The incredible journey of Chinese football has transformed from being the subject of national jokes by its own society to rising hopes and expectations following recent firm political and business backing. It has recently drawn worldwide attention due to millions of dollars invested, high profile transfers and a stark claim to be a world football superpower by 2050.
“Chinese football threatens [English] Premier League,” headlined the Daily Mail, the UK’s most visited newspaper website, in a reference to football stars being attracted to lucrative offers from Chinese football clubs. Arsenal football club manager Arsene Wenger warned that Chinese Super League could create a talent drain on other parts of the football world.
Much has been said about this latest flashy football drive by Chinese authorities without offering a detailed analysis of possible prospects and challenges it faces in this popular and competitive game. Whether its current journey will take it where it wants to be or is doomed to fail remains an open question and a highly contentious debate. It couldn’t have been a better time to explore it while the Olympics ran (Aug 5-21).
The debate heavily preoccupies Chinese society as much as it does international football fans and circles. “Forget it. We have given up on them,” said a 25-year-old professional who called herself only by her first name Zhang, expressing mistrust and disbelief in her country’s national football players, while a seemingly outgoing and sportive Kiman referred to them as “lazy and having a dislike for training.”
Despite that grim public outlook, the facts speak for themselves to reveal a hidden, deep-down-at-heart expectation and hope among the Chinese public.
The number of fake online doctor’s report searches and purchases sky-rocketed during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil due to live football broadcasts clashing with working hours of Chinese football fans who wanted to skip work for football on TV, official news agency Xinhua reported. The state-owned CCTV reported fatalities due to heart attacks or sleep deprivation caused by late-night long hours of couch potato style football excitement during the tournament.
China now is at a critical juncture where hopes and expectations are mixed yet run parallel to a strong public desire to achieve much better results and world-class status in football.
One strong man stands behind all these newly raised expectations: Chinese President Xi Jinping.
His fondness of football is well-known as his wish to see China as a football superpower in the coming decades has set the official lexicon with three pillars: World Football Cup qualification, which hasn’t happened since 2002; hosting the World Cup finals in China; and finally winning the World Cup.
That would make football the key engine of China’s overall sports sector. Already strong in such sports as table tennis and badminton, and with continued success in ranking among the top three in successive Olympics, a renaissance of football in the country would surely make a positive impact on national psyche.
The state media was not short on pointing to it. Xinhua ran a long commentary last year citing Germany as an example of a success story in football following a 10-year reform program and how this affects German pride and self-confidence.
In a revealing commentary titled “Let the power of football give wings to Chinese dream,” it asked, “Why the fuss? People may ask. [Those] who say football is just a game where 22 human beings chase a ball around should just look at what football as well as a systematic reform have done to Germany.” The commentary’s title was rather revealing, tying football to the “Chinese dream,” a political program by the country’s leadership.
Photo from mid-day.com
Citing the way German footballers tried to comfort their Brazilian opponents after a historic 7-1 victory during the last World Cup finals, Xinhua news agency underlined, “The entire [German] nation was proud of the behavior. You could read it in the faces of people in the street. The episode shows how much a football team’s performance can affect an entire nation’s confidence and standing.”
Political weight behind a reform initiative in sports is not China or political regime-specific. The White House tweeted on the day US swimmer Michael Phelps bowed out of the Rio Olympics with 23 career gold medals, “Hard work, focus, and a dream- that’s the spirit of @MichaelPhelps. Tonight, we congratulate him and all of the Team USA on making history.” Some other countries have various degrees of incentives for their gold medal winners, such as granting them free apartments or cashable extra gold medallions.
It all ties into the impact of success in sports on national psyche.
Moreover, China has more long-standing reasons and historical background to seek success in football. FIFA confirms that the game of football was first invented in China, a statement which many may want to contest. However, it was originally known as “Tsu chu” and played centuries ago in China.
While all these factors explain the drive and motivation behind the latest initiative to reform Chinese football, there will be challenges in accomplishing such a mission.
In a country where match-rigging, cheating and referee decisions in football have long been a source of complaint, and a serious impediment to the development of the game, the witty and humorous Chinese public were quick to come up with jokes in the complete lack of trust in their own players.
Another state-owned daily, Global Times, titled its commentary about new plans to reignite the game in the country, “Chinese football out to stop being butt of jokes.” Under the new plan, more than 20,000 schools will launch football classes and 50,000 kids will play football regularly. Dozens of schools across China have already begun to recruit foreign football trainers to help school children develop football skills and the love for the game.
In addition, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has recently gained an autonomous status from the government and signed cooperation agreements with European football associations to launch joint football programs, most recently with the French Football Federation.
Despite all these promising steps, there lies some structural and conjectural challenges, some of which require visiting some fundamental aspects of the Chinese society.
Although an earlier lack of football schools and proper training are often cited as the main reasons for lagging behind in football, there are some essential aspects of Chinese society that need to be examined in an effort to shed light onto the nature of real challenges.
The country’s one-child policy, though now radically revised, has been blamed for preventing the development of teamwork, team play and sharing.
According to some critics, strong individuality and pressure for individual success developed in children, who have been raised as their families' only child, tend to make them less inclined towards team games. That is why, these critics claim, Chinese sportspersons are more successful in individual rather than team sports.
However, this contradicts the collective ideology, which is one of the fundamental aspects of Chinese society. Think about Chinese eating habits, which involve sharing from a single plate or set of plates. Consider the impeccable precision with which China can execute such spectacles as the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. Many Chinese onstage performances are great examples of collective teamwork, as well as execution that is hard to beat.
Moreover, the US culture is essentially based on individual heroism, from Hollywood movies to individual personality development in education. This individualism comfortably generates dozens of gold medals and success for "Team USA."
One factor to point fingers at could be the education system itself.
China has one of the world’s strictest and most overloaded secondary and high school education systems. Many secondary education pupils are essentially boarded at their schools, visiting their parents who live in the same city only twice a month for the weekends. They stay in the schools - at times until 10 or 11 at night, under a packed homework and evening schedule. This hardly leaves any time for sports.
Furthermore, the gaokao, the university entrance exam, is a crucial determining stage of future prospects of many students and something their families are naturally highly concerned about. Therefore, they are heavily focused on success in it, which easily brushes sports aside on the families’ priority list.
Even those families who send their children to specific sports schools eventually channel them into success in gaokao and therefore into following university education rather than excelling in sports branches they are trained.
Sabrina Xi Li is a young Chinese woman who just completed her undergraduate education in the UK. “I think there is a basic structural problem for all the sports programs in China. The government pays for all the living, training and education costs of [future] players. Then many kids who really like playing football have to give it up at a certain age in order to prepare for the college entrance exam. This applies to youngsters in other sports branches, too,” she says, implying such investment is aborted by the requirements of the education system.
In addition to the requirements of the education system, many parents in China see football and other sports as a distraction to education, which is also another important factor to blame. This prevents development of community-based football clubs like we often see in Europe.
China currently has anywhere between 7,000 and 50,000 kids involved in football in a nation of 1.3 billion, according to the Chinese Football Association (CFA), compared to nearly four million in the UK.
Therefore, youth and grassroots development in sports appears to be an important area that decision-makers will have to pay more attention to.
On the domestic front, air pollution in some of China's major cities can be another factor that prevents parents from encouraging their children to pursue such outdoor sports and future careers. Therefore, they channel children into other spare time activities for health reasons, which consequently prevents grassroots development of football in the country.
Finally, sustainability of firm political support provided to Chinese football by current President Xi is an important factor behind the latest reform initiatives in the game. Chinese presidents serve a total of two terms in power, and whether the same level of support to football will be provided by President Xi’s future successor remains to be seen. However, increasing public embrace of football and possible future success of "Team Dragon" would leave little reason for any leader not to follow up on such national fever for football.
The challenges that Chinese football faces are not related to internal factors only. In a more regional context, the state of Asian football has not been a promising one for success over the past few decades, despite occasional campaigns by nations like Japan.
Some cultural elements may therefore be playing a role in approaches to the game in the region. There is no established football culture in many of the nations on the continent. After all, China’s two 2018 World Cup qualifier matches against Bhutan resulted in a total of 18 goals to nil in China's favor.
Possibly the golden year of the continent was in 2002 when Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the World Cup finals. South Korea progressed to the third place play-off while Japan made it to the last 16-teams stage before being eliminated.
The massive boost and exposure given to Asian football by the 2002 World Cup finals unfortunately stopped there as the continent failed to build up on that success. The 2002 finals were also the only time China qualified in its history.
Despite some success at individual and club level, Asian nations have not been able to carry it to the international level. Park-Ji Sung, Kagawa, Honda, Nagatomo and Nakamura have been notable names who have made it to the European leagues in advanced footballing nations.
But even that era seems to have come to an end with most of those players retiring or returning home. One Chinese footballer, Zhang Xizhe, who was transferred to Bundesliga’s Wolfsburg, completed his spell without a single first team appearance in 2015.
Lack of corporate and financial interest in local leagues is an important issue that affects local talent recruitment and their possible consideration of a career in football. Massive interest in European leagues such as Seria A, La Liga and Premier League is said to hamper development of domestic interest, and therefore, financing.
Lack of competitive edge of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League compared to its European counterparts such as the UEFA Champions League and Europa League also contributes to the failure of igniting local football fever on the continent.
An illicit betting industry is another constraint for the development of Asian football.
Against such a backdrop, there exist encouraging developments, particularly in China. With the new reform initiative and concrete steps such as giving the CFA a more autonomous status, putting football clubs under financial scrutiny and expanding football classes across 20,000 schools nationwide, China may well be coming up with a new business model in football.
Substantial financial backing by big business conglomerates has kickstarted much-needed financing and sponsorship deals and paved the way for launching some football academies as in the case of Guangzhou Evergrande Football Academy. Though this will not yield results for years to come, it nevertheless is a move in the right direction, especially if its sustainability is ensured.
With various Chinese business giants and consortiums including Alibaba, Fosun International, Suning and Evergrande mobilizing their resources for football and buying out stakes in the top CSL clubs, there has been some high profile player and manager transfers into China, which would inevitably generate heightened interest on the part of the football public.
The same business groups, as well as Wanda Group, have also made investments in some of Europe’s top football clubs such as AC Milan, Inter Milan and Athletico Madrid. A Shanghai-based sports investment company, Yunyi Guokai Sports Development, has recently bought West Bromwich Albion in England’s Premier League. Similarly, English clubs Aston Villa and Wolverhampton are owned by Chinese companies, while a state-backed Chinese consortium has a stake in Manchester City.
One has to note that such investments by those corporations mostly go to southern (south of the Yangzte River) clubs in China, depriving weaker northern clubs of essential financing, and, therefore, risking a north-south divide in domestic Chinese football. The current cash injections into Chinese football are surely a welcome development compared to the past, and may inevitably elevate Chinese football to the next level.
There is ongoing debate as to whether recent multi-million dollar international transfers could lift up Chinese football in the absence of local talent as they still form the bulk of Chinese football. In this respect, the situation in what is often referred to as "petro-leagues" (of mainly Gulf states in the Middle East) is cited as an example of expensive transfers not creating the needed impact in improving football prospects in a given country.
Yet to counter that, the progress the American MSL and American soccer in general have achieved is remarkable. When the necessary ingredients such as some talented international stars and a fired-up and ready-to-support fan base come together, and are accompanied by hard work, certain success almost always follows.
There are other positive sides to international football stars’ transfer to China’s CSL. For example, there is a debate going in Australia as to whether such strong attacking players’ presence help Australian defenders playing in the CSL further develop their skills. Portuguese lower leagues are also said to be financially benefiting from Chinese capital investments and transfers of Portuguese players.
China can also set some other examples by creating a Harlem Globetrotters-like exhibition team in football made up of Shaolin monks. Their acrobatic football shows are well-known and can easily appeal to masses both inside and outside China, drawing many youngsters to the game. They are able to bring together athleticism, theater, acrobatics and the wow factor to make football more accessible across different age groups and genders.
Who knows? Then maybe all the derision and lack of faith in Chinese football will fade away and be replaced with more optimistic and realistic comments. As Li puts it, “Even [the underdogs] Leicester have won the Premiership title. The ball is round. It can bounce in any direction.”
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