SHANGHAI -- The Chinese government is taking soccer very seriously these days. Late last year it announced that the sport would become a mandatory part of China’s school curriculum, complete with new textbooks to explain the game to students. Last month, the country’s soccer-loving president, Xi Jinping, and other senior officials attended a meeting of China’s “central reform leading group," where they discussed the future of the game. Now the results of these deliberations have been released in the form of a 50-point plan that seeks to turn the country into a “soccer powerhouse.”
The plan lays out medium- to long-term goals for everything from returning the country’s women’s soccer team to its former preeminence, to seeing the Chinese men’s team qualify for the World Cup for only the second time, and, eventually, bidding to host the tournament. It also seeks to address grassroots problems, promising to establish 50,000 soccer schools in the country in the next decade, and to set up a soccer lottery to help fund them. In a further significant step, it pledges to ‘professionalize’ the Chinese Football Association (CFA), by separating it from China’s much-criticized sports bureaucracy.
The plan appears to reflect the personal interests of Xi, who last year took time out of a state visit to Germany to watch a Chinese youth team play in Berlin. But it may also be a smart political move. Although he has taken a generally tough line on political dissent and civil society, Xi has also sought repeatedly to show that he is in touch with the concerns of ordinary Chinese citizens. He will be well aware that, in a nation with the world’s highest number of soccer supporters, there is much frustration at the poor performance of the men’s national team -- currently ranked eighty-third in the world -- and anger at the bureaucracy that is often blamed for its failures. Sport is one of the few areas of Chinese life where media and Internet users are relatively free to criticize the authorities.
Indeed, the official announcement of the plan explicitly connected it to one of Xi’s most populist slogans, ‘the Chinese dream,’ emphasizing that “implementing the Chinese dream of the glorious revival of the Chinese nation is intricately linked with the dream of China becoming a soccer powerhouse.” The Southern Metropolis Daily, a liberal Guangzhou-based newspaper, also noted that one of the reasons for promoting the sport among school children was that it encourages “team spirit and the ability to work together.”
Yet overcoming cynicism may take time. The Guangzhou newspaper commented drily that the plan “depicts a very beautiful future” for the Chinese men’s soccer team but the reputation of the sport has been badly damaged by a series of corruption scandals. Several stars of the Chinese team, which took part in the 2002 World Cup -- the only time the country has qualified (helped by the fact that Asian giants Japan and South Korea had qualified automatically as co-hosts) -- were later jailed for match-fixing, while two former vice chairmen of the CFA and the country’s former top soccer referee are also in jail.
Disillusionment at the Chinese soccer league has also been fueled by frequent changes in club ownership, often leading teams to change their names, and sometimes even the city where they are based, whenever they get a new sponsor. For such reasons, experts say soccer has lost its draw among the young generation: the number of schools specializing in soccer has reportedly dropped significantly since the 1990s, and, as coach Terry Singh noted on Tuesday, fewer Chinese children now “aspire to be football stars.”
Some experts have welcomed the plan to give the CFA more autonomy as a major step forward, however. Commentator Wang Dazhao told the Global Times newspaper that reducing government intervention in the sport's management would “allow professionals to build a system consistent with soccer development.” The Southern Metropolis Daily also hailed a call for local governments to back their local teams, saying this would help in issues such as policing for soccer matches and stadium construction.
The plan comes at a time when there have been some hints of progress in Chinese soccer’s international competitiveness. Guangzhou Evergrande, owned by one of China’s richest property developers, won the Asian Champions League in 2013 under former World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi. Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group subsequently bought a 50 percent stake in the club, which is now known as Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao.
China’s men’s national team surprised many of its supporters by winning three games in a row at the recent Asian Cup tournament, before losing to hosts and eventual champions Australia. Evergrande has also set up an academy for young players, with links to Spanish giants Real Madrid, while China’s richest man, Wanda Group boss Wang Jianlin, recently bought a 20 percent stake in current Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, and has explicitly stated his aim to use the link to boost the quality of Chinese football.
Yet China’s leading sports newspaper, Titan Sports, warned on Tuesday that the sport would require long-term support from the authorities to ensure the proposed reforms really take root at the local level. It also noted that everything from China’s strict urban residency rules to the tax system currently work against the professionalization of soccer, and it warned that if towns across China rushed to develop professional clubs in response to the plan, this could lead to a wastage of resources.
Xi’s recent discussion with Britain’s Prince William about what China could learn from soccer in the U.K. may be a reminder that money does not always bring success. Britain has the richest league in the world in the shape of the English Premier League, yet England’s national team has repeatedly disappointed its fans in major tournaments. Many Chinese soccer fans will be looking for more structural change at the grassroots before they allow themselves to dream of a spot at the World Cup finals.