China's grand plan to become a football superpower are in line with a long list of ambitions to become No. 1 in the world - and its leaders are likely to pursue it with the same Determination.
Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” – his catchword for a future where the Chinese people "dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation" – is unfolding in a new dimension. An avid soccer fan, the Chinese President wants to make sure that his country is on a fast track to earn its proper spot in the top ranks of the world’s most popular sport.
To that end, he is committed to deploying the country’s sizable manpower and planning resources. He can also count on big financial resources devoted to the cause.
For now, China seems to have quite modest targets. By 2030, it aims for the men’s national football team to be among Asia’s top teams and the women’s team to remain among “one of the world’s strongest”, according to a document jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Chinese Football Association, Sports Bureau and Ministry of Education. By mid-century, China wants to be among the world’s strongest football powers.
China being China, President Xi wants to go about this in a methodical fashion. He seems determined to take the planned economy concept to the soccer pitch – even though it has been replaced by a more market-oriented approach in many other areas.
Only first place will do for China
The ultimate goal may be to ensure that, owing to those well-laid plans, China will come to dominate the sport. Football could become another target in a long list of serious ambitions of China becoming No. 1 in the world, its rightful place in the eyes of the country’s leadership.
In that vein, Beijing wants to increase the football-playing population to 50 million by 2020. Thirty million of them are supposed to be elementary and high school pupils.
That all sounds reasonable enough, not least as an antidote to the growing obesity trend among China’s youth. Better yet, making his vision a reality will also require significant progress on combatting air pollution given that soccer, for the most part, is an outdoor activity.
What should one make of the overall plan? One possible reaction is to disregard it. Football skills, like culture or democracy, is nothing that one can simply plan for. Or that can be issued as a “directive” from atop the political pyramid. Such skills need to grow organically, over a long period of time.
Taking that view could be perilous. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people laughed out loud if and when someone suggested that China would become the world’s top exporting nation. Now, nobody laughs about that anymore.
That earlier reality check underscores two important points: First, China’s determination to pursue a goal, no matter how improbable it may seem at first. And second, the massive deployment of human and other resources can yield positive outcomes.
Regarding the “China Dream,” Xi may view soccer as a tool to advance Chinese prosperity, collective effort and national glory, all in one swoop. Like it or not, soccer is the modern form of the Roman circus. It attracts (and distracts) the masses from their everyday worries. And thanks to the monetisation of the sport, primarily via ever more lucrative television contracts and merchandising programs, it has turned into quite an instrument of economic development.
Xi’s implicit question is this: Why leave that large and growing pie to iconic (Western) brands, such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, the various London-based clubs or Bayern München?
It’s high time to raise the flag of Chinese pride, preferably on behalf of all of Asia, and also in order to cash in to reap the benefits of the Chinese public’s growing market share. Come to think of it, unless that plan succeeds, the world of club football remains a rare, but no less painful reminder of old colonial structures.
Success in football comes at a price
For individual teams, as well entire national leagues or national teams to become really successful in the sport is a pricey endeavour. It helps if cash-rich billionaires, seeking approval of their status in new domains, discover football as a suitable stage to display their wealth and vanity.
And just as Russian, American and Middle Eastern billionaires play an outsized role in England’s Barclays Premier League, there are plenty of billionaires in China who could add to the country’s glory by investing in football as a new battlefield.
The suitably named “Ping An Chinese Football Association Super League” is an indication of what’s afoot. And the current Chinese club champion – Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club (part owned by the Alibaba Group) – as well as current news reports about record transfer payments (and salaries) to attract international star players, are another indication of what’s in the offing.
In the end, there is also sheer optimism and hope. For all the best-laid plans, it may not take that much for China’s national team to succeed. Just consider that tiny Belgium, a nation of only 11 million people, was ranked first last year in the FIFA World Ranking of men’s national teams. And similarly tiny Chile, with less than 18 million people, now holds third place. On average, these two global power houses each have just one-hundredth of China’s population.