HONG KONG (Reuters) - China’s desire to showcase its ability as a future World Cup host received a boost on Thursday as the Asian Football Confederation handed the country the rights to the Asian Cup finals in 2023.
The rights were awarded by acclamation at the AFC’s extraordinary congress in Paris after South Korea last month announced its intention not to follow through with their bid to host the quadrennial tournament.
China, who will host the tournament for the second time with the competition previously held on its soil in 2004, had been one of four nations to initially bid to host the 24-team competition with Indonesia and Thailand also submitting bids before pulling out.
“Thank you for your trust and support,” Du Zhaocai, China’s representative on the FIFA Council, told delegates.
“It’s a great honour for China to be hosting 2023 Asian Cup. You know we are ready and confident we can stage a successful tournament. I look forward to welcoming all of you in China.”
The tournament will give China the opportunity to showcase its ability to host a major football event and comes several years after president Xi Jinping declared his desire to see the country eventually host the World Cup finals.
As a result, investment in the sport in China has skyrocketed in the six years since Xi - a well-known football fan - came to power, although the fortunes of the national team continue to lag behind the leading nations in Asia.
China have only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and have never won the Asian Cup, last reaching the final on home soil in 2004. They were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Iran in the last edition in January.
However, billions of dollars have been spent in recent years in an attempt to boost the level of football in the country and AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa believes hosting the Asian Cup can contribute to further growth of the sport in the country.
“This is an important moment for football in Asia and beyond,” said the Bahraini. “Football has the chance to unlock the potential that exists in the world’s most populous country.
“We have seen the rise of the game under the direction and investment of the Chinese government and now we have the chance with this Asian Cup to develop a true legacy for the global game.
“It will be the inspiration for tens of millions of children and the Asian Cup can provide a launch pad for the great Chinese teams of the future. More importantly, it can place football as the number one sport in the country.”
Additional reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; editing by Sudipto Ganguly