The recent exodus of high-profile football stars to China has cast the spotlight on the world’s most populous nation and their attempts to promote the beautiful game. The trend began with Brazilian centre-back Renato Augusto who signed for Beijing Guoan last January before convincing his compatriots Hulk and Oscar to join rivals Shanghai SIPG in the summer. This phenomenon is not limited to Brazil. Since then African stars Gervinho and John Obi Mikel, as well as Argentinian goal-machine Carlos Tevez, have followed in their footsteps. It is not just players making the journey to the Far East. Former Premier League coaches Gus Poyet and Andre Villas-Boas are now at the helms of Shanghai Shenhua and Shanghai SIPG respectively, while erstwhile Premier League winner Manuel Pellegrini is coaching in front of half-full stadiums at Hebei China Fortune.
Although the new arrivals have complained about the smog and the local cuisine, and may be damaging their careers by playing at a level far below that of Europe’s most prestigious leagues, money talks. Tevez can no doubt build his own restaurant and hire a Michelin star chef to cook food from every continent with the eye-watering £32 million he earns per year; that’s 20 times what he was earning at his previous club, Boca Juniors.
These exorbitant sums have raised eyebrows across the footballing world as well questions over the source of the funds. The answer lies in one man’s dream to turn his country into a football superpower. Since becoming president of China in 2013, avid football fan Xi Jinping has injected billions of pounds into Chinese football, sponsoring domestic clubs as well as grassroots football. Last summer, the university football clubs of Oxford, Cambridge, Southern California, and Melbourne were invited and sponsored to take part in a World Elite University Football Tournament. Xi also wants to convince career-orientated parents that their children’s studies might be complemented, rather than hampered, by playing football. The beautiful game is certainly on the rise in his country, but is the president’s aim of becoming a “first-class football superpower” that “contributes to the international football world” by 2050 achievable?
Tevez can no doubt build his own restaurant and hire a Michelin star chef to cook food from every continent with the eye-watering £32 million he earns per year.
When you look at the numbers, this goal does not seem impossible. China aims to have 50 million people regularly playing football by 2020. In the UK this figure stands at two million. China has also set itself the target of having one football pitch to every 10,000 people by 2030. The infrastructure and manpower don’t seem to be a problem, but will this translate into a championship-contending national team?
Many football commentators would reply with a contemptuous no. Mark Lawrenson was recently quoted on the BBC saying “Have you seen the Chinese football? … It’s rubbish.” Although China may be investing in the facilities, it will also require an army of trained coaches to develop young talent in the country. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it takes at least 20 years to produce a world-class player. China cannot achieve this dream through money alone, too. During a recent trip to the country I learnt that football is way down in the pecking order when it comes to young people’s priorities. Many prefer to play basketball or table tennis, or to focus more time on academic success.
They have already demonstrated that they can dominate sport with their dramatic improvement in the Olympics, finishing 11th in the 1988 games in Seoul, before topping the pile in Beijing a mere 30 years later.
Moreover, although the arrival of big names such as Alex Teixeira, Oscar, and possible Diego Costa will no doubt raise the profile of the Chinese Super League, domestic football in China is still dogged by corruption. In 2013, thirty-three players and officials were banned for match-fixing. Furthermore, as we have seen in England, a strong domestic league doesn’t necessarily translate into success for the national team. Even though this influx of foreign players will inspire a generation of Chinese footballers, it may also crowd out young talent and rising stars. The recent move by Chinese authorities to limit the number of foreigners in the starting line-up for Super League games to just three per team, on the other hand, does much to address these fears, but may also slow down the rising foreign influx, and improvement in quality, Chinese football has seen in recent years.
Nonetheless, you can never write China off. This country has shown a competitive edge down the years to be matched by no other nation state. They have already demonstrated that they can dominate sport with their dramatic improvement in the Olympics, finishing 11th in the 1988 games in Seoul, before topping the pile in Beijing a mere 30 years later. Although their rise to football hegemony seems somewhat implausible, who would have predicted China’s roaring economic growth half a century ago?
Where there’s a will there’s a way, and Xi Jinping’s efforts to boost China’s profile in the global stage while diversifying its economy through football may not be as farfetched as they first seem.