On Monday March 16 China’s State Council (the Cabinet) released a plan to raise the stature of the country’s national soccer team. The move is not surprising; as a rising world power China is looking to raise its performance in all international arenas, among which football is a very visible component. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games China won more medals than any other country, but their national soccer team has been a perennial underachiever. The New York Times notes that China’s men’s national team is currently ranked 83rd in the world—behind Guatemala and Honduras—while their woman’s team is ranked 13th (even this is a drop from their top 10 ranking a decade ago).
It is clear that soccer in China is falling behind other sports, and that is just what president Xi Jinping’s plan is looking to remedy by “separating the country’s soccer association from the national sports administration, to give it more autonomy.” The plan hopes to “[bring] the men’s national team to the forefront in Asia, and [return] the women’s team to the top ranks in the world” by eventually hosting a World Cup. Additionally, the plan looks to bring the level of the country’s top soccer league—the Superleague—on par with other top Asian leagues by, among other things, expanding soccer education at schools and universities. Currently there are 5,000 elementary and middle schools that provide soccer coaching, this number is forecast to reach 20,000 by 2020 and 50,000 by 2025.
While the plan is ambitious, it is nothing new. Robin Jones’ article “Football in the People’s Republic of China”, published in the 2004 volume Football Goes East: Business, Culture, and the People’s Game in China, Japan, and South Korea (Ed. Wolfram Manzenreiter and John Horne, Routledge: New York (2004), outlined the difficulties of integrating football into the educational system in a country of 1.2 billion people, many of which live in cities with very few football pitches. Indeed, 11 years on, it seems as if football has not been made part of the educational system with any degree of success. Indeed Johan van de Ven, writing for the Chinese football blog Wild East Football, notes the failure of previous attempts to reform Chinese football’s standing in his article:
“This is not the first time that a wave of promise has swept over Chinese football. 2002 marked China’s maiden World Cup Finals appearance, the China Schools Football program got underway in 2009, and in 2011 Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin committed 480 million RMB to the CSL in sponsorship funding. But these were all false dawns. Now, Guangzhou Evergrande has opened an academy with capacity for 2,300. Evergrande is perhaps a special case: it has abundant financing, including the 1.2 billion RMB invested by Alibaba’s Jack Ma in June 2014, and has also come to be seen as a launchpad for talent to be guided into the national team set-up. If proposed reforms are implemented, it would not stand alone as China’s foremost developer of both grassroots and professional talent. In both the short and long-term, Chinese football could be set for a significantly rosier future.”
For me the fascinating part of China’s Great (Football) Leap Forward lies in its similarity to that other final frontier of football—the United States of America. Two weeks ago the US top flight, Major League Soccer, kicked off its twentieth season. Most commentators agree that football in the US has come a long way. A glance at attendance figures will support this: While the average attendance for 160 games was 17,406 (with a high average of 28,916 for the Los Angelese Galaxy) with total league wide attendance of 2,785,001 in the league’s inaugural season in 1996, figures started falling in subsequent seasons. The average attendance fell by almost 4,000 to a historic low of just 13,756 in 2000, while the high average fell to a historic low of 17,696 (A drop of more than 10,000 from the 1996 figure) for the Columbus Crew in 1999. The league contacted two Florida franchises—the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion—in 2001, leading many to fear for the league’s health, as they faced a historic low in league wide attendance of just 2,215,019 in the 2002 season. It took the league nine years to better the inaugural season’s figure for total attendance (2,900,716 in 2005), and a full fifteen years to better the inaugural season’s mark for average attendance—17,872 for 306 games in 2011. The 2014 season saw league records in both league wide attendance (6,185,773) and average attendance figures (19,151 in 323 games), while the average high attendance was a healthy 43,734 a game for the Seattle Sounders (their 2013 average is still the league record, 44,038).
China’s first professional league was the Jia-A League, founded two years before MLS in 1994. It ran until 2004, when the Chinese Super League was formed with 12 teams. The rebranding in many ways stemmed from corruption in the old Jia A League—2003 champions Shanghai Shenhua were stripped of their title while 25 former and current football officials, referees, and players where banned in 2003 as a result of the match fixing investigations. A look at attendances in the current Super League, however, shows trends similar to MLS. The old Jia-A League’s best year, in terms of total attendance, was 1998 with a figure of 3,883,000 in 182 matches. The best year in terms of average attendance was 1996, which 24,266 fans attending 132 matches. In 2003, the Jia-A League’s final season, the average attendance was 17,710 with a total attendance for the season’s 210 matches of 3,719,700. Despite these strong figures the perception of corruption plagued the first years of the re-branded Super League, and only 1,430,600 fans attended the 132 games of the 2004 season, with an average of only 10,838. Figures have been rising steadily over the last ten years, however, and the 2014 season saw a total attendance of 4,556,520 over 240 matches (the highest ever, due in some part to the increased number of matches) and an average of 18,986—the highest since the Jia-A League’s 2000 season and only 165 less than the MLS figure for the same season.
Clearly a stable domestic league is being viewed as a prerequisite for a sustained challenge from the Chinese national team in world football, and this was always the rationale for MLS in the United States. Following last summer’s World Cup we saw that strategy pay off; the United States is more than capable of producing a respectable product on the world’s biggest stage.
Meanwhile on the business (and football shirt) side of things, there are other interesting connections between the interdependent economies of these two world powers. The hold of American sportswear giants Nike on Chinese football is strong. They signed a 10 year 16 million dollar/year deal with the Chinese FA to be the exclusive outfitter for the country’s national soccer team, just in time for the government’s new soccer plan. Nike is also in the midst of a 10 year 200 million dollar deal to be the exclusive kit provider for all Chinese Superleague teams. Interestingly, no such deal exists in MLS—it is Germany’s Adidas who act as the exclusive kit providers for the United States’ top league.
It is in the context of a world of global modern football—filled with multi-million dollar kit deals and “Superleagues” filled with superstars—that I believe Chinese football will succeed in their “great leap forward”. Due to the power that financial interests have in modern football I find it hard to believe that the large market of both potential players and (possibly more importantly) potential consumers that China represents can be ignored for too much longer. While I do not expect China to challenge for a World Cup title any time soon—the country is simply too vast for the economic improvements to trickle down equitably—I do expect them to put out a product able to compete on a high level regularly in their region.