Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

4 July 2018

The country’s football goals may appear opaque, but its World Cup tactics suggest China is a rising power in the world game, Simon Chadwick writes.

With football’s World Cup in Russia entering its latter stages, we are now getting a stronger sense of which teams have what it takes to win the final on 15 July.

Whether it is Brazil, Belgium or otherwise that establishes itself as the world’s best team, officials in China will surely be observing developments with a mix of envy, anticipation and strategic foresight. After all, this is a nation that is very clear about its football future: by 2050, it wants to become a leading FIFA nation.

Following President Xi Jinping’s 2014 pronouncement of his vision for sport, in which he emphasised the importance of football, it was widely interpreted that his goal is for China to ultimately win the World Cup.

However, China’s football development plan (published in 2016) was rather more modest and significantly more imprecise in its goals. In simple terms, rather than looking ahead to World Cup victory, football and government in China now want the country to become “a leading FIFA nation” by 2050.

The vague, opaque nature of this target should be no surprise to anyone familiar with government policy in China. In avoiding specifics, officials often seek to provide themselves with sufficient flexibility to manoeuvre interpretations of policy success into positions that are sufficiently palatable and appropriately expedient.

Clearly football is no different, though its 2050 target poses a very basic question: what does it actually mean?

Given that China’s male national team is currently languishing in 75th place in FIFA’s world ranking, becoming a global leader in little more than 30 years appears to be a fanciful notion – especially as the team also has an abject World Cup record.

That said, China’s female football team is in a rather better state: runners-up in the 1999 World Cup and currently 17th in FIFA’s world rankings. It is not inconceivable that this team could establish itself as one the world’s best.

Otherwise, China’s club teams have had some success in recent years; Super League outfit Guangzhou Evergrande has twice won the Asian Champions League, which has resulted in it qualifying for FIFA’s Club World Cup (CWC). Although it has yet to win this intercontinental competition, Guangzhou nevertheless reached the semi-finals in 2015 (where it lost to Spain’s FC Barcelona). This suggests that China’s domestic football may prove to be a more fruitful route through which to build global prominence.

Yet the CWC itself suggests an interesting opportunity for China, given that FIFA is now considering the re-formatting and re-branding of its premier club competition. Football’s world governing body is set to address this matter once this summer’s World Cup is over, though reports already indicate that East Asian investors are associated with proposals for a revamped CWC. If true, this implies that China’s ‘leading FIFA nation’ status may be realised off the field rather than on it.

China is already connected to the CWC through Alibaba’s sponsorship of the competition (via its E-Auto business). And there is evidence to suggest the company could be involved in current developments; for example, Alibaba has a close relationship with Japan’s SoftBank, which is a prime-mover behind the new club competition.

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Alternatively, corporate China’s interests in the CWC project may be being served by Wanda, a multinational conglomerate. Wanda is an existing FIFA global partner, has also been sponsoring the World Cup in Russia (via its Sunseeker boat business), and is a service provider to the Swiss-based football governing body via its Infront Sports and Media business. Furthermore, Wanda has already forayed into creating new football competitions, following its launch of the China Cup in 2016. In becoming a leading FIFA nation, China may, therefore, be seeking to establish itself both as an instigator of new competition formats and as a governor of them.

Whether or not the new CWC is approved by FIFA will be decided once the World Cup is over, though one can imagine that Chinese interests in it are already being asserted inside FIFA. After all, Chinese companies have become major financial supporters of the organisation, with Hisense, Vivo and Mengniu sponsoring it alongside Wanda. In the case of Vivo, it has been reported that its deal with FIFA may be worth as much as $500 million.

This has effectively created a financial dependency of FIFA upon Chinese money, which is likely to be enabling the country to exert a degree of control over decisions being made inside the organisation’s Zurich headquarters.

The outcomes of such decisions may well be instrumental in helping drive China towards its ‘leading FIFA nation’ status, or instead perhaps corporate China’s domination of FIFA’s sponsorship roster could be a measure of this status in its own right.

China is politically well positioned too, with the country’s Jian Zhang currently sitting on FIFA’s ExCo, which is the executive body of FIFA’s supreme legislature – the Congress. Not only does this give Chinese football a decision-making presence at the very top of world football, it also provides a potential route to the governing body’s presidency (which could become Zhang himself or possibly another Chinese official).

In any case, it might be worth people envisioning what football in the future might be like when it is run by a person from China – the leading FIFA nation.

Or is fandom the essence of China’s opaque goals? At this summer’s World Cup, there have supposedly been more Chinese fans attending tournament matches than there have been English fans (China’s media has claimed that the number may be upwards of 60,000 people). This already places China in the top 10 of supporters attending games, even though the country’s national team has not even qualified for the competition.

Assuming that China becomes a regular World Cup qualifier, if even just a fraction of the country’s passport holders (currently 6 per cent of the population, or 96 million people) begin travelling to future tournaments, then China’s ‘leading FIFA nation’ status will be substantially reinforced by considerable numbers of Chinese people attending matches.

Perhaps the Chinese Government’s vision is of all these things combined? In which case, world football should brace itself for some fundamental changes to the status quo. China (and its interest in football) is coming!

This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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