Can China achieve its goal of becoming a major soccer power?

Jonathan Sullivan says developing the domestic league to catch players young and creating high-quality entertainment with foreign recruits to get fans into stadiums and secure TV deals will be key factors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 6:24pm

A series of audacious player signings and investments in European clubs has put China’s soccer ambitions on the map. As soccer fans around the world are now aware, China has decided to become a soccer power and, as it usually does, is putting its money where its mouth is.

At home, the Chinese Super League has been reanimated and a huge amount of money earmarked for infrastructure, training facilities and expertise that China hopes will eventually improve the fortunes of the national team. At the same time, Chinese investors have been on a shopping spree across Europe, buying controlling stakes in clubs, notably in the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

Can China really buy its way to global cultural influence via the soccer pitch?

The approach to becoming a soccer power has some similarities with other ambitious state-sanctioned projects, notably massive, rapid investment in infrastructure. The “build it and they will come” strategy has had mixed results. It served the manufacturing boom well, but it has also led to huge overcapacity in housing, steel and other sectors.

As with other somewhat nebulous ambitions (the Belt and Road, the Chinese Dream), the leadership has sketched out a vision to become a “major soccer power”, while the planning and implementation is largely left to government bureaus, provincial governments, state-owned enterprises and private businesses. With such an ambitious project, a lack of a concrete plan and a multiplicity of actors (often with their own motivations), things can go wrong.

How China hopes soccer academies and boardroom deals can help it land the World Cup

What does it mean for China to become a “major soccer power”? Parsing statements thus far, the definition of a major football power would mean qualifying regularly for World Cups, hosting a World Cup, winning the Asian Champions League and perhaps the World Club Championship. It will involve huge state investment in infrastructure (training pitches, academies, etc), and acolytes in business (like Suning and Evergrande) investing huge sums (in this case, on players).

Is this model likely to turn China into a soccer power?

First, there is no doubt that China can build the infrastructure and put together the convincing commercial proposal needed to host a World Cup. Given the success of the Beijing Olympics and the government’s total commitment when it decides to host an event, this should be the easiest ambition to achieve.

Second, with the investment in prime coaching and playing talent from Europe and South America, Chinese teams will be competitive in the Asian Champions League and World Club Championship. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao has already won the former twice in the past four years.

Third, systematic development of youth training academies, pitches, referees and a decent league structure may improve the national team’s success on the pitch. State investment and targeted nurturing of talent led to dominance of the Beijing Olympic medal table. Not long ago, we would never have considered Chinese snooker players – now there are many in the top echelons. There are Chinese golfers, tennis players, basketball players – sports outside China’s traditional sporting culture and excellence. There is no inherent reason why the men’s soccer team shouldn’t improve significantly, at least in Asia.

However, for football to really succeed, China needs to foster widespread public interest in the game – not just following and betting on European professional leagues and the big international tournaments. Kids need to play the game and progress through youth leagues to professional academies. For that to happen, China desperately needs to foster interest in the domestic league – with no one watching, it is financially unsustainable, even with rich backers. The Chinese Super League needs to generate high-quality entertainment on the pitch, and it needs good foreign players to do so.

The boys from Brazil: how China became soccer’s new El Dorado

The high fees that have been used to recruit top players suggest the league is being taken seriously this time, after a number of false starts. Chinese clubs are owned by state-owned enterprises and big private firms with substantial cash reserves, and they can afford to buy these players to make a big impact rapidly. It isn’t a terrible strategy, but it isn’t sustainable without a more holistic approach to developing and growing the league by getting fans into the stadiums and securing a good TV deal.

Japan’s J-League and the US Major League Soccer have shown that it takes time for football to take root – but both have made decent returns. Both country’s men’s teams perform well in regional international competitions and participate regularly in World Cups. Both have hosted a World Cup and have healthy youth participation, especially among women – who also do very well in national competitions. After nurturing a “soccer culture” over a long period, both have thriving, albeit niche, domestic leagues. It took many years of concerted soft and hard investment to get to this point. We shouldn’t expect things to be smoother for China – but neither should we doubt that they can attain a similar level of success.

But is that level of success what Xi Jinping (習近平) has in mind? Would his apparent special interest be sated by attaining the relatively modest achievements of Japan and the US? Given that the Chinese men’s team is 78th in the Fifa rankings (the US is 26th, Japan 49th), I think it is a sensible and attainable goal.

With a few exceptions, soccer is the world’s game and doesn’t need any ‘translation’ ... the ‘soft power’ benefits are big

Aside from Xi’s evident personal interest in soccer, there is another reason for growing the game. China is trying to generate a more positive image, and pursuing all kinds of “soft power” initiatives, but many have fallen flat. It is very difficult for an authoritarian state to engender the “seduction” at the heart of “soft power” through top-down initiatives. Others, particularly in the cultural realm, have fallen flat due to differences in taste, and the difficulties in “translating China for global consumption”.

Soccer, on the other hand, is straightforward. With a few exceptions, soccer is the world’s game and doesn’t need any “translation”. And for the countries with strong national teams and/or exciting national leagues, the “soft power” benefits are big. To date, China’s (men’s) national team has been an embarrassment and the Chinese Super League an afterthought. But there is hope that one day fans in the UK or Spain might wear the colours of Jiangsu Suning or Hebei China Fortune, just as Chinese fans now sport Manchester United or Barcelona shirts.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is director of the China Policy Institute, School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Nottingham