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Why football should not be desperate for China to become a world power

The sport has enjoyed a rich history without mainland influence and will continue to do so with or without Chinese dominance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 8:52pm

Football’s priority, these days, appears focused on the development of the game in China. Somewhere in the world, someone wants to do their part to help fulfil President Xi Jinping’s ambition of turning the country into a global power.

It’s a pervading, echoing theme that thunders down the sponsorship-laden corridors of governing bodies such as Fifa and even groans at the doors of world leaders, with Xi this week enjoying a football match featuring Chinese and German kids alongside Germany chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

The narrative still being written will have you believe that the very future of world football pivots on China’s ability to one day produce a team capable of winning the World Cup, no less. As a result, everyone wants to be part of this grand development programme to save the sport through China.

The benefits of having China emerge as a football superpower are obvious, and it has little to do with enriching the overall global soccer culture. But enriching it is for those eyeing a market of more than one billion people. The reality, though, is that the world doesn’t really need China football.

It welcomes them, no doubt, and genuinely wishes them well. But in no way does football’s survival depend on China’s success.

For more than 100 years, the sport has enjoyed a rich history with China nowhere in sight either as a team or as a market. And football will continue to thrive around the globe with or without China among its dominant powers.

China’s football history is limited to a town call Zibo, where the ancient game of “cuju” was first played and which historians, and Fifa, acknowledge as the birthplace for football, though England is credited with inventing the modern version of the sport.

Then there is the first Chinese team to play at the Olympics, in 1936, who were actually dominated by players from Hong Kong – mostly from the South China club.

And there’s also 2002 when they qualified for the World Cup for the first and only time. What few mention when recalling that “historic” moment was that their passage was made much easier by the fact that they didn’t have to face either Japan or South Korea – both superior teams who had already qualified as hosts.

The Chinese Super League is probably the most visible manifestation of China’s pursuit of football greatness and, indeed, it has built up a strong following among mainland fans. Still, no matter how much money they spend on luring big-name players and high-profile coaches, the league carries nothing in terms of tradition or history for any of its teams to be embraced by fans outside China.

The publicity surrounding China has detracted, in some way, from the success of Japan’s J.League, which represents a role model in how to develop a sport from pretty much scratch. While football has long been popular in China, the Japanese Football Association needed to battle negative sentiment about the game to an audience for whom baseball was, is and will remain king.

Despite this, since the J.League was launched almost 25 years ago it has grown organically and is among the world’s top-10 when it comes to average attendances, a few thousand behind the CSL.

The J.League started off, like China, by buying big-name players such as Zico and England’s Gary Lineker and the crowds flocked in their thousands. However, after about four years interest dwindled and J.League officials were forced to rethink their strategy.

Implementing a “100 year vision”, one of the keys to its sustainability is the clubs’ lack of reliance on a single major sponsor, unlike Chinese clubs which are tied to big corporations with enough money to compete with Europe for top players.

“Each Japanese club also has a youth system, and excellent training grounds with qualified coaches and physios,” said Jeremy Walker, author of Home and Away in 2009 about his experiences in a country trying to cultivate a football environment.

“Japan has been able to produce a succession of good players, into the J.League, national team and overseas. The strong foundations exist throughout the country and the clubs have learned to diversify and become part of the community – so if the one massive sponsors pull out they still have enough support to continue.

“They are now clubs in the community, not the football branch of a major company.”

Last month, German international Lukas Podolski signed with J.League team Vissel Kobe in a deal worth a reported 2.6 million (HK$23 million) – a fraction of the tens of millions spent by Chinese clubs to attract big-name players.

During the dip in the J.League’s popularity, Walker asked the evergreen Kazuyoshi Miura about the reasons and the player replied: “Maybe they are playing tamagotchi,” referring to the popular hand-held game at the time and implying that this whole football thing may just be a fad.

Happily, Kazu was proved wrong but China faces a long battle to prove that football in the country is more than simply Xi’s tamagotchi.