For decades, the Chinese have been lamenting and making jokes about the poor playing of their soccer teams. “Football is my favourite game,” Deng Xiaoping, Chairman Mao’s successor, said in the 1950s. “But when I watch China play, I feel like I’m suffocating.”
Since these comments, made in a country characterised by long term planning, the People’s Republic of China has embarked on a remarkable project to build a sense of teamwork and individual and collective responsibility which few could imagine happening elsewhere, and certainly not in the West on such a scale.
In February 2017, Associated Press reported that President Xi Jinping, himself an avid fan of the game, had made improving China’s football fortunes a national priority. Quite apart from the benefits for national perceptions, the creation of a greater team spirit and the impact on health and well-being were cited as outcomes that would result from such a programme. To put this in perspective, China will have 50,000 football academies by 2025 announced Vice President Wang Dengfeng, more than double a 20,000-target made public earlier.
Each school would be able to train 1,000 young players to achieve a plan to create 50 million competent players as part of a strategy issued in April 2016. This staggering undertaking was described by Vice President Wang as being “A solid way to select football talent for our future reserves. Improving Chinese football is no longer just a dream”. China’s men have only qualified for one World Cup, which is a national disgrace in a country that boasts more than 237 million soccer fans, more even than the next most popular sport, basketball.
Building China’s capability has been a challenge. Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in the World Cup in 2006, was recruited as manager of the China team, resigned in January of this year after a quarter-final exit at the Asian Cup, was reappointed in May and resigned again in November! There is a view that administrative interference has trapped Chinese football into its current dilemma with no end in sight.
This is why President Xi Jinping has intervened. He sees creating a society that wants to excel at this sport as an essential building block in securing China’s future, as well as cultivating a spirit of civic teamwork and cooperation. However, in the area of youth development and culture, the prevailing narrative is that China’s education is rigid, individualistic and focuses on rote thinking – and that football requires improvisation, creativity, innovation, teamwork and strong mentorship from parents or coaches who nurture and inspire. If China’s capacity to innovate in the business world is any indication – a strong case for which is made by Shaun Rein in his book, The End of Copycat China – culture and changes in youth development are evolving much faster than the West perceives. China’s next generation is full of ambition, optimism, determination and surprises.
Dr Jonathan Sullivan is the Director of China Programmes at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Unit. Writing earlier this year on “China’s Football Dream: Sport, Citizenship, Symbolic Power and Open Spaces” he and his co-authors suggest that while China is not widely seen as a “football nation” outside the country, the sport has long had a special resonance for Chinese people because it is widely perceived as the world’s game and successful participation is a marker of national status. China’s lacklustre performance in football competition “taps into deep Chinese insecurities that, no matter what great leaps the country has made or grudging deference it has earned through economic or military might, China remains an inferior power”. In this very detailed and well-researched work, Dr Sullivan and his co-authors conclude that to a large extent “football becomes a key feature of Xi’s “New Era of Socialism with Chinese characteristics” as both a driver of China’s shift to a consumer-driven economy and as a potentially significant source of cultural power aimed at fostering consent and citizenship identity”.
There’s no shortage of opinions on why China’s football progress remains weak. But top European soccer coaches in China, journalists, political scientists and economists all converge on two key factors impeding China’s football ascent: the youth development culture and the lack of top competition. Both of these issues seem surmountable, however, given China’s advances in other arenas, the world may very well be underestimating – again – how rapidly China can develop. A Scottish involvement in this project came with the decision by Rangers, announced in June, to establish a Soccer School in Shanghai, with the Yew Cheung International School visited by club legend Mark Hateley and Schools Manager, Gary Gibson. We can expect more in the future.
The rise of a global Chinese soccer star, much like Yao Ming in basketball, would do wonders for inspiring a generation of China’s youth. Surely one standout and ten other solid players are not impossible to field in a country of 1.37 billion?
In global business and geopolitics, China spent most of the second half of the 20th century watching from the sidelines; it suffered a century of humiliation prior to that. Over the past 30 years it has become a major driving force, economically and politically – and is now writing many of the world’s rules. Mao Zedong unified the country, Deng Xiaoping made it rich, now Xi Jinping is making it strong. China is determined to extend this strength into the world of sports. Do not count them out in soccer.
Roddy Gow, Founder and Chairman. The Asia Scotland Institute