22 May 2019
Big-name Chinese clubs have been eagerly spending tens of millions of dollars importing star foreign players. Photo: China Daily
Big-name Chinese clubs have been eagerly spending tens of millions of dollars importing star foreign players. Photo: China Daily

How China can realize its ‘soccer dream’

As the World Cup was underway in full swing, there was talk among mainland soccer fans about one thing in common between the US and China.

That is, that despite being the world’s two largest economies and front-runners in Olympics medal standings, the two countries are anything but a force to be reckoned with in the soccer world.

Now, I feel compelled to point out here that these people are actually wrong about the US national soccer team.

It is because contrary to popular belief, the US team isn’t really that bad: according to the latest FIFA world ranking, the US is ranked 25th, whereas Russia, the host country of this year’s World Cup Final, is only at the 70th position.

It appears most Americans aren’t really bothered by the fact that their national soccer team has rarely made it to the World Cup tournament, because, as we all know, what the Americans are truly into are basketball and baseball.

That said, even though soccer isn’t really that popular in the US, its national team is still doing a lot better than the Chinese team.

For China, it seems soccer has turned out to be the “choke point” in its sports development: though China was ranked No.1 in the gold medal count in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, its national soccer team has remained underperforming over the years.

The only time China was ever able to secure a place in the World Cup was back in 2002, during which it was in the same group as Costa Rica, Turkey and Brazil.

However, even though the entire country was electrified by the country’s World Cup debut, it didn’t stop the Chinese team from losing one match after another: it was defeated by Costa Rica 0:2, by Brazil 0:4 and finally by Turkey 0:3.

At that time many mainland soccer fans found it heartbreaking to see their team sent home without having won a single match or scored a single goal at all.

To be honest, China has everything it takes to become a soccer superpower: the sport is highly popular among the nation’s 1.3-billion-strong population, the largest in the world, not to mention that many Beijing leaders are also big soccer fans.

It is said that former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping used to skip meals to save money in order to buy tickets to soccer games when he was studying in France as a young man.

And according to one of his former bodyguards, Deng didn’t miss a single match on TV during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

The nation’s current leader, Xi Jinping, who is also known to be a huge soccer fan, has been working aggressively to turn China into a soccer superpower. Apparently, the “soccer dream” is an indispensable part of Xi’s “China dream”.

As a matter of fact, 40 years into its economic reforms, China has not only created an economic miracle, but has also witnessed the development of soccer as a national sport at a jaw-dropping pace.

For example, tens of billions of yuan worth of capital has been poured into China’s professional premier league in recent years. And big-name clubs have been eagerly spending tens of millions of dollars importing star foreign players.

Thanks to the huge and continued investments, today the soccer game market in China is both enormous and commercially promising.

Above all, mainland club owners and investors, like their counterparts in the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga, have managed to engage the public and facilitate the growth of the sport with commercial elements.

In my opinion, apart from money and talent, three crucial factors would prove instrumental in China’s bid to build a truly world-class soccer game market, i.e. professionalization, scientification and geneticization.

“Professionalization” refers to the ways in which clubs are organized, coaches are hired, players are selected, the market is promoted, etc, so much so every aspect of the sport has to be managed and run in a highly professional manner.

Meanwhile, “scientification” has mainly to do with the scouting for young soccer talent, the training of elite players and the creation of top-tier clubs.

Last but not least, “geneticization” refers to the establishment of the enthusiasm for soccer as a national tradition among the Chinese people.

For instance, authorities can send young and promising players to get trained or even settle down in countries with strong soccer tradition, places such as Brazil and Germany.

Then, hopefully, by the time their second or third generation kids return to China after 30 or 50 years, these young talent, who have already inherited the “soccer genes” from abroad, might help the country win the World Cup one day.

In the meantime, the Chinese authorities must crack down on rampant corruption, betting scandals and game-fixing in the mainland premier league with an iron fist.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 30

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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