China’s plan to become a soccer power is a serious goal

The sport’s reigning powers may not take China’s ambitions seriously, but if the game can rid itself of corruption they may have good reason to change their view

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 1:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 1:28am

The most challenging goal to emerge in China’s new five-year plan is not necessarily economic or military. It may be the plan to drag the mainland by its bootlaces up the international soccer ladder, where it now languishes at No 81. As often happens, the numbers coming out of China can be hard to get the head around, such as an interim target of 50 million soccer players by 2020 to lay the foundations for becoming one of Asia’s best teams by 2030 and one of the world’s best by 2050. It does not end there, with 20 million children slated to be receiving soccer training in 2025, as well as 20,000 more school pitches by 2020 and 20,000 for cities.

The mind boggles at the extra demand all this will create for goods and services, from tens of thousands of coaches to materials for new stadiums and artificial pitches to sports medicine expertise and clinics. So the plan does have important economic implications. Business will be winners long before China’s footballers. Winning will be the icing on the cake, the stated aims being to raise the physical fitness of students, to help fuller personality development through teamwork and respect for rules and opponents, and the mastery of some complicated athletic skills. But it remains President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) abiding wish for China to qualify for a second World Cup tournament, host a World Cup and win a World Cup.

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That said, the stated aims are socially admirable, given the increasing concern about obesity and diabetes among China’s younger generations. Teamwork skills also help counteract a negative for peer relationships of the one-child policy .

A word of warning for reigning soccer powers who may not take China’s ambitions seriously. Once a goal is enshrined in a five-year plan it is more likely than not to be achieved. And a word of caution for Chinese football officials: not only is their game rife with corruption, but big-picture plans like this can provide easy pickings for corrupt local officials. If the central authorities can thwart such sabotage, foreign football powers may have good reason to take China seriously before too long.