Trade and industry, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

1 December 2017

Backed by President Xi Jinping’s push, football is growing in popularity in China just as a World Cup rolls around. Simon Chadwick takes a look at the candidates likely to get the backing of the country’s fans.

Has 2017 been the greatest year in Chinese football history? In February, the country was languishing in 86th place of FIFA’s world national team ranking. But as the year comes to an end, Team Dragon have flown up to 57th place. Not since 2004 has China been placed so highly, when it reached 54th place in the world. Even so, the country is still some way short of its 1998 position, when the team hit the heady heights of 37th.

But these are FIFA’s unfathomable rankings, China has yet to show the on-field style, skill and success of Brazil, and President Xi’s 2050 World Cup winning target is still more than 30 years away.

Indeed, a closer look at the Chinese national team’s performances this year reveals an underwhelming collection of narrow wins and inevitable defeats. More worryingly, two friendly match defeats at home in November (to Serbia and Columbia) were a salutary reminder of how far the country’s football journey still has left to go.

So, as we head into 2018 and towards the World Cup in Russia, China will again be missing from world football’s biggest tournament, having failed to qualify. This is surely a big blow to the country’s growing number of football fans. When the national team played a World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan earlier in the year, almost 52,000 people attended the game. The question now is, which national team will Chinese fans be supporting next summer?

Given historic associations between them, reinforced by recent Super Cups being staged in Beijing, one would normally expect the Chinese to look towards Italy for their dose of BIRGing (Basking-In Reflected Glory). Italian football was the first European league to be broadcast live on Chinese state television, back in the 1980s, and its generational influence on fandom since has been such that many Chinese people remain positively predisposed towards Italian football.

The problem is that Italy, too, have failed to qualify for the World Cup, which may at least enable Beijing and Rome to reaffirm and strengthen their bonds, albeit in unfortunate circumstances. Italy’s failure will have eliminated one option from Chinese fans’ possible consumption portfolio, no doubt shocking many. Indeed, in a previous study, it was identified that a significant number of Chinese football fans actually support the Italian national team.

Instead, Chinese fans might look towards either England or Spain as ‘their’ teams for the summer. The English Premier League (EPL) remains popular in China, especially as its clubs are regular visitors to the country and often play summer tour games there. However, the EPL’s strength is built upon foreign stars, whereas its national team consists of players who are largely anonymous in East Asia. Furthermore, some Chinese fans remain cynical about English football’s commercial intentions.

Spain might be a better bet for the football fanatics of Shenyang and Shenzhen. Not only does the national team have a history of success, but La Liga is also currently working hard to build fan engagement in China.

Part of its strategy has been to use the iconography of star players to lure China’s conspicuous consumers. Hence Ronaldo and Messi, neither of whom are Spanish, have often been used for marketing purposes by the Spanish league as they are among the biggest stars on Chinese social media.

Brazil, too, was prominent in the research mentioned, though perhaps not as much as one might imagine. That said, China continues to be charmed by the Brazilian style of play, its players, and the historic success of the country’s national team.

China’s 2016 Football Development plan specifically references Brazil as a source of inspiration and a benchmark for its own ambitions. There has also been a recent influx of Brazilian players into the Chinese Super League, which highlights the high regard in which the South American nation’s football is held and provides a point of engagement to the national team.

Yet there is one national team more than any other that is likely to win the hearts, minds and wallets of Chinese football fans next summer. This country was referenced alongside Brazil in Chinese football’s development plans and came out on top in the same research project mentioned above. It is a country enjoying a close, constructive and developing relationship with Chinese football, whose own football is admired as the basis for the development of a sustainable amateur structure in China.

That country? Germany. Serial winners, efficient performers, and a style of football synonymous with quality. In the eyes of many Chinese fans, Germany is everything they want their own national team to be. It helps too that the German national team brings together a constellation of brands that Chinese people either consume or else aspire to consume: for example, Mercedes-Benz, Adidas and Lufthansa. And then there are the players, notably Mesut Özil who remains something of a sex symbol in China.

The existing connection between Chinese fans and the German national team is likely to take on a new intensity at next year’s tournament too. Fundamentally, the Germans appear to understand and seem capable of embracing the Chinese way of doing business. As a result, Germany’s football authorities have been strongly supporting China’s football development.

If a further measure is needed of German football’s popularity in China, Shanghai-based consultancy Mailman’s Red Card Digital Index routinely shows how strong the likes of Bayern Munich are on Chinese social media. Indeed, German football has repeatedly demonstrated that it understands China’s digitally savvy young consumers, by committing resources to the bilateral development of initiatives aimed at drawing the two countries closer together.

It might seem unusual to be speculating which national team the Chinese will be supporting at next year’s World Cup, especially for those from China who want to remain loyal to their own national team. But with the country’s satellite football fans eager to engage with the tournament, allied to their growing incomes and China’s opening-up to football, which team ultimately gets their support is likely to make for an interesting off-field battle.

This piece is published in partnership with the South China Morning Post.

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