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China is the most populous nation on earth and the world’s second biggest economy. But when it comes to soccer, the national team is a minnow. That hurts the pride of Chinese soccer fans – and there are a lot of them – and President Xi Jinping especially finds it wounding that China did not even qualify for the World Cup, currently under way in Russia. Mr. Xi has launched China on a path to what he calls national rejuvenation, and that involves making the country a soccer superpower. So the government has ordered that more schools should specialize in soccer, more pitches should be created, more money should be spent on training, and more official thought should be given to what it takes to build a world-beating national team. China has a lot of people and a lot of money, but it doesn’t really have a popular team sport culture. Xi is hoping he can create one from the top down, and he has said his goal is for China to win the World Cup one day. For the time being, though, fans are not holding their breath.
On Tuesday night, as the World Cup soccer match between Denmark and France was about to kick off, Zhou Xintao settled into his usual spot in an alleyway bar near the Lama Temple in central Beijing.
Mr. Zhou was in town for business and he has become a regular customer at the bar, which has erected a projection screen on its courtyard patio for the small crowd of die-hard fans who follow every game. Tonight he planned to stay up past 2 a.m. to watch his second favorite team, Argentina, play Nigeria.
“I’ve watched every World Cup since 1990, when Argentina was really good,” Zhou said by way of explanation. As for his favorite team? They’ve been disappointing him for years.
“Chinese soccer breaks my heart,” he said when asked about the national team’s failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup tournament in Russia. “China has more than one billion people,” he continued. “It’s impossible that we cannot find 11 people to play soccer.”
While Zhou has long been frustrated by the Chinese team, he still dreams of seeing it win the World Cup someday. In fact, he’s now more hopeful than ever thanks to China’s No. 1 soccer fan, President Xi Jinping, who has made it his mission to transform the country into a soccer powerhouse.
Getting from zeros to heros
President Xi has made no secret of his intention to restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power in the broadest sense of the term. He has already enjoyed remarkable success expanding Chinese political and economic influence across the world. It seems only natural that soccer, the world’s most popular sport, would be part of Xi’s plan for national rejuvenation.
Chinese fans have long been keen on soccer; several prime-time matches on Chinese state television last week drew nearly 100 million viewers. But their local and national men’s teams have never been much good at playing the game, (though the Chinese women’s team came second to the United States in the 1999 women’s World Cup) and the government used to not pay much attention to soccer.
All that has changed with Xi, who declared in 2015 that his “biggest hope for Chinese soccer is that [China] becomes among the world’s best teams.”
His goals for Chinese soccer are nothing if not ambitious, including hosting and winning the World Cup. Never mind that the Chinese national team has qualified for the tournament only once, in 2002, and failed to score a single goal in any of the three games it played then before being knocked out. China is currently ranked 75th in the world, two spots behind Syria.
Despite China’s lackluster history with soccer, Xi appears determined to do whatever it takes to turn things around. In true Chinese fashion, the government has drawn up a long term official plan for the top-down creation of a proper soccer industry. Issued in 2016, the 50 point plan aims to “improve the physical condition of the Chinese people, enrich cultural life, promote the spirit of patriotism and collectivism, cultivate sports culture, and develop the sports industry.”
“This has a great significance for the realization of the dream of becoming a powerful sports nation,” the plan proclaims, calling for 50 million Chinese to be playing soccer regularly by 2020.
Fewer books, more balls
This is a far cry from the ad hoc, informal way that kids in most developing countries learn the game, playing in the street. But Beijing understands that a vibrant professional league – essential for global preeminence – cannot be conjured from thin air; it needs the foundation of a thriving amateur game.
With this in mind, the plan encourages “institutions, people’s organizations, military and business to join together or individually to set up football teams,” and calls especially on “trade unions, the Communist Youth League, women’s organizations and other mass organizations.”
Whether this will be sufficient to overcome the country’s lack of a soccer – or even a sports – culture is uncertain. That shortcoming is the key hurdle to success, says Yan Qiang, a veteran sportswriter in Beijing. In a country where academic education often takes top priority, Chinese parents have long discouraged their children from committing time to sports. “China has been a very unsporty nation for centuries,” says Mr. Yan, who is also the founder and CEO of Scoresport, a popular mobile app for Chinese sports fans. “That’s starting to change, but it won’t change overnight.”
Maybe, one day...
Easing the path is money – lots of it.
Soccer's rise in China reflects the country’s push towards a consumer-driven economy, led by an emerging middle class that has money to spend. In 2014, this link was made explicit when the Chinese government published document No. 46, which made sports part of its economic plan. With government backing, China’s domestic sports market could be worth $740 billion by 2025 according to official figures.
Chinese corporations are eager to tap into this fast-growing market — and to use soccer to extend their global reach. Seven of the 19 corporate sponsors at the World Cup this year are Chinese, including the property conglomerate Wanda, smartphone manufacturer Vivo, and dairy company Mengniu.
Many of the Chinese companies stepped in after other sponsors recoiled from the tournament because of a sprawling global soccer corruption case that erupted in 2015. The international research company Zenith estimates that Chinese firms will contribute one third, or $835 million, of the total advertising spent during this year’s World Cup.
The growing interest from Chinese fans and companies surely bodes well for the future of soccer in China. Hosting a World Cup may be a distant dream – the next two tournaments have already been allotted – but the first step is to build a team good enough to qualify for the World Cup.
President Xi may have stars in his eyes, but most Chinese fans are more realistic. Says Yue Minghao, a soccer fan in Beijing, “I think it will take several generations for us to really have a chance of winning the World Cup.”
Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.