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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

China may miss the target with football superpower plans

Recreational spaces like football fields that can be used for practice games and local leagues are few and far between.

Chinese farmers playing football in a paddy field in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province. Despite Beijing's ambitions, the country is unlikely to become a major football power any time soon. AFP 
Chinese farmers playing football in a paddy field in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province. Despite Beijing's ambitions, the country is unlikely to become a major football power any time soon. AFP 

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is one of the most powerful people on the planet.

He is also a football fan.

Since taking office in 2013, Xi has put soccer squarely at the center of his ambitious plan to turn China into a wealthy superpower. Mr Xi has a “World Cup dream”. He wants China to qualify for, host and eventually win the World Cup by 2050.

To date, China has qualified for this global football tournament just once, in 2002, and it has never scored a goal in the World Cup.

Can China go from football dud to soccer superpower? My guess is probably not – at least not in Mr Xi’s lifetime.

I’m a China expert who has researched the country’s top-down political system and its approach to economic development. I also lived in Shanghai, in 2012 and 2013, where I shuttled my three school-age children to and from soccer practice.

China certainly has the money and political wherewithal to expand its commercial and political influence over this global sport, just as it has lately done with the Olympics and international relations.

Chinese companies have bought several major European football teams, including the UK's Wolves and Italy’s AC Milan. Chinese brands like Mengniu and Luci bought serious advertising space in this year’s World Cup, publicising these little-known companies alongside global giants like Budweiser and Rozneft.

Mr Xi can also ensure that his countrymen see and play more soccer. China’s 2016 plan for Chinese soccer greatness proposes to build 70,000 new stadiums and develop 20,000 new specialised schools, with the aim of having 30 to 50 million Chinese children playing football by 2020.

So Chinese football may well improve dramatically over the next two decades. But I believe China lacks the culture and institutions to achieve Mr Xi’s third goal: winning the World Cup.

For one, history shows that investment from China’s football plan will inevitably be directed mostly to coastal megacities and capitals because of the country’s administrative hierarchy. That hierarchy systematically benefits provincial capitals and large municipalities. My experience is that the trickle-down to rural areas, where about half of the population still lives, is slow and minimal.

China’s fierce academic culture is also a barrier to nurturing football talent. The drive to achieve at school starts early, intensifies during elementary and middle school and culminates with the “gao kao” – the infamously difficult college entrance exam.

Even when students have great athletic talent, test preparation and homework inevitably crowd out all but the most traditional extracurricular activities, like classical music training. In some Chinese cities, severe air pollution even makes having recess outside hazardous.

Parental pressure has been found to be one of the most significant sources of Chinese teenagers’ high levels of stress and anxiety. As a parent, too, I heard many other parents complain that their kids were maxed out. Adding athletics to their children’s agendas seems an unlikely choice.

Schools also frequently underemphasise athletics because this is not how reputations and strong student demand are earned in China. High academic performance, measured through testing, is the singular goal.

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I see no evidence that China is currently training the next generation of global soccer stars.

Even China’s economic boom does not work entirely in football’s favour.

The bulk of China’s 1.38 billion people live in central and eastern China, where cities are among the most densely populated in the world. Urban real estate prices there are sky high, so recreational space in cities – like football fields that can be used for practice games and local leagues – are few and far between.

Japan has 200 sports fields for every 10,000 people. China has seven, and most of them are owned by schools or the military. Your average American has access to 19 times more sports space than the average China resident.

China is huge – bigger than Germany, Brazil and South Africa combined. But that doesn’t mean there is a lot of free space. Land in rural China is still dominated by small-scale agriculture.

Basketball courts are far more common in China, which may explain why more Chinese people play basketball. Some 33 million Chinese follow the NBA’s account on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.

The central government’s 2016 football plan addresses China’s deficit in youth talent development and infrastructure by proposing more childhood football training and building more football stadiums.

The culture gap may prove harder to overcome, though. China just isn’t a football country. I rarely saw kids playing informal games in the streets of China with a soda can or a half-deflated ball as one does across Latin America and Africa.

Only 2 per cent of Chinese play football, compared to 7 per cent in Europe and Latin America. China does not rank in the top 10 nations of youth participation in football, according to Fifa’s last survey.

Rich countries without much of a football culture can build it – over time. That’s what football advocates in the United States have been trying to do for decades.

The country got its professional league, Major League Soccer, in 1988. By the early 1990s, the league was establishing teams and building stadiums across the country. Managers imported popular – if ageing – global stars like England’s David Beckham to boost the sport’s American profile. Former US.National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired in late 2016, also put emphasis on youth football development.

The US hosted the World Cup in 1994 and will host it again, alongside Mexico and Canada, in 2026.

But for all this money and effort, the results have been middling. The US men’s football team did not even qualify for this year’s World Cup.

The US women’s team, on the other hand, won the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Chinese women have also seen more global success than male players.

That’s because many traditional football powers have marginalised women’s participation in the sport.

If Mr Xi wants China to make its mark as a football upstart, the women’s team may be his best investment.

AP