, including North and South Korea, can host the World Cup together, it would help to create peace in North and South Korea as well as Northeast Asia," Moon told Infantino. The FIFA chief said he will consult with Xi in Beijing.

The proposal poses a difficult choice for Xi. Even before he took office, Xi expressed his love for football, famously saying in 2011 that his ambitions were for China to qualify for the World Cup, host the World Cup and one day win the World Cup.

"We hope we can strengthen our cooperation on football with international organizations, including FIFA, and also with other countries," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in his regular press briefing on Monday. "As to whether China will host the World Cup, this is a dream shared by many Chinese. We also hope we can see that happen as soon as possible."

Sharing that honor with South and North Korea had not been part of Beijing's plans.

Soccer's biggest tournament is scheduled to be hosted in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Europe and Asia cannot be considered to host the 2026 event due to rotational reasons, leaving Canada, the U.S. and Mexico as the favorites. Incidentally, the three nations of North America could end up as co-hosts.

That leaves Xi looking at 2030 as the earliest opportunity to realize his hosting ambition. But there are other aspirants.

Argentina and Uruguay are keen to co-host what is to be the World Cup's 100-year anniversary tournament. Uruguay, especially, wants to mark the occasion; it hosted the 1930 event.

There are also plans for a collective bid by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Soccer is highly popular in China. Many Chinese believe the sport was invented there sometime around the 3rd century B.C.

Meanwhile, the Chinese national team hovers at 82nd in FIFA's world ranking, just below Benin and the Faroe Islands, and does not look as if it will fulfill Xi's final World Cup dream anytime soon.

Brazil currently tops FIFA's ranking, followed by Argentina and Germany. South Korea is 43rd, and Japan 45th. India ranks 100th, and North Korea 114th.

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