Germany’s football diplomacy delights beaming Xi Jinping as Chinese president and Angela Merkel watch kids’ match in Berlin

China’s president remains a massive football fan, but it seems clear that youth development and commitment to training, rather than sky-high transfer fees and foreign takeovers, is the way to his heart

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 4:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 6:48pm

Anybody wondering if football had fallen down China’s list of priorities after recent restrictions on player transfers and the purchase of foreign clubs only needed to look to Berlin on Wednesday.

It’s rare to see Xi Jinping cracking a smile. China’s president normally has his lips tightly pursed when he’s snapped on state visits. Witness his trip to Hong Kong last week, when he seemed to be catching a whiff of a bad smell (independence?) everywhere he went.

But as he and German chancellor Angela Merkel watched a group of Chinese and German kids play football, Xi was positively ebullient by his standards, beaming from the sidelines and urging Angela to pay attention.

China’s state media ensured the images and footage received major prominence, with reports of the Germany diplomatic visit giving the football match at least the same space devoted to the customary gift of pandas.

“You are the future of the Chinese and German football,” Xi told the children, according to state media Xinhua.

“I hope you can develop the hardworking spirit, learn from each other, and maintain close friendship.”

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The publicity op, and China’s football partnership with Germany, would seem to point the way forward to countries looking to curry favour with Xi, and enterprises seeking to profit from China’s football boom.

The leaders of the German Football League (DFL) and German Football Association (DFB), plus World Cup-winning national team coaches Joachim Loew and Oliver Bierhoff, were all on hand if Xi wanted to ask for advice.

The match was part of a school football camp, one of several activities agreed in a partnership signed last November between the governments of both countries, China’s Ministry of Education, the DFB and the DFL.

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(Curiously, Xinhua reported the location of the match as the 74,000-capacity Berlin Olympic Stadium, while official German reports, and pictorial evidence, said it took place at the rather less grand amateur ground next door where Hertha Berlin train).

“The interest expressed by Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping shows once more the two governments’ strong commitment to our partnership,” said DFB president Reinhard Grindel in comments on his organisation’s website.

“It is not only able to contribute to the development of Chinese football but also exert a positive effect on German football in its entirety. In addition, we would be pleased if football were to help bring people in Germany and China even closer together off the pitch in this way.”

DFB general secretary Friedrich Curtius said the concept was called the “5-Star-Alliance”, a title rather reminiscent of China’s flag – perhaps not a coincidence given the stereotypical German reputation for planning and detail.

“The five stars represent the five elements on which the partnership is based: coach training, young talent development, competition organisation, football culture in practice and, finally, the overall development, in other words the attempt to bring the previous four aspects into line with each other,” Curtius said.

Naturally, German sportswear giant Adidas is involved, while such initiatives – and the publicity on state media – can only boost Chinese football fans’ love for both the Bundesliga and the German national team, both of which are extremely popular in the country.

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It is apparently against the law to write a story about football in China these days without mentioning that “Xi is known to be a huge fan of football”. His declaration that the country must become a “footballing superpower” sparked speculative fevers in the purchase of foreign clubs by Chinese enterprises, and foreign players by Chinese clubs.

The government has since clamped down on both and one imagines Xi had his say on the matter.

It is notable that although the transfer window in China has been open since June 19, there hasn’t been a deal of note, and foreign tabloids and player agents even seem to have given up inventing rumours.

The biggest football deal involving China has seen Chinese-owned West Bromwich Albion buy promising young national team player Zhang Yuning.

Given the China-Germany links, it was perhaps not coincidental that it was to Germany, and Werder Bremen, they turned when looking for a club at which to park Zhang until he qualifies for an English work permit.

China’s Under-20 team is even set to play in the German fifth division next season to improve their fitness and organisation for Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification, German media has reported.

Football obviously remains highly important for Xi, and the German publicity opportunity points the way forward for those looking to benefit.

Expect to see far more link-ups with foreign academies, coaching seminars and much talk of youth development in the future – rather than random Brazilians being enticed to the likes of Shijiazhuang to earn the annual GDP of a Pacific Island.