Xi Jinping Is the World’s Most Powerful Soccer Coach
China's team is a national embarrassment — but the party chairman has big plans for the game.
As the final matches of the group stage play out in Russia, there’s one glaring omission from the World Cup: China. The world’s most populous country failed to make the cut again, as has happened all but once since the quadrennial tournament began in 1930. The only World Cup China has ever qualified for is the 2002 tourney co-hosted by Japan and South Korea; China lost all three games, scoring zero goals and conceding nine.
But the gulf between China’s footballing potential and its reality is bigger than ever, as a country of 1.3 billion people with a growing appetite for soccer continues to flop on the international level. 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.
While the women’s national team has a consistent record of success, China’s fans have reached a breaking point with the men’s team several times over the years. The most recent humiliation was during the World Cup qualifiers, when Hong Kong — China’s special administrative region of just 7 million people — held China to two scoreless draws.
Following the second of those games, in November 2015, a hacker vandalized the Chinese Football Association’s website, demanding the head coach and CFA president both resign and calling for a Communist Party Central Commission investigation. Some newspaper columnists even argued the men’s team should be disbanded.
These passions aren’t anything new. When China was trying to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico the team hosted Hong Kong, then a British territory, in a qualifying match in Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium.
Hong Kong won the game 2-1 and the home fans rioted in the stands before order was restored by the People’s Armed Police. The game is still infamous on both sides of the border as the “May 19 Incident.”
In 2013, after a loss to Thailand in a non-competitive game, fans suggested that maybe it was just time for the team to call it a day. 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 1970s. Even after that, the Chinese top flight only went professional in 1994 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. Fans regularly referred to “black whistles” as shorthand for the rampant bribery of referees.
But the Thai humiliation wasn’t the only turning point in 2013. The same year saw Xi Jinping take office as party secretary. Amid his anti-corruption campaign and political purges, he found time to set the nation on a course toward a “World Cup Dream” that matches his favorite slogan, the “Chinese Dream.”
Xi likes to turn his own soccer fandom to political and diplomatic ends. The photograph of him kicking a football at Dublin’s Croke Park in 2012 was one of just six included in his office for his New Year’s broadcast on state media in 2014. On a 2015 visit to Britain Xi delivered artifacts from cuju — an ancient Chinese kickball game — to the National Football Museum in Manchester. The same state visit also included a trip to Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium where he was pictured in a selfie with Argentine star Sergio Agüero; soon after, the club’s ownership group announced it sold a 13 percent stake to a consortium led by China Media Capital, an equity firm.
But it is at home that Xi’s focus on the beautiful game has been sharpest. Xi’s original World Cup dream, laid out in 2011, came in three parts: to see China qualify for the World Cup, China hosting the World Cup, and China winning the World Cup. That vision has since been toned down. Now the plan isn’t for China to be world champions but to be competing at the highest international levels by the middle of this century, as laid out in April 2016’s reform plan, “The Medium and Long-term Development Plan of Chinese Football.” Control of the game’s future rests with the task force headed by Vice Premier Liu Yandong, which made soccer a part of the national curriculum when the State Council issued opinions on popularizing the game on campuses in October 2014.
Money follows politics in China, and some of the country’s most successful business magnates, like real estate developers Wang Jianlin of Wanda Group and Xu Jiayin of Evergrande Group, upped their investments in the domestic game after the initial run of government announcements. Chinese-owned clubs made a heavy outlay on foreign talent, breaking domestic and then Asian transfer records in 2016 by paying over $60 million each Brazilians Hulk and Oscar, who moved from Europe to sign with Shanghai SIPG.
But rather than sign foreign stars, Xi would prefer serious investment in grassroots soccer. In some ways, attention to domestic development is laudable — but it’s also linked to the growing xenophobia of Chinese politics. 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-23 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 50-point plan in March 2015 laying out the pathway to footballing success. It’s a route that follows eerie similarities to the development of China’s multinational corporations with foreign expertise being brought over at a premium at the outset before being replaced with local hires later. Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi is now China’s coach, and he nearly got them to Russia despite coming in midway through the qualifying campaign. Europe’s most successful club, Real Madrid, now provides the coaches (and train local coaches) at Guangzhou Evergrande’s youth academy. Manchester City inked a deal with a Chinese education group in December en route to a Premier League title.
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 2008 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.
Yet turning China into a soccer powerhouse isn’t going to be easy. The prevailing political winds could change at any time, draining financial and governmental support. And while the Olympics model of heavily directing individual talent into smaller events paid off, the world’s most popular sport is harder to dominate than target shooting and synchronized diving.
Football is still developing at the grassroots and a lot of potential talent is not yet involved in the game. China’s furthest regions are excluded from a system where the best academies are attached to clubs on the country’s major eastern cities or on the border with Hong Kong. Yet it is among the country’s aspiring migrants where the talent may really lie; middle-class kids are more interested in sitting at a computer than carving a path on the field.
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. Teenage Uighur footballer Erfan Hezim was detained in a “re-education camp” this February after visiting Spain and Dubai with his Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning.
At least the corruption and rot of earlier decades at the highest level have come to an end. 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. That hasn’t mattered. Now that the party is onboard, that might change.