Football is the most popular sport in China, followed by basketball. Chinese fans now represent the biggest number of international fans in many European leagues and clubs. This partly explains why in recent years, President Xi Jinping has expressed his preference for this sport and has drawn up a plan, together with his leaders, for his national team to match the great champions of the world.
With relatively poor results at the moment. The Chinese national team has barely reached the 76th place in the world ranking, behind countries like Bolivia or Guinea, which have never been able to rise from the bottom. The goal announced in 2018 by the CFA, Chinese Football Association, which aimed at placing its team in the top 70, has therefore not been met. They also don’t have it easy to secure a place in Qatar 2022. There are many reasons for this situation, but cultural reasons are the most important and challenging ones. Chinese parents don’t want their children to play football.
And, like other sports, it is considered a non-productive extracurricular activity that takes time away from studying. The usual thing for a schoolboy in China is to spend time (between four and six hours a day) to his homework. The academic demands and family pressure on the student are enormous, at least compared to Western standards. Getting good grades is not enough. You need to get the best grades. Someday, the student will have to take care of their elderly parents and guarantee a promising future for their children, so their maximum effort is expected to fulfill their ancestors and descendants. Can all of that be achieved with a football career in China? Parents are convinced that it is not.
The main reason is that Chinese clubs are betting on signing foreigners and nationalising them. They are the children of Chinese immigrants or mixed marriages raised in other countries. The national team has already offered Nico Yennaris or Tyias Browning citizenship, both English by birth and John Hou Saeter from Norway. The million-dollar signings, for between 10 and 60 million euros, have always gone to players such as the ones just mentioned, and rarely to those born in China. Even among the most recent plans of the CFA is to incorporate more naturalised players, five Brazilians and two English, to ensure a place in Qatar 2022.
But the naturalisation path is not working as expected. The first thing these football players receive upon arriving to the country is a team of educators, who introduce them to the values of the Chinese Communist Party. They also teach them that the Chinese league imposes obedience to its players. Besides, that no one should express a point of view contrary to the official one -not even on social networks-; and that they must cover any tattoos that may be considered offensive. These details have discouraged many candidates from accepting the Chinese team’s offer.
Meanwhile, young Chinese children admitted to state football schools, are under the same pressure and demands as the school system. And this, in the opinion of one of the most renowned Chinese sports commentators, Zhang Lu, is another reason for failure. Guided by the CFA, Chinese football has placed too much emphasis on getting results, coaching, and creating stars. They are forgetting the popular base of this sport: having fun getting out of the class routine. This is how the great European teams were born, like small clubs for young fans in cities, organised to play what they most enjoyed. This has not happened yet in China. It is difficult to know when parents will tolerate their children’s “wasted time” or that children can play a game with friends without feeling guilty about not fulfilling their social and family duties.
The pandemic has not favoured the development plan either. As in Europe, clubs and leagues have stopped receiving income from television rights and ticket sales, with similar restrictions on access to stadiums and cancellation of competitions. With cases as striking as that of Jiangsu FC, the Chinese Super League champion in 2020, temporarily interrupting its activity this year. To make it worse, and in the face of the lack of results, the government has frozen the funds allocated to football development.
This stumble has been wrongly described as the burst of the Chinese football bubble. China has indeed made a considerable payment with public funds without requiring clubs or leagues to generate profits. It was enough to win championships, although they have not achieved that either. But it is impossible that, following their politics and social tradition, they will abandon a project of this magnitude, designed for the long term. The signings for Qatar are an excellent example that they will continue to push until they achieve a successful national football. World football will continue to have an ideal setting in China to see how they experiment, fail, and achieve success. Perhaps there is even a solution to solve the most critical challenge: attracting and maintaining the interest of younger generations.
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