To Become A Soccer Powerhouse, China Needs Patience

Vicky Ge Huang

Sailors from U.S. Navy and People’s Republic of China Navy soccer teams celebrate a game well played after a match that ended in a tie at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on March 9, 1997. (Photo Credit: : Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Lewis, U.S. Navy)

In early April, when a high–level government commission of China released a plan to develop the country into a top‑tier soccer power by 2050, Jihai Sun, the famous 38-­year-­old Chinese soccer player found his phone buzzing with calls and Wechat messages from friends and relatives all day.

They immediately saw it as an opportunity for Sun to contribute his fair share of talent to the Chinese national soccer cause. Sun, who currently plays for Beijing Renhe in China’s top league, has long been impatient to see something like this.

A household name in China, Sun started his soccer career with Dalian Shide in 1995 and became well-­known for becoming one of the first ever Chinese soccer players to play in the English leagues. Sun has always been an ambitious player who wanted nothing more than to be on the national team. But for a long time, he kept not getting selected.

“I remember talking to Guoliang Liu (then the chief coach for the Chinese ping pong team), he said: ‘No matter how well you play in the clubs, you will only be an excellent player; but if you play well for the national team, you will be considered a great player,” recounted Sun during an interview.

Coach Liu’s words especially ring true today as China releases the master plan to revamp Chinese soccer on a local, national and international level. The newly announced mission to make China a soccer powerhouse with great players by 2050 happens to coincide with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) centennial, which also falls in 2050. Athletic achievement is a form of “soft power” through which China and the CCP can exert its influence and solidify its legitimacy. But when it comes to professional soccer, many in the country remain skeptical given the multitude of corruption scandals and lost competitions that have plagued Chinese soccer over the years.

“Soft power is the ability to communicate your way of thinking,” said Vishakha N. Desai. “It is about intent and reception and here is where the problem lies. China puts in effort etc. but it isn’t trusted by the world,” added Desai, Asia scholar and senior advisor for Global Affairs to President Lee C. Bollinger at Columbia University.

Yet external distrust of China’s grand plan to rise as a soccer nation is only a small fraction of the challenge faced by the ruling authorities. The bigger problem lies in the basic structure and management of Chinese soccer itself.

Hai Yu, a 28-­year-­old soccer player who currently plays for Shanghai SIPG in the Chinese Super League, compared his training experience at home with the two years he spent in the Netherlands playing for Eredivisie side Vitesse: “Overseas, players treat soccer as a job where they spend 2 to 3 hours per day playing. The rest of the time belongs to themselves for them to spend freely. Life is life, work is work, which makes soccer more of a profession. In China, it’s more leaning towards collective management and collective living. All the coaches and players almost spend 24 hours together.”

Yu’s words indicate the lack of diversification in the career path of professional soccer players in China, which is also the reason why many parents have been reluctant to send their kids to professional soccer academies. They fear that professional soccer players, having put all their time into the sport, would find it incredibly hard to move ahead or switch careers without abundant financial resources. The possibility of getting injured and ending up with no health insurance or any other benefits is also one of the big concerns, all of which pose obstacles to the released blueprint plan to get 50 million children and adults playing soccer by the end of this decade.

Sometimes even small disappointments can dampen the local enthusiasm for Chinese soccer. Avid 23-­year-­old soccer fan Shanhang Sun, who is pursuing a master of science degree in Management at Imperial College Business School London, remembers the frustration of not being able to use the soccer field at Communication University of China in Beijing when he was an undergraduate student there. “In fact, many schools have soccer fields but they are not open to the general society. During my four years of college, our soccer field was under construction for three years due to the preparation underway for our school’s anniversary celebration. I don’t really understand why it took so long to complete the improvement construction of a soccer field,” said Sun with a sigh.

In the backdrop of the general public’s distrust of China’s soccer prowess, some believe soccer is the key to building trust and uniting people. Jun Wang, Chairman of the Shaanxi Football Association, believes that soccer can unify hearts and minds while serving as a benchmark to assess the activities that people in a particular region participate in. “It also becomes the cradle for people’s faith, which is only second to religion. This helps people vent their frustrations and negative emotions,” said Wang during an interview.

The government’s plan is already a work in progress. Just during the first two months of 2016, Chinese Super League clubs spent $366 million recruiting big-­name soccer players from Europe. “Such player transfers have already elevated the game to the next level, igniting the nation’s enthusiasm for the sport, bringing fans back to stadiums and driving up viewership numbers and increasing interest among parents of young kids,” said a representative from The Gemba Group, an Australian sport entertainment consultants and research agency with a branch in Shanghai.

But to really achieve the goal of hosting the World Cup and ultimately winning the World Cup, China needs to upgrade to top infrastructures, bring up the game level of China’s national teams and cultivate a countywide passion for soccer.

“It will take a lot of time to teach them the tactics and skills of the games. There is no culture of the game here, and this will take a lot of time to build,” said Jerome Mazet, managing director at Mandaray, a Shanghai-­‐‑based agency specialized in sports marketing.