Chinese President Xi Jinping (Lintao Zhang/Pool/GettyImages)
  • China is dreaming soccer, and thanks to President Xi’s love for the sport, football is all set to become an extension of its soft power, identity, prestige and even diplomacy.

    Ranked 72 at the moment, the country’s ambition is to conquer the football field in 50 years, towards which it is investing heavily.

Can a country ranked seventy-second by FIFA in 2018, that has played in just one World Cup (2002 in Japan and South Korea, exiting after the group stages), has never won even the Asia Cup, have a realistic chance of winning the 2050 FIFA Football World Cup?

The excitement around the world’s premier sports event, the FIFA 2018 Football World Cup in Russia, is palpable around the world with an estimated viewership of over 3.2 billion. Even in cricket-obsessed India, football attracted over 150 million viewers by the end of the group stages, 100 million more than in 2014. This football World Cup has sprung several surprises: the elimination of fancied teams such as Argentina, Spain and Portugal not making past the round of 16, while existing champions Germany couldn’t survive their group rounds, the performance of the Asian teams (Australia isn’t counted) with 2002 semi-finalists South Korea defeating Germany, Japan almost defeating Belgium in their pulsating round of 16 match, and Iran narrowly losing out in the group stages to Spain and Portugal.

But the most visible of the surprises has been the overwhelming presence of Chinese brands such as Vivo, Hisense, Yadea, Luci, Diking, Dalian Wanda and Mengniu. In fact, not only will an advertisement for Mengniu’s Inner Mongolian milk and drinkable yogurt be aired during each of the 64 games, but spectators seeking ice-creams and sweet treats will have to choose from Mengniu’s brands, which have exclusive rights. Wanda, run by China’s fifth richest person, Wang, has signed up as FIFA partner, the highest level, alongside Coca Cola, Visa, Adidas and Gazprom for the next four World Cups. Vivo paid over $470 million for a six-year deal with FIFA. And all this happened without China even qualifying for the World Cup.


The corruption scandal that enveloped FIFA saw the withdrawal of long-term sponsorships by several Western firms and the consequent seizing of the opportunity by Chinese companies that were welcomed by a cash-strapped FIFA (FIFA lost $369 million in 2016). But what made Chinese companies want to part with an estimated $835 million in extra ad-spend, about a third of the global ad-spend boost of $2.4 billion, for the 2018 FIFA Football World Cup?

The answer lies, inevitably, in the wishes of the Chinese government exemplified by its most powerful leader and leading football fan, President Xi Jinping. His wish is for China to qualify for, host and become a world football superpower by 2050. These wishes were translated into policy and goals that were enshrined in the 2016 “Football Development plan in the Medium and Long Term (2016-2050)” report. This envisages 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020, hosting the World Cup by 2030 and winning the World Cup by 2050. The focus on football is not only because it is a “sport of global influence” also part of the plan to diversify the Chinese economy. In 2016, the Chinese sports industry (including health and wellness, nutrition and apparel) grew 11.1 per cent (outpacing the national economy) to $295 billion, with plans to more than double to $813 billion by 2025 (the global sports industry was $1.5 trillion in 2015).

And what President Xi wishes, the corporate sector rushes to fulfil in partnership. So much so that the Chinese government had to put restrictions on capital outflows on what it terms “irrational investments” as Chinese firms invested in about 29 foreign football clubs from 2013 onwards and impacted the yuan. Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) research firm ThinkingLinking estimates that Chinese firms invested $2.4 billion in soccer teams from 2014 to 2016, dwarfing the US’s $350.6 million. This included an April 2017 investment of $870 million by businessman Li Yonghong’s Sino-Europe Sports into Italian club AC Milan which he now chairs.


China is now investing in growing its Chinese Super League (CSL), attracting top overseas players (such as Carlos Tevez, Alex Teixeira, Oscar and Paulinho) and coaches such as Sven Goran Eriksson (former England, ManCity and Roma coach), setting up training academies (such as Jinhai Hu in Pinggu, two hours from Beijing) and coaching classes. It is also attracting top European clubs such as Manchester United and Bayern Munich and leagues such as the Premier League and Bundesliga. Investments in broadcasting, live-streaming and digital channels, marketing research on consumer behaviours via reports such as the annual Red Card report are being used to create and grow the fan base for football and for clubs. Adidas has partnered with the Ministry of Education (MOE) and China Education TV for a TV and online series to teach football skills to 8 million youngsters. The MOE has ambitious plans of teaching 20 million students in 20,000 schools across China using books such as “Football Starts at Home” that informs parents to encourage children to develop control of a football.

While foreign players, clubs, coaches, trainers, technology, marketing and football youth development expertise are being allowed into China, the Chinese government has blocked the overseas movement of high-demand Chinese players along with blocking overseas investment into foreign clubs by Chinese corporations. The goal is to invest in China for China to develop a football culture to deliver on its 2050 dream. That includes the hunger of young players to train and work hard. The nation is united with one common purpose, according to the BBC.

With over 100 million children below the age of six and the all-round massive investments by the government and the private sector from grassroots games upwards, it is a matter of time before the CSL could become the largest football league in the world, larger than the English Premier League, according to Andrew Georgiou, chief executive of French sports marketing giant Lagardere Sports and Entertainment. He believes that the “market will be able to support the best players in the world playing the best football in the world in China”.


To be sure, the road ahead for China to realise its dream is long, uncertain and challenging. China is trying to create a culture of football ground-up. A culture that is about teamwork, passion, skills, creativity, boldness, physical strength and endurance. Many of these attributes are alien to the Chinese culture and it isn’t clear that parents will value football over other goals for their children. Creating physical infrastructure and investing serious money is one thing, but creating the soft infrastructure of a culture in a short time is quite another. Football, the world’s most popular sport, has not been kind to China - Team Dragon.

The British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, wrote in 1991 that during the two world wars, sports definitely became an expression of national struggle, with athletes representing their states’ or nations’ fundamental expressions of their imaginary communities. China clearly sees sports, now, thanks to President Xi’s love for the most popular sport in the world. Football is all set to become an extension of its soft power, identity, prestige and even diplomacy. This was seen most powerfully after China returned to the International Olympics in 1979 and immediately laid out an “Olympic Strategy” from 1980. The Ministry of Sports oversaw the growth of this strategy - Juguo Tizhi, a national mission with the entire country devoted to the goal - as China not only hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics but emerged as the leading gold medal winner beating the US. China used the 2008 Beijing Olympic games to showcase and show off its achievements, capabilities and power to the world.

Would anyone at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 have predicted that China, not yet a member of the International Olympic Committee, would not just host the Olympics but be the Number One gold medal winner just 32 years later? Today, in 2018, it seems as incredible to imagine that China would have hosted and won the FIFA Football World Cup 32 years from now, by 2050. Becoming a football world power would vindicate President Xi’s desire to see football as a metaphor for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “a source of national pride”. With the Chinese daring to dream big, hairy, audacious goals, with its ruthless focus and relentless execution to realise it, the odds are even.


So, which country would win the 2050 FIFA Football World Cup?

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