Chinese football and future power: not simply in the sport to play the game

The details behind China’s plan for football has been revealed. Most striking thing about it is the concession to FIFA’s dislike of state interference, and the obvious effort for the sport not to seem under government control, Simon Chadwick writes.

FIRST THERE WAS a 2014 public proclamation, with China’s President Xi announcing his industry building, market making, soft power induced vision for football. Then there were corporate and political China’s 2015 responses to this, ranging from Alibaba’s signing of a sponsorship deal with FIFA through to Wanda’s acquisition of a stake in Atletico Madrid.

And now, we have more about the detail of China’s plan. Earlier this week, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) announced its plan for football which it hopes will deliver on Xi’s vision of the People’s Republic becoming a major global force in the world game.

It is significant that the CFA was responsible for announcing the plan; Xinhua has recently reported that, “the CFA [has been] liberated from the supervision of [the] State General Administration of Sports”. In other words, the CFA is no longer under government control, at least not directly or publicly.

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping (C) kicks a Gaelic football as he visits the Croke Park in Dublin on February 19, 2012 to attend an exhibition of Gaelic football and hurling. Xi Jinping, China's leader-in-waiting, arrived on February 18 for a three-day visit to Ireland, nine years after he first visited the country. Xi will hold talks with Prime Minister Enda Kenny and attend an Ireland-China trade forum in Dublin involving about 300 companies.      TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/PETER MUHLY

This is an important move for China as the country’s football officials and politicians will know that FIFA takes a dim view of state interference in football and can suspend national associations from its membership in such cases. This is the last thing an aspiring World Cup host needs; hence, the source of the plan’s announcement was arguably as important as the content of it.

The CFA’s goal is for Chinese football to become a world football powerhouse by 2050. Between now and then, China is setting itself a number of interim goals, most notably by 2020 and by 2030.  By 2020, the country wants to have opened 20,000 specialist football schools, have 70,000 pitches in place, and have between 30 million and 50 million primary and middle school students regularly playing the game.

By 2030, the intention is for there to be 50,000 specialist football schools, while the goal is for China’s male national football team to have become one of Asia’s best, and for the women’s national team to be established as being world-class. At the same time, the Chinese envisage the football industry having become a multi-billion dollar industry at the heart of an entertainment network that is driven by the country’s newly emergent, consumer-focused economy.

By 2050, China wants to be a first-class football superpower that contributes to the international football world. This means several things, perhaps most obviously that the country will regularly appear in at least the top-20 of FIFA’s world rankings (they’re currently 81st, behind countries such as Burkina Faso and Benin). More potently, it is likely that China will have hosted the World Cup, possibly even having won the tournament at some stage by 2050.

But China’s use of the word ‘power’ in the context of football is especially notable too; the country is not engaging in the sport simply to play the game. Rather, it is positioning itself to be a major player off the field too. Indeed, one of China’s leading businessmen, Wang Jianlin, recently claimed that he and his company had taken advantage of FIFA’s internal difficulties to position the Wanda Corporation in a way that recently enabled it to become a FIFA sponsor.

Wang and his company Wanda are highly potent symbols of China’s football ambitions; clearly not averse to embedding themselves in the global football network. Ahead of the recent sponsorship deal with football, Wang was pictured sat next to then FIFA president Sepp Blatter at last May’s ill-feted election ceremony in Switzerland.

This was not long after Wang had taken a 20 per cent stake in Atletico, announcing that Madrid would be part of a global business axis he is building that stretches from Beijing to Los Angeles. Earlier this year Wang has also acquired LA film studio Legendary, adding credence to the tycoon’s view that football is an important part of his rapidly expanding entertainment empire.

Otherwise, last year Wang acquired Switzerland’s Infront Sports and Media, a sports marketing firm that owns exclusive rights to all of FIFA’s competitions. Philippe Blatter, one-time president and CEO of Infront (and nephew of Sepp), has recently been made CEO of Wanda’s sports division. China has very quickly learned how to play football’s politics, and Wang has swiftly become a highly skilled football politician.

The CFA’s announcement of its football plan puts some meat on the bones of what until now has been a series of general proclamations by the Chinese government. This represents a move forward, although there remains a great deal to be done if this great sporting project is to move from the glitz and glamour of intent to the substance of implementation and effectiveness.

Somewhat surprisingly, several commentators in China have publicly expressed their reservations about the country’s ability to successfully realise its football vision. Issues of corruption and governance in sport have long been challenges in Chinese sport.

But critics are now questioning whether the country’s bureaucratic structures are flexible enough to enable the significant developments in football that President Xi foresees. Interestingly and significantly several journalists have voiced their concerns about this, a move that suggests Chinese football’s bamboo revolution could well become a conduit for broader social and political concerns among Chinese people.

There otherwise remain the issues of whether China’s football targets are realistic and the strategies for achieving them are appropriate. Following intense player transfer activity in the country’s Super League earlier this year, many commentators outside China reacted cynically to the nation’s impending attempts to fast-track its football development.

Such cynicism will inevitably endure until such time that China has been tangibly and globally successful in football. Even so, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn with the likes of Japan and South Korea. Both have pursued ambitious football development agendas over the last two decades, which China is using as a reference for its own plans.

Both of China’s rivals have achieved some successes as a consequence, Japan’s female national team even winning the World Cup in 2011. However, whereas Japanese and South Korean developments have been driven by private-sector corporations, China’s football development is dominated by the state and being led by government agencies.

Old habits die hard in China; for some time yet, the question will therefore be: if China is to realise its football goals, how far and how fast can it overcome the constraints imposed by the established way of doing things?

Simon Chadwick is ‘Class of 92’ Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, Manchester in the UK, where he is also a member of the Centre for Sports Business. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the orignal article