The future of Chinese football: a damp squib or possible world hegemony?

China football team

The world’s most populous nation is no stranger to sporting successes – especially on the world stage at Olympic level – but where the most populous country meets the most popular sport, there appears to be a major disconnect.

For China’s entry at the FIFA World Cup in 2002, some 300 million people tuned in to watch the national team score no goals and lose every game at their maiden World Cup. It is estimated around 170 million people bought new TV sets purely for the purpose of watching the team’s voyage across the Yellow Sea to the Korean peninsula. This is still the country’s proudest footballing moment, and it’s perhaps often misunderstood that the Chinese people’s passion for football is not as vehement as in other countries.

China is the world’s bona fide, most dynamic and fastest growing footballing market. However, despite the viewing figure successes in 2002, back then most people in the Western world would have been largely unaware China even had a footballing league. This is not the case anymore.

Since the World Cup, Chinese investment in football, both within its own corridors and overseas (particularly within the Premier League), has increased greatly. Chinese corporations and businesses own majority or minority stakes in a growing list of clubs, of which include; Wolves, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Internazionale, AC Milan, Aston Villa, West Brom and Southampton. However, it is within the nation’s own borders where the true extent of investment can be seen.

Similarly to David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy in 2007, Chinese clubs began investing in big name stars, offering them eye-watering figures to entice them to the Chinese Super League (CSL) in an attempt to boost the league’s profile, both domestically and internationally. Remember Didier Drogba’s shock move to Shanghai Shenua in 2012? Or when Oscar snubbed Atletico Madrid to became the world’s highest paid player at Shanghai SIPG in 2017? Carlos Tevez was earning more than £650,000 per week during his 11-month stint at Shanghai Shenua in 2017. To put that into context, last season’s Premier League player of the year, Virgil Van Dijk currently earns an estimated £180,000.

So, where has all this investment come from? Rather than being the result of natural growth, it instead stems from the Chinese political establishment.

In March 2014, President Xi Xinping introduced a 50-point road map illustrating how China would develop into a global footballing power. May 2016 saw China introduce their 13th 5-year plan, which implemented rapid sporting investment plans. Since Xi Xinping became the ruling Communist Party’s General Secretary in 2012, his political and business peers have used whatever methods possible to align themselves with him for personal and political gain. Given Xi Xinping’s close affinity and passion for the game, awarding massive wages and transfer fees to Western footballers has proven to be an effective avenue for Chinese officials.

President Xi Xinping, 2018

For a country with a widely collectivist culture, it comes as a surprise that the chosen route for growth has such an emphasis on individualism. Despite the beauty of football being built around the importance of the team, in extortionately overpaying these star players from South America, Africa and Europe, are Chinese clubs not seriously undermining their existing squads? Or are clubs bringing in these players in an attempt to generate exposure for the league by attracting bigger crowds at matches to develop sustainable futures for themselves.

There are two sides to every coin, but using data obtained by the Centre for Sports and Management at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management we find that Chinese fans are more interested in seeing these star players play rather than the collective team, even if the wider team features mostly Chinese players and especially if the foreign player is what one might call “an international superstar”.

Chinese consumers of football are also more preoccupied with the dramaturgy and news of the game, something which the above article ascribes to China’s remarkably highly developed entertainment industry – a place where substance is valued less than style and material objects in growing circles. This is a highly complex phenomenon considering China’s focus on socialism rather than capitalism. Either way, this perhaps offers an understanding at least to why these big money transfers have been and will continue to materialise in the Chinese leagues: it is simply want the fans want.

What I want to consider is where these implications will lead. What will be of the CSL and the Chinese national team in 15 to 20 years? Will they have reached another World Cup? Will there be a Chinese playing presence in the top 5 European leagues like other East Asian countries have?

What China has proved to be quite remarkable at over the last 20 to 30 years is facilitating rapid growth, and although it is perhaps still too soon to judge the true sustainability of their economic mechanisms, they are certainly heading in one direction. China’s solution to problems, like most wealthy nations, is to use remarkable sums of money as the catalyst for progression and change – this can be seen outside of football with the worldwide Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It’s been a good 10 years now since China started pumping serious cash into various footballing organs: so, where are they now? Naturally, native CSL footballers would see the benefit of working with superior players, managers and coaches from the influx of foreign talent. Players will become fitter as contemporary fitness techniques are applied and the game begins to be taken more seriously in China. Players will also become more tactically astute as a knock-on effect. Currently, Chinese fans may be more concerned with the drama and news of the beautiful game, but in 5 years they will likely become more invested and aware of the many nuances, tactics and patterns of football, again this will inevitably trickle down generationally.

A good measure for future success will be the progression seen within the Chinese national team, and the number of Chinese footballers involved in the highest echelons of the European game. The grander scope, the Chinese national team, is a longer term goal and one where measurable success is still probably too premature to see.

We are perhaps however beginning to see the early stages of development within individual players. In March 2019, after an agonising wait of 3,731 days, wide man Wu Lei became the first Chinese player to score for almost 10 years in any of Europe’s top five leagues, after scoring for Espanyol in their 3-1 win against Real Valladolid. He has since gone on to cement his place in Espanyol’s first team making more than 50 appearances since his debut in February 2019.

As a result of growing Chinese ownership in European clubs, the next generation of Chinese prospects are being assimilated by and bedded at top European clubs. Chinese officials will hope this progression is the cusp of a new era on the world footballing stage.

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