I Thought Xi Liked Sports

China's soccer-mad president is heading to Brazil. Why is he skipping the World Cup final?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The private lives of China's leaders have such a black box quality that when state media released a video of President Xi Jinping delivering New Year's greetings from his office on December 31, it caused a stir. Was that a picture of his daughter in the background? How many pencils sit in the cup on his desk? So his love of soccer and willingness to gush about it when he travels comes as a refreshing surprise, a rare glimpse of the man behind the job.

In March in Berlin, Xi visited a group of young Chinese athletes training with German football coaches, and proudly told them they were the future of Chinese football. While visiting Dublin in February 2012, Xi looked delighted to kick around a soccer ball, even though he was restrictively dressed in a big overcoat. Xi's wife Peng Liyuan has said her husband likes to stay up late watching soccer. And Xi enthused to Indonesian journalists in October 2012 about how soccer is great because it's team-focused and not for grandstanders -- perhaps a surprising admission for a leader sometimes described as the "emperor" of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. Xi is so associated with soccer in China that people on Chinese social media sites like Sina Weibo debated whether he was a World Cup "good luck charm" based on the fanciful notion that countries he had visited in the last two years were advancing.

So why did Xi decline the invitation from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to the July 13 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro? Xi is already heading to the Brazilian city of Fortaleza July 15-16 for the sixth annual BRICS summit. The official line doesn't give much to work with: A Chinese official told reporters that Xi couldn't make it "due to a scheduling issue." Brazil's ambassador to China, Valdemar Carneiro Leão, told state-owned China News Service that Xi would arrive the day after the match. "Unfortunately for some reason he cannot be present but he was invited," he said, adding almost quizzically: "I know he is a very great fan of football."

The private lives of China’s leaders have such a black box quality that when state media released a video of President Xi Jinping delivering New Year’s greetings from his office on December 31, it caused a stir. Was that a picture of his daughter in the background? How many pencils sit in the cup on his desk? So his love of soccer and willingness to gush about it when he travels comes as a refreshing surprise, a rare glimpse of the man behind the job.

In March in Berlin, Xi visited a group of young Chinese athletes training with German football coaches, and proudly told them they were the future of Chinese football. While visiting Dublin in February 2012, Xi looked delighted to kick around a soccer ball, even though he was restrictively dressed in a big overcoat. Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan has said her husband likes to stay up late watching soccer. And Xi enthused to Indonesian journalists in October 2012 about how soccer is great because it’s team-focused and not for grandstanders — perhaps a surprising admission for a leader sometimes described as the "emperor" of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. Xi is so associated with soccer in China that people on Chinese social media sites like Sina Weibo debated whether he was a World Cup "good luck charm" based on the fanciful notion that countries he had visited in the last two years were advancing.

So why did Xi decline the invitation from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to the July 13 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro? Xi is already heading to the Brazilian city of Fortaleza July 15-16 for the sixth annual BRICS summit. The official line doesn’t give much to work with: A Chinese official told reporters that Xi couldn’t make it "due to a scheduling issue." Brazil’s ambassador to China, Valdemar Carneiro Leão, told state-owned China News Service that Xi would arrive the day after the match. "Unfortunately for some reason he cannot be present but he was invited," he said, adding almost quizzically: "I know he is a very great fan of football."

Perhaps Xi decided to skip it because host Brazil had been so thoroughly humiliated in the tournament. But China had already announced Xi wasn’t going on July 7, the day before Brazil’s mortifying 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals. And China has suffered plenty of its own football defeats — not least of which was its failure to qualify for the World Cup (again) this year. In South Korea in July 2011, Xi outlined his hopes for Chinese soccer: "To qualify for the World Cup, to host the World Cup, and to win the World Cup." If China were to host, it would automatically qualify. But the last wish seems a tall order for a country that has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, when it lost all three games it played, and did not score a single goal.

For Xi, going to the match might present an image problem. Bai Qiang, the CEO of a Beijing entertainment company and a huge football fan, is in Brazil for the World Cup and has so far gone to two quarter-final games and two semi-finals. He’ll be at the last match in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 but he thinks Xi is smart to stay away. "Never to put personal hobby ahead of political needs has always been China’s habit," he wrote by email.

Maybe Xi is leery of being pictured at an event marred by corruption and overspending claims, particularly while he oversees a massive anti-corruption battle at home. But simple frugality probably isn’t the motive — he was flying to Brazil anyway. "It’s not about the money," said Zha Daojiong, a professor of political economy at Peking University. If Xi went, people at home would be bound to talk and not favorably, Zha said. "To go as an individual is one thing, but for him to go as a world leader, when his team didn’t qualify, would be laughable." It would be different if it was the World Cup of something China is great at, like ping-pong or badminton, Zha said. "Then, of course he would go." Perhaps Zha is right. In that case, until China excels at soccer, Xi might have to contend himself with watching World Cup games from afar. 

Rowan Simons, a Beijing-based Brit who wrote Bamboo Goalposts, a book about his quest to popularize soccer in China, didn’t know why Xi would be staying away from the final. But he was certain of one thing. "I am sure it is not because he doesn’t want to!" he said.  

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o

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