China is hoping to become a footballing powerhouse. It will be a long path to victory.

With the recent reports of Borussia Dortmund being offered £128 million for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang from SIPG FC surfacing, there is no doubt that China is aiming high. The recent slew of acquisitions of world-class players like Oscar and Carlos Tevez has made the world sit-up and take note. How are the Chinese getting so much money? Why are players running behind the riches? Questions like this are being frequently floated by big media houses and social media alike. But this all part of the big picture. Since President Xi Jingping took over, the plan to make China a footballing powerhouse was set in motion. ‘Embarrassing’ is just one way to put China’s footballing performance on the world stage. Unable to mirror their success on the athletic front, Xi Jingping had promised to start a football revolution in his country. Since then, visits to the City Football Academy and a £265 million investment in the club  from Chinese Media Capital, things are looking up. The quest for establishing  economic supremacy has to be coupled with a cultural superiority, selling the ‘Chinese Dream’. Promising to make football in the country a  £600 million industry, Xi’s set his eyes on bringing the World Cup home.

The self-professed football fanatic has his mind set on it and much of it going China’s way these days – it seems that the dream is not too far-fetched. Aiming to have more than 70,000 pitches by 2020 in schools and other institutions across the country, there is no doubt about the rigour of state-backing to make it a success. Grassroots development is the prime focus. Finding the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in the populous country can be a task, but has that ever stopped the state from finding world class athletes? (Hint: It hasn’t). A rich sporting history for a country which considers the Olympics its own playground, football is the strange anomaly. Claiming to have created football, it’s strange how China has been left behind by much-lesser nations. And that’s exactly what Xi wants to address. In 2015, his government unveiled in what was perhaps the most ambitious football policy in the continent, possibly the world.

A historical overview

Chinese national football team 2011. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0
Chinese national football team 2011. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

The state invests heavily in the sport and Xi wants to establish a footballing legacy for nation which is currently ranked 82nd, sandwiched between the footballing giants of St.Kitts and Nevis and the Faroe Islands. The current Chinese Super League is the prime league for professional football in the country. Contrary to popular belief, the league has been around for a bit. In its current form, the league was founded in 2004. But football in China has been around for much longer (not counting the claim of the creation of the game). The game was officially introduced in the country during the early 1900s and for long has been one of the largest supported sports in the country. Pre 1980s, local physical culture and sports committees, sports institutes and army sports units use to own and operate football clubs, playing in amateur or semi-professional local leagues. By  1994, the Chinese Jia-A League and B-League were formed, marking the beginning of the professional game in the country. By 2004, the top tier was re-branded and expanded from 12 to 16 teams, known as the Chinese Super League, with the second tier being re-branded to Chinese League One. All this while, the Chinese national team had existed under the conflicting banner of the Chinese Football Association. Founded in 1931, it was shifted to Taipei after the Civil War and a new one was formed after 1949, in the new People’s Republic of China. The current manager of the national team is none other than Italian legend Marcello Lippi, having guided Italy to the World Cup in 2006. Seven to eight years ago, somebody like couldn’t have been imagined in this place. It’s been a rough ride.

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The ‘Plan’

The Chinese Football Reform and Development Programme  is a 50-point document which outlines the rapid path of development that Chinese football aims to take. Taking advantage of the market system, focusing on getting kids through the system who make their mark all around the world, it’s a direct aim at altering the power nexus of world football. At least one standard pitch needs to be constructed in football schools, colleges and universities. Including the pitches, the infrastructure needs to be equally distributed too. Nationwide at least two standard pitches needs to be built for public benefit in each county, except for a few located in mountainous areas.In line with the plan, the number of enrolled referees needs to double and 50 Chinese cities need to set up amateur leagues by 2020. And it’s not without a framework. The Chinese government wants to operate in three distinct phases: by 2020 have a proper structure, 2020s and 2030s go all out in making both the men’s and women’s football teams a force in Asia and in the 20 years post that, get the World Cup home, SIMPLE!

It’s not as simple as it seems though, which is why they’ve also altered the fate of the Chinese Football Association, ensuring that is in tandem with the kind of sporting legacy that China wants to create. It’s now creating a proper professionalised football structure in the country, the one with all the promotion and relegation, yes that one. Rooting corruption out of the game has been one of the goals too. Owners have to be cautious about the way they function, with the state doing everything to protect the legacy of the sport from the beginning. Not only that, it aims to become a proper publicly listed private company (the league) under the structure of the state association, which remains under the close eye of Xi. A professionalised structure is just what young players need to aspire to – to reach the heights of their profession.

Super League riches

The latest star to ply his trade for a Chinese team, Oscar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 3.0
The latest star to ply his trade for a Chinese team, Oscar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 3.0

Chinese football has a long way to go for now. But this long path is being made a little shorter by the headline-grabbing Chinese Super League.Although the lavish spending can be traced to the past couple of years, for long, Chinese football boasted one of the highest paid players in the world, the lesser known Dario Conca, who played for Guanghzou Evergrande since 2011. Having progressed from that, they can now boast the likes of Paulinho and Jackson Martinez, being managed by World Cup-winning coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari and having won the title for the past six consecutive seasons, an unparalleled achievement. But it’s not just a one team show. Teams from around the league are now vying for the top position, not just nationally, but on the continental stage and subsequently being noticed on the world stage. Evergrande have won the AFC Champions League in recent season, effectively marking China’s entry onto the continental map. It’s not just them now.

A number of teams can boast stars across the board. Carlos Tevez, Oscar, John Obi Mikel, Alex Teixeira, Ezqeuiel Lavezzi, Gervinho, Freddy Guarin among others, with the list set to grow in the coming years (SCARY). A host of them are arguably in their prime, which indicates the beginning of a seismic shift in world football. Are footballers really going to go outside Europe in their prime? That seems to be the case for a few of them. Money may be the decisive factor for them going to the league, but with the cash not seeming to dry up in the near future, it doesn’t seem that league and football in the country just aspires to be a flash in the pan. Bejiing Guoan, SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua et al are going all out on attracting stars. Chinese League One is not far behind, with the notable transfer of Nikica Jelavic to Beijing Renhe.

State politics

However, the unabated spending is hinged on something rather outside the realms of the professional sports, but connected to it in so many ways – politics. There is an underlying layer of political gains that owners seem to get out of the success of the the league itself. With the kind of message Xi Jingping wants to get across, it might not be so much economic, but political gains for the owners of these clubs. Within that, the owners come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have a common goal – to get in the good books of the state. For that, the ownership groups need to grow in tandem with the kind of leadership representing China.

For example, the Evergrande Group, which owns the club Guangzhou Evergrande FC develops real estate properties in China and is the country’s second-largest property developer by sales. To expand it’s business and maintain a monopoly, it needs to be favoured by the state. For example, the Luneng Group, which runs the Shandong Luneng Taishan football club, was bought out by the state when the state suspected a monopoly of the private investors in the firm, making it a subsidiary of the State Grid Power Corporation. Better subsidies which decrease the costs for running the club and even direct state investments in that case would mean massive for the prestige of the club, making it a unique place for building the reputation the company has outside of the sport. It will be more in demand if the state supports it. Another example is of the TEDA Investment Holding Co. Ltd.  Its main scope of business covers regional development and real estate, public utilities, financial industry and modern service industry etc. Under constant supervision of the investment watchdog of the Tianjin government, owning the Tianjin TEDA football club puts it in good stead and under the radar all the while being at the forefront of the footballing revolution.

The combination of what seems to be a personal dream of Xi, building pitches and drilling the hard-working Chinese mindset to the footballing ranks like they do with the tough athletes; coupled with heavy investment just to get in the right place for multiple individuals who work big businesses. Xi’s World Cup dream may not be fulfilled through his lifetime, or never till anyone can remember that he even had a dream like this. However, with the 48-team World Cup a reality now, it may not be far away that we see a Chinese team flying their flag high at international tournaments, year-in and year-out.