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Football: Xi Jinping’s newest ‘China Dream’?

12:07 AM April 20, 2016

XI JINPING’S “China Dream”—his catchword for a future where the Chinese people “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation”—is unfolding in a new dimension.  An avid soccer fan, the Chinese president wants to make sure that his country is on a fast track to earn its proper spot in the top ranks of the world’s most popular sport.

To that end, he is committed to deploying China’s sizable manpower and planning resources.  He can also count on big financial resources devoted to the cause.

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For now, China seems to have quite modest targets. By 2030, it aims for the men’s national soccer team to be among Asia’s top teams and the women’s team to be “one of the world’s strongest,” according to a just released document jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Chinese Football Association, Sports Bureau and Ministry of Education. By midcentury, China wants to be among the world’s strongest soccer powers.

China being China, President Xi wants to go about this in a methodical fashion. You could in fact argue that he is determined to take the planned economy concept to the soccer pitch—even though it has been replaced by a more market-oriented approach in other areas of the economy.

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The ultimate goal may well be to ensure that, owing to those well-laid plans, China will come to dominate the sport. Soccer could become another target in a long list of serious ambitions of China becoming No. 1 in the world, its rightful place in the eyes of the country’s leadership.

In that vein, Beijing wants to increase the soccer-playing population to 50 million by 2020. Thirty million of them are supposed to be elementary and high school pupils.

That all sounds reasonable enough, not least as an antidote to the growing obesity trend among China’s youth.  Better yet, making his vision a reality will also require significant progress on combating air pollution given that soccer, for the most part, is an outdoor activity.

What should one make of the overall plan? One possible reaction is to disregard it. Soccer skills, like culture or democracy, are nothing for which one can simply plan, or that can be issued as a “directive” from atop the political pyramid.  Such skills need to grow organically, over a long period of time.

Taking that view could be perilous.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people laughed out loud if and when someone suggested that China would become the world’s top exporting nation. Now, nobody laughs about that anymore.

That earlier reality check underscores two important points: first, China’s determination to pursue a goal, no matter how improbable it may seem at first, and second, the massive deployment of human and other resources can yield positive outcomes.

Regarding the “China Dream,” Xi may view soccer as a tool to advance Chinese prosperity, collective effort and national glory, all in one swoop.  Like it or not, soccer is the modern form of the Roman circus.  It attracts (and distracts) the masses from their everyday worries.  And thanks to the professionalization (read: monetization) of the sport, primarily via ever more lucrative television contracts and merchandising programs, it has turned into quite an instrument of economic development.

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Xi’s implicit question is this: Why leave that large and growing pie to iconic (Western) brands, such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, the various London-based clubs, or Bayern München?

It’s time to raise the flag of Chinese pride, preferably on behalf of all of Asia, and also in order to cash in to reap the benefits of the Chinese public’s growing market share. Come to think of it, unless that plan succeeds, the world of club soccer remains a rare, but no less painful reminder of old colonial(!) structures.

For individual teams, as well as entire national leagues or national teams, to become really successful in the sport is a pricey suggestion.  It helps if cash-rich billionaires, seeking approval of their status in new domains, discover soccer as a suitable stage to display their wealth and vanity.

And just as Russian, American and Middle Eastern billionaires play an outsized role in England’s Barclays Premier League, there are plenty of billionaires in China who could add to the country’s glory by investing in soccer as a new battlefield.

The suitably named “Ping An Chinese Football Association Super League” is an indication of what’s afoot.  And the current Chinese club champion—Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club (part-owned by the Alibaba Group)—as well as current news reports about record transfer payments (and salaries) to attract international star players, are another indication of what’s in the offing.

In the end, there is also sheer optimism and hope.  For all the best-laid plans, it may not take that much for China’s national team to succeed.  Just consider that tiny Belgium, a nation of only 11 million people, was ranked first last year in the Fifa World Ranking of men’s national teams (www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/).   And similarly, tiny Chile, with less than 18 million people, now holds third place.  On average, these two global powerhouses each have just one-hundredth of China’s population.

Kristin Shi-Kupfer is director of the Research Area on Politics, Society, Media, and Mirjam Meissner is head of Program, Economy and Technology, both at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin, Germany (www.merics.org).

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