He is also a soccer fan. Since taking office inXi has put soccer squarely at the center of his ambitious plan to turn China into a wealthy superpower. To date, China has qualified for this global soccer tournament just once, inand it has never scored a goal in the World Cup. Can China go from soccer dud to soccer superpower? I also lived in Shanghai, in andwhere I shuttled my three school-age children to and from soccer practice.
The only World Cup China has ever qualified for is the tourney co-hosted by Japan and South Korea; China lost all three games, scoring zero goals and conceding nine. That might be about to change, however, as the same political forces that pushed China to the top of the Olympics have now turned their attention to football.
Others accused the players of corruption, what other explanation could there be to lose to a country ranked 47 places below China?
This defeat was years in the making. Chinese football was a non-entity under Maoism — five-a-side games would have constituted mass gatherings — and only re-entered FIFA under Deng Xiaoping, a soccer fan from his student days in Paris, in the late s.
Even after that, the Chinese top flight only went professional in and just a decade later it was rebranded as the Chinese Super League to distance itself from the various corruption scandals that had already besmirched the nascent competition.
The same year saw Xi Jinping take office as party secretary.
On a visit to Britain Xi delivered artifacts from cuju — an ancient Chinese kickball game — to the National Football Museum in Manchester.
That vision has since been toned down. But rather than sign foreign stars, Xi would prefer serious investment in grassroots soccer. Buying up foreign players was curbed with top-down regulations that demanded clubs match transfer fees with either investment in their own academies or contributing to a central grassroots fund administered by the CFA.
The league has introduced rules to fast-track youth players by ensuring that for every foreigner there is a domestic under player on the pitch. That has not quite turned the taps off, but clubs are more careful in their spending in the current climate. The General Office of the State Council issued a point plan in March laying out the pathway to footballing success.
Soccer now has clear political support but not yet the same levels of state investment as the Olympic sports China has spent decades targeting. The country topped the medal table in thanks to this Soviet-style model, which rapidly delivered victory in individual events such as table tennis, diving and weightlifting and some team sports like volleyball.
The prevailing political winds could change at any time, draining financial and governmental support. Football is still developing at the grassroots and a lot of potential talent is not yet involved in the game.
Then there is also the unpredictability of the CFA, which gets column inches in the Western media for banning tattoos or suspending players for giving a sarcastic thumbs-up , and of the political system as a whole.
This man was lucky enough to get out. Whatever the political motivations, investment in the grassroots game will pay off and over time building up young players will result in a stronger national team.
The Chinese public has wanted success at the World Cup for years. Now that the party is onboard, that might change. Jonathan White is a China-based writer who has long been covering sport in China and overseas, including as a correspondent for the World Cup in Brazil.