On February 27, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on his latest attention-grabbing initiative. After a sweeping anti-corruption campaign – which many see as an attempt to purge the party from adversaries – and a series of reforms, the government he leads is now beginning to tackle yet another thorny issue: the poor quality of Chinese football.
Last Friday, Mr. Xi chaired a meeting of China’s central reform group which came up with a plan to ‘revitalize’ the sport. As reported by Xinhua, a statement released by the institution said that “more efforts should be made at the grassroots level to nurture young talents and to ensure the integration of professional clubs, school teams and amateur teams.” Besides, “China must overcome its ‘defective system’, which has impeded its progress in soccer, and provide better ‘institutional guarantees’ for its development.” The plan is supposed to help realize three wishes Mr. Xi expressed back in 2011: the People’s Republic should qualify for the World Cup, host the event and, finally, win it.
Rumors about China’s interest in hosting a World Cup have been circulating for some time. In 2010, Wei Di, the head of China’s Football Association, told the Youth Daily that a debate on such possibility had been ongoing, and that the time had come for the country to take action. It actually had not: the proposal to bid for the 2026 World Cup was dropped. But after Xi Jinping’s new plan was made public, Xinhua reported that “talks about World Cup bid went rife again.”
Some within China believe that hosting the tournament would help improve the quality of Chinese football, so often an embarrassment to the country that left the London Olympics with 88 medals. Results at home are dreadful: China languishes at the 82nd place in the FIFA world ranking and the only time the national team managed to qualify for a World Cup was in 2002. Since that year things have, if anything, deteriorated: in 2013, the Chinese team managed to lose 5-1 to Thailand’s under-23 team.
On the surface, this is hard to explain, for China has everything it needs to produce both decent clubs and a passable national team. The sport is widely popular, keeping people glued in front of televisions screens whenever a major event takes place. Funding is growing: in 2014 China entered the list of 10 richest football markets in the world, and Guangzhou Evergrande recently managed to pay Italian coach Marcello Lippi $14 million, making him one of the world’s best-paid coaches.
Deep-rooted corruption and the unwillingness of parents to see their children ‘waste their time’ on the pitch, along with a lack of infrastructure, are likely culprits. In 2013, following a national scandal, Xie Yalong and Nan Yong, who both had been at the helm of China’s football association, were given heavy prison sentences for corruption. Lu Jun, a referee who had taken part to the 2002 World Cup, was also convicted for fixing the results of seven games in the Chinese league.
On a final note, it is interesting – and paradoxical – that while football keeps struggling at home, Chinese billionaires have been increasing their presence on the European market. On January 21, Wanda Group, lead by Wang Jianlin, bought a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid for $52 million. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Wang also invested $1.2 billion to purchase Infront, a Swiss marketing group that holds broadcasting rights to the World Cup.
According to Xinhua, Mr. Wang said that Infront’s ‘rich and valuable resources’ could turn out to be useful for China in order to realize its dream of “qualifying for a World Cup again, hosting a World Cup and winning a World Cup.’” Not much a surprise in a sport in which money can go a long way in achieving success.