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China's New Goal: Becoming The Next Soccer Superpower
Supporters of Guangzhou Evergrande of China display a huge banner before the start of the third-place Club World Cup football match in Yokohama on December 20, 2015. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

China's New Goal: Becoming The Next Soccer Superpower

John Lee

In June 2013, the Chinese national soccer team lost 1-5 to a Thai under-23 national team despite having the home ground advantage. Just one humiliation out of many, things have not really improved since. Ranked 93 in the FIFA governing body standings and sandwiched between Botswana and the Faroe Islands, Team China (as they are known) has not qualified for the World Cup play-offs since 2002. For a nation that consistently competes with the United States for top medal honors at the Summer Olympics every four years, such mediocrity has made Team China a national embarrassment.

Realizing that soccer is called The World Game for a reason, Chinese President Xi Jinping has long had enough. He even outlined a 50-point road map in 2014 to propel Team China up the world rankings. Leader of a country and General Secretary of a Communist Party obsessed with building international prestige, Xi wants to host the 2026 World Cup and even be first in line to take over the 2022 tournament should Qatar lose the rights to do so.

Should China win the right to host the World Cup, Xi also wants to ensure that Team China gets far in the tournament since getting knocked out in the first round of qualifiers would lead to immense embarrassment. So we are now likely to see the country’s authoritarian apparatus in full swing with the aim of making China a soccer superpower within a decade.

No one should question Xi’s, or the Party’s resolve to make that happen. The President has reportedly entrusted a member of the Politburo to oversee the country’s rise as a soccer giant. New measures include changing the country’s school sporting curriculum to cover dribbling and passing skills, and ordering local officials to find space to build grassy fields on which the game can be played.

We can also be sure that enormous money will be injected into the game domestically. Indeed, and with state oversight, the television rights from 2016-2020 just sold for $1.3 billion which is 30 times more than the current level. This will offer local clubs much more cash with which to buy world class coaches and players to improve the standard of the domestic league. It is then only a matter of time before a global superstar, with renmimbi in his eyes, signs on to play in the Chinese Football Association Super League, accompanied by officially generated pomp and fanfare.

In many respects, this is a microcosm of the contemporary Chinese political-economic model: top-down goal setting; throw cash at the problem; use financial seduction to import expertise and innovation; build up domestic capacity and know-how; and then take on the world. It is the Chinese authoritarian machine in full flight. And there are still many admirers of it despite mounting evidence that such an approach is reaching its limits in economic terms.

In some sports, this approach can lead to brilliant results. The 2008 Olympics is the prime illustration of what the Chinese system can do when the host bested the United States in the medal tally. It is also confirmation that the country’s top-down or command model works best with set-piece sports that resemble engineering-like pursuits such as gymnastics and swimming.

Success in these sports are based on developing technical excellence, personal strength, endurance and practicing the same routine over and over again. Since one has complete control over the stage and setting – gymnastic apparatuses and swimming pools are the same the world over – the contest is with oneself to reproduce in competition what one has perfected in training.

This is not to say that China cannot excel in other sports and there examples of Chinese athletic achievement such as in table tennis and badminton that does not fit the engineering paradigm. But even the country’s own officials openly ask why achievement in “small ball” sports like the two just mentioned have not led to anywhere near the same success in ‘big ball’ sports such as soccer.

If the modern Chinese reformist approach is to seek truth from facts as Deng Xiaoping advocated, perhaps we can begin with soccer giant Brazil. Like China, Brazil is a populous but poor country, blighted by corruption in every place you care to look. It is true that Brazil has a long and deep tradition of soccer that China does not have. This means that anyone with any athletic ability or ambition chooses soccer as their game, which is clearly not the case in China.

But Brazil is not the only soccer-mad country, and yet it excels beyond all expectation. What are its other advantages? One big one is that despite other failings in the country, the soccer system in Brazil is a true meritocracy. From the under-fives and above, the best players are usually chosen to represent the top teams in their age group. The professional players are the best and most talented in the country. Individual brilliance and creativity is praised and rewarded, while even the most talented individuals must serve the team in pursuit of victory.

Meanwhile, coaches are assessed according to their track record of developing talent, and for tactical creativity and innovation. Ultimately, they are hired and fired based on their results.

In short, there may be corruption in every other part of Brazilian society. But when it comes to soccer, the whole system — top-down and bottom-up — is generally pulling in the same direction. Hence, the consistent achievement of national glory and success in the sport.

If China really wants to be a true global soccer superpower, then throwing more money at the sport will not be enough. Like in almost every other area in the Chinese political-economy, corruption is rife in the sport of soccer. This is exacerbated by the fact that Party officials and bureaucrats have too big a say in the running of the professional league. And like the real estate sector in China, administrators often collude with local business types to pursue goals which are geared toward personal advancement rather than team success.

This is old news, but also an ongoing problem. Back in 2009, the Ministry of Public Security began a large-scale investigation into betting, bribery and match-fixing in the sport. Among those arrested were two vice chairmen of the Chinese Football Association, and a number of professional players. Some six years later, and despite Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in full swing, corruption in the sport remains. In many respects, soccer in China is a snapshot of how things work in the political-economy and resembles the negative aspects of the Chinese authoritarian system.

So here is the challenge: China must develop a soccer system that is based on merit rather than patronage. Besides cleaning itself up, the Chinese Football Association needs to encourage, recognize and utilize creativity and innovation at the individual and team levels. Developing player and tactical brilliance is far more complex than an engineering exercise. Whether this can be achieved within a sporting system overseen by the heavy hand of the state and Communist Party is an open and pertinent question.

Finally, and in something that should hold lessons for achieving soccer excellence in China, the shortcomings of a state-run talent development system can be seen in another sporting context.

In January 2014, Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a tennis Grand Slam when she triumphed at the Australian Open at 32 years old. Her victory generated over half a million posts on the Sina Weibo blog site. In her victory speech, it was conspicuous that Li did not thank or praise the state-backed Chinese sporting system, or even mention her homeland when so is customary for all Chinese sporting heroes.

Perhaps the omission was accidental. But that is unlikely. Li gained notoriety amongst some Chinese political and sporting officials when she controversially left the state program at the age of 20 in order to develop her own technique and game. Just two days before the final, Li wondered aloud at a news conference whether being an early product of the Chinese state sporting system had helped or hindered her career. That Li subsequently declined an invitation to appear on China’s high profile Grand Festival state-run television program offers a clue as to what the answer might be.

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