(The New York Times) – FIFA, the international body governing global soccer, has come under heavy criticism in recent years for awarding two World Cups in a row to authoritarian countries, Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
Stung by criticism and scandal related to those decisions, the organization responded by requiring human rights reviews to be part of the bidding process for its events. It conducted such reviews of Morocco and North America before awarding the 2026 World Cup last year to the United States, Canada and Mexico, and faulted the United States and Canada then for a lack of specific commitments to human rights.
On Thursday, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, mounted a lengthy defense of the group’s role on human rights after awarding an ambitious new world club championship tournament in 2021 to a country that embodies the uncomfortable nexus of sports, money, politics and human rights: China.
“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,” Mr. Infantino said at a news conference in Shanghai, where the organization formally announced its plans to bring the new 24-team event, featuring some of the world’s best teams, to China. “There are problems in this world, everywhere, in many countries in the world.”
But Mr. Infantino carefully avoided talking about China’s record when asked about human rights, instead expressing concern about recent protests in Chile and about the plight of refugees in Lebanon, where many people have fled Syria’s civil war.
“It is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world,” he said. “The mission of FIFA is to organize football and to develop football all over the world.”
FIFA would not be the first sports organization to discover that doing business with China can pose difficult political and ethical quandaries. The National Basketball Association came under withering criticism from the Chinese government and state-controlled media this month after a Houston Rockets executive briefly tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
More broadly, human rights groups and the United States government have condemned the Chinese government for incarcerating more than one million members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s western region of Xinjiang. China says that the camps are an effective way to counter Islamic extremism and that detainees live there voluntarily, even as it has claimed — amid much doubt from human rights groups and experts — that it has released most of them.
But for FIFA, the opportunities of doing business in China could be hard to pass up. Though its economy is slowing, China remains a growing market of current and potential soccer fanatics who love to wear the jerseys of some of the sport’s biggest stars and teams.
China also wants to turn around its woeful soccer fortunes, and has the money to spend to do it. Since 2015, after an edict from the central government, China has been among the biggest spenders on soccer. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, wants to turn the national team — which has played in only one World Cup, in 2002, when it lost all of its pool games — into a tournament regular and a host for the event, the most-watched championship in sports.
To that end, Chinese money has flowed into some of the sport’s most influential teams, business and organizations. That includes FIFA, where Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese property conglomerate, has joined a small group of top-tier partners. Wanda joined shortly after a group of senior FIFA executives were arrested in 2015, exposing a corruption scandal that threatened the organization’s existence.
The tournament in China will be the inaugural version of FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup in 2021. It will feature some of the world’s biggest club teams, potentially including European giants like Real Madrid, Liverpool and Juventus. The event will include eight teams from Europe, six from South America and — potentially — even teams from the United States.
The games are to be held in eight Chinese cities, with Shanghai and 10 others vying to be chosen.
Asked whether FIFA would follow its rules and conduct a human rights review of China, including its handling of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Mr. Infantino did not answer. Instead, he spoke at length in general terms about how he believed that football had helped improve conditions in many countries.
Mr. Infantino said the FIFA Council had an easy time voting unanimously on Thursday to approve the selection of China, because it was the only country considered. He also cited other efforts that could burnish FIFA’s image, like doubling its financing for women’s soccer around the world in the next four years to $1 billion.
FIFA’s new human rights policy covers all of its events, and was most recently cited as the reason for the organization’s focus on successfully pushing for an end to Iran’s nearly four-decade prohibition on women entering soccer stadiums.
“FIFA appears not have learned the lesson in awarding the World Cup to Qatar and Russia, which has led to spectacular human rights abuses, deaths of workers, restrictions on press freedom and abuses of L.G.B.T. communities,” she said. “Those decisions have human rights implications, and it appears FIFA has still not learned its lessons.”
Other sports organizations also have human rights policies. The International Olympic Committee required China to make many promises of reform before agreeing to let it host the Beijing Olympics in 2008. China made some improvements on political openness and human rights, at least temporarily.
Beijing has also been awarded the Winter Olympics in 2022. But China is now a much more economically and politically influential country, and has made fewer public promises ahead of those Games.
Hosting a high-profile event might force China to change some policies with or without a human rights review, said Victoria Hui, an associate professor specializing in Chinese politics and history at the University of Notre Dame. Holding the Club World Cup two years from now could focus world attention on the country and its practices.
“Allowing China to take the lead in FIFA may open other points of leverage that we don’t know,” she said.
Still, soccer may pose a different dynamic from N.B.A. basketball. After the initial rush of criticism, the Chinese government has dialed down criticism of the N.B.A., as the clash drew a backlash from American lawmakers and began to focus global attention on the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Jacques deLisle, the director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, said FIFA might be in a weaker position than the N.B.A. to put pressure on China. While the N.B.A. is dominated by wealthy American team owners, FIFA is a United Nations-like grouping of national soccer federations. Many of these soccer federations are in countries that have weak human rights records or are financially dependent on loans from China, or both, Mr. deLisle noted.
FIFA hopes its new event will draw eyeballs from around the world. Mr. Infantino predicted that the new Club World Cup every four years would draw an audience that’s different from the audience for the World Cup, which FIFA organizes among national teams, also every four years.
“How many people outside of Italy are supporting the Italian national team?” Mr. Infantino said. “Not many, but when you look at how many people are supporting Real Madrid or Barcelona in Spain, this goes much beyond the Spanish borders. These are hundreds of millions of people all around the world, including of course in Asia and China.”