A beast unleashed

China’s grand football plan falls foul as fans rebel

Simon Chadwick

PHOTO: AP

Arts, culture & society, Government and governance, Trade and industry | Asia, East Asia, The World

20 October 2016

China’s ambitious plans to invest heavily in football and secure a World Cup were missing one essential ingredient – how to respond to angry fans disappointed at the national team’s failure. Simon Chadwick takes a look at what tactics China may employ to get back in the game after the humiliation of shock back-to-back losses.  

Everything seemed to be going so well for Chinese football: a bold vision of its future from President Xi, a new national development strategy from its domestic football association, a host of high-profile overseas club investments, and a raft of international signings by Super League Clubs.

And then, last week, China played Uzbekistan in a qualifying game for the 2018 World Cup. Few people probably know or remember that Marat Bikmaev and Otabek Shukurov scored the goals that brought the Uzbeks victory and took the team top of the qualifying group table.

More people will remember that China is now rooted to the bottom of its group and will probably fail to qualify for the next World Cup – Russia 2018. People are also likely to remember that China’s coach, Gao Hongbo, has since become a victim of his country’s quest for global football success. Gao quit following last week’s embarrassment in Tashkent.

One has to feel a little sorry for Gao; after all, the Chinese national team has underperformed for decades, and the country’s 2002 World Cup failure was surely much more embarrassing for the nation. However, these are heady times for football in China. As spending has increased, so too have expectations as well as the level of scrutiny.

After the national team’s previous game against Syria a few days earlier, which also resulted in a defeat for the Chinese national team, football fans protested in the streets. Some fans demanded that the coach resign, others that they should be given their money back. This kind of mass, populist dissent is the last thing the Chinese state will want, and is an unintended consequence of the country’s current focus on football.

Indeed, fuelled by social media, continuing football failure may prove to be a problem for China that goes beyond the back-page headlines about poor results. As the Arab Spring in Egypt and more recent events in Turkey demonstrate, football can become a means through which popular dissent finds a common voice and provides a basis for positive action by people.

Similarly, when China embarked on its football revolution it apparently failed to understand how disruptive to its soft power narrative the sport might become. Ultimately, staging and winning the World Cup may nicely bookend the current beginnings of the narrative. However, for the time-being at least, the loss of face inflicted by a poorly performing national team must be palpable.

A rather more pragmatic view is that China should get used to football’s disappointments, after all this is what most fans are used to. England is a prime example of the way in which failure at international level does not necessarily diminish the soft power influence its domestic Premier League has across the world.

More on this:sjaiho on flickr (2) China’s number one football fan: President Xi Jinping

In the same vein, it is worth remembering too that China’s current large-scale investment in football is simply a means to an end, and is not necessarily an end itself. What most people fail to acknowledge is that Xi’s vision for football, which he expressed almost exactly two years ago, is actually just one part of an overall vision for sport. While the national team’s travails are unhelpful, they are nevertheless just a distraction from broader, long-term matters.

Furthermore, Xi has never advocated a football revolution, in fact it was nearly 18 months between Xi proclaiming his vision for sport and the eventual publication of China’s national football development strategy. To get a sense of timescale, this strategy identifies 2050 as being the point in time by which China is expected to be a world football super-power. This is actually a modest target, and certainly one that does not warrant the near universal uproar following recent national team results.

There are however more profound issues underpinning recent events than Shukurov’s winning goal might imply. Aside from the potential political implications of having large numbers of disaffected football fans hitting the streets in protest, China’s somewhat idealistic notion of football may cause the country further problems.

Football is an industry like no other, which is important in two respects. Firstly, when teams lose matches, peoples’ reactions tend to be less rational and more emotional than, say, if they buy a defective mobile phone. China not only has to learn how to developed skilled players and run commercially successful clubs, it also needs to understand the fan culture it seems to have unwittingly unleashed.

Secondly, while China has acquired its way to global success in a range of other industries, in football such a strategy is not necessarily going to be successful. For a start, football involves people rather than machines, and managing their development and performance is not the same as overseeing the output of units from a production line.

Nowhere would this seem to be a more apt observation than in the context of China’s national team. Vision, intent, and significant amounts of money are helpful in pursuing success, but individually and even together they are insufficient prerequisites. This has particular pertinence in China’s case, as the country is prone to investing in ostentatious projects without getting to grips with the practical details.

This can cause problems, especially when the state tries not to lose face as the result of failed projects. This is why recent World Cup games are perhaps an acid test of China’s resolve to become a global football power. One outcome could be strategic drift as the country focuses more on short-term fixes that improve national team performance, rather than on remaining patient in its pursuit of longer-term goals. While China might be seduced into investing even more heavily at the elite professional level of football, this could neglect grassroots developments and be counter-productive in the long-term.

In Britain, you often hear people say ‘a week in football is a long time’. If this is true, then China is in for a very long wait in its desire for World Cup success. In the meantime, though, the emergence of a strong fan culture, its intersection with domestic politics and social media, the challenges of running a peculiar industry, and the importance of keeping its strategy on-track will all continue to occupy the country.

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