Why China Is Set to Become the World’s Next Football Superpower

Just in case you were somehow unaware, we’re entering a new era of football and China are ushering it in. China has its heart set on football and are not just looking to become a major player in the game but are aiming for global football dominance. This change in sporting focus all stems from the ambition and vision of one man, President Xi Jinping. The Chinese president is a Manchester United fanatic and has professed his passion for the sport on several occasions. Through his governance, he has persuaded multiple Chinese investors & corporations to inject funds into the sport. In an ideal world, this seems like the perfect combination for the development of a sport: government backing, capital and an abundance of people.

In light of Hulk’s earth shattering £45,000,000 million move to Shanghai SIPG, Chinese football has been put on the map. The 29-year-old is now the joint-second highest paid player in the world alongside Lionel Messi. The Brazilian joins the growing number of known footballers who are swapping the European scene for greener Chinese pastures. Ezequiel Lavezzi, Ramires, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Robinho, Pelle, Papisse Cisse, Paulinho, Gervinho, Asamoah Gyan, Demba Ba have all officially made the transition. It’s not just players who are making the switch, a number of internationally respected coaches like Marcello Lippi, Sven Goran-Eriksson and Felipe Scolari have all followed suit. An incredible 13 out of the 16 Chinese Super League (CSL) managers are foreign. Chinese clubs have spent more than £200m on transfers in this year alone. The money is clearly there but what direction is the President going in?

President Xi Jinping

President Jinping came into power in 2012 and has marked football as one of the key sectors for growth. Jinping has made football a priority, a top priority. China is currently 81st in the FIFA World Rankings, embarrassingly behind the likes of the Cape Verde Islands, South Korea, Panama, Saudi Arabia & Finland. The president wants to rectify this and wants them to qualify for the World Cup; the only previous time they did so was in 2002. After qualifying for the tournament, the president also wants the nation to host it in 2030 and eventually to win it one day. Over the next decade, Jinping plans to invest a quoted $850 billion into football to specifically improve ‘soccer infrastructure’ (e.g. pitches, media).

All these desires have been translated into legislation through his recently announced 50-point plan, where he tackles all aspects of footballing growth. The plan is to implement football in China through cultural reformation and education of the youth. Football is set to be adopted as a compulsory part of the national curriculum within schools across the country. The Manchester United fan wants to ensure the roots of the population are fully engulfed in football before he leaves office.

Youth Development

By the end of this calendar year, Jinping wants to have two million children from 5000 schools competing in a compulsory three hours of game time a week. The aim is to have 50,000 schools participating in the scheme by 2025. Schools who enroll on the scheme will receive government grants for multiple departments. From a cultural perspective, the president wants parents to view sporting ability equally as important as educational attainment. Footballing education in schools is the key for China to nurture homegrown talent from the ages of six and above. There are 100 million children under the age of six in China, so much potential talent is there to be developed.

Football in 21st Century China

Chinese domestic football has been plagued in the past with corruption and match-fixing allegations, causing the sport’s major sponsors to pull out and distance themselves from the sport. The drop out of sponsors meant games received less TV coverage and therefore minimal public interest. Football was seen as an avenue for corrupt businessmen to exploit, so the government restricted crowd gatherings and literally suffocated the sport. Fast-forward a decade and football is the focal point of a proposed $550bn Chinese ‘sports economy.’

The mix of foreign player arrivals and the government’s zoomed in focus on football has led to the sport’s domestic revival. Top CSL clubs like Evergrande and Beijing Guoan are now attracting weekly crowds of 40,000. Despite the seismic influx of foreign players (limited to five international players per club), China is making great strides to develop its own talent. The CSL recently formed a distribution partnership with the Portuguese Football Association, which now has 29 registered Chinese players to date.

China will continue to send some of their players abroad as part of a wider strategy for global dominance. Ledman, a Chinese LED product producer & sports resources operating company, has now become the titled sponsor of the Portuguese 2nd division, now named the Ledman Ligapro. Only Chinese youngsters are allowed to play football in Europe, not the best players. Jinping has instructed clubs not to sell their best Chinese natives as they look to build a dynasty.

Broadcasting Rights & Investments

Li Ruigang, a leading Chinese tycoon, last year bought a lot of CSL broadcasting rights and has recently been able to resell a portion of them for a profit. This is a testament to the growing demand for Chinese domestic football also reflected by recent viewership figures. Aside from the domestic league, only two Premier League matches a weekend are shown free to air on the China Central Television, which has a network reach of 320 million homes.

With an ever-growing interest in football, television channels have started to buy the rights to other smaller leagues across the world as well as the CSL & PL to draw up interest from the wider public. The Scottish Premier League recently secured a £500,000 a year sponsorship deal with LeTV Sports, an online streaming service. Foreign leagues and clubs know the value of expanding their brands in China; it is an untapped market with an abundance of commercial potential. Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have all toured China over the past few years. As long as there is a public demand for the sport, money is there to be made.

With China currently home to 1.3bn people and with 20% of the population now identifying as football fans, China is a goldmine for potential football expansion. Jorge Mendes, the super agent of football, has the described the country as “the most promising market in the world.” Chinese businessmen have purchased stakes in European clubs such as AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Wolves and SK Slavia Prague for their financial worth but also for what China can learn from their day-to-day operations. Chinese investors have also recently purchased French 2nd division club Sochaux and Eredivisie club Den Haag. Investors are being encouraged to pump money into “building networks of coaching academies and facilities.” These businessmen are spending a colossal amount of money on the development of China’s football brand through the President’s conviction.

Think of this: Graziano Pelle, the Southampton striker of last year, is now the fifth-highest paid player in the world; just let that marinate.

The Future?

If the government can sustain public interest in football, then there’s no reason as to why the sport can’t continue to grow, but officials must ensure the process is sustainable. The populous nature of the country means by probability if China can enroll as many kids as possible there’s a strong chance they will produce some world-class young players. The president wants to see at least 50 million citizens playing football up and down the country by 2020. Never has a nation seen such forefront backing from the reigning political establishment. Jinping has the undivided loyalty of every club owner in CSL, and they all share his vision. If the most powerful man in China is a football fan, then surely there’s no way it can fail? China has money, ambitious goals and a population to match. Brace yourselves.