Chinese Firms Are at the World Cup, but Not Chinese Fans (2022)

As the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 tournament kicks off, China is once again notable by its absence. Team China failed to qualify for the 22nd World Cup, extending its absence to 20 years since its sole appearance at the Japanese and South Korean co-hosted edition, when the team was knocked out in the group stage, losing all three games and failing to score a goal.

But even without China on the pitch, the country’s soft-power push continues on the sidelines.

The showpiece will be held in the China Railway International Group-built Lusail Stadium, which appears on Qatar’s new 10-riyal bank note, and Chinese fans will be among the crowd: FIFA announced before the tournament that between 5,000 and 7,000 tickets had been sold to Chinese nationals. Beijing has sent two pandas—Jing Jing and Si Hai, renamed Suhail and Soraya for the occasion—to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to receive Chinese giant pandas, while Chinese companies Hisense, Mengniu Dairy, Vivo, and Wanda are among the World Cup sponsors.

As the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 tournament kicks off, China is once again notable by its absence. Team China failed to qualify for the 22nd World Cup, extending its absence to 20 years since its sole appearance at the Japanese and South Korean co-hosted edition, when the team was knocked out in the group stage, losing all three games and failing to score a goal.

But even without China on the pitch, the country’s soft-power push continues on the sidelines.

The showpiece will be held in the China Railway International Group-built Lusail Stadium, which appears on Qatar’s new 10-riyal bank note, and Chinese fans will be among the crowd: FIFA announced before the tournament that between 5,000 and 7,000 tickets had been sold to Chinese nationals. Beijing has sent two pandas—Jing Jing and Si Hai, renamed Suhail and Soraya for the occasion—to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to receive Chinese giant pandas, while Chinese companies Hisense, Mengniu Dairy, Vivo, and Wanda are among the World Cup sponsors.

But while Chinese power might be present, Chinese fans mostly aren’t. Ticket sales would have been higher, but China’s zero-COVID policy has restricted travel, limiting most of the country’s soccer fans to viewing the event on television. A prominent advertisement pitchside from Hisense says in Chinese, “China first, the world second.” It’s probably intended to refer to sales rankings—No. 1 in China, No. 2 in the world—but it carries an unfortunate message in the COVID-19 era.

“I think the World Cup will kind of add to the sense of otherness, the sense of isolation that China has put itself in,” says Cameron Wilson, founding editor of the Wild East Football website.

“It’s shut itself to the world because of the pandemic. To all intents and purposes, it’s closed, and with the World Cup, basically the biggest party in the world, China’s not there again. From an international point of view, that’s quite poignant,” he adds.

“We’re not going to see all these stories about there being loads of Chinese fans but China not being there. Most Chinese people can’t travel.”

For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA sold 40,000 tickets to Chinese fans, while Chinese media reported 60,000 had traveled there. According to Russian figures, about 100,000 visitors came from China during the tournament.

“I think the World Cup is poorer for that. I think it was good that Chinese people got to share the party atmosphere with other people from around the world. I think that’s something that is badly needed now, but it’s not going to happen to the same extent as it has in the past,” Wilson says.

Make no mistake, China wanted to be at this World Cup—the first full qualifying campaign since the country’s great shift toward its goal of becoming a “world football superpower” by 2050. It gave itself every chance to qualify, pursuing a controversial naturalization policy that saw several Brazilians represent China and also pausing the Chinese Super League (CSL) to allow for national training camps.

Qualification hopes ended with a 3-1 defeat to Vietnam in February, which netizens branded a national embarrassment. It was the first time China had ever lost to its Southeast Asian neighbors, and Li Xiaopeng, China’s fourth head coach of the qualifying campaign, apologized afterward.

If anything, Chinese soccer has gone backward since the 2018 World Cup.

Only two players from CSL clubs (South Korea’s Son Jun-ho who plays for Shandong Taishan and Cameroonian striker Christian Bassogog of Shanghai Shenhua) will be in Qatar, down from nine in Russia—a clear indication of how progress has stalled.

The CSL has seen an exodus of foreign talent, which started even before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Some CSL players at the 2018 World Cup were among the influx of star names that followed the flow of investment into Chinese soccer that began in 2016.

“Over the last five or so years, we’ve seen really the boom of Chinese football and everything surrounding Chinese football, in 2016, 2017, and maybe even 2018, with a huge rise in soccer and the Chinese Super League and the money,” says China sports observer Mark Dreyer.

“Then very quickly, we have unfortunately seen the bust as well, with teams including Super League teams, not just lower-division teams, going bankrupt, which is on an unthinkable level compared with other footballing countries, the numbers of teams that have gone out of business in such a short space of time.”

Champion Jiangsu Suning, bankrolled by the eponymous e-commerce giant, folded just months after winning the 2020 CSL title over its owner’s financial struggles, while Tianjin Quanjian had already disappeared, with owner Quanjian embroiled in accusations of a pyramid scheme.

Just this month, it was reported that Hebei FC may be the next CSL team to withdraw amid financial woes that have seen players complain of not getting paid.

Even before COVID-19, money was beginning to drop out of the game, and club owners such as Evergrande Group have seen their pockets hit.

“There is no longer the same political priority that we saw in 2015 onwards. Yes, [President] Xi Jinping is known to be a football fan, but we haven’t heard him even mention football for as long as I can remember,” Dreyer says.

Teams that had been backed by local governments and major real estate companies, as well as state-owned enterprises, “suddenly no longer have that support,” he says, “because it’s not seen as being a political priority, and so there is no political benefit to supporting and propping up a football team.”

“So then you pull out that money, and what you’re left with is a failing business, and that’s why a lot of these clubs have gone under.”

To make matters worse, CSL games have been played almost exclusively behind closed doors since 2020, with only a handful of games open to a limited number of fans. Teams and officials have largely been confined to bubbles to allow truncated seasons to be completed. Some players have left over these conditions, while FIFPro, the global players organization, has warned against signing for Chinese clubs.

“Unfortunately, football in China is really moribund. It’s hard to describe without using clichés. I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but it is definitely in deep hibernation,” Wilson says.

“There’s no football league in the world which can survive three seasons without fans in the home stadiums without making significant long-term damage for progress for the game, without progress for the CSL. The sad thing is that this does not look like it will change,” he says.

“The league next year is not going to be very exciting, if [it’s] there at all. It’s just so hard for people to keep up with it. Football without fans is nothing. It’s not a cliché—it’s true.”

Wilson also says it will be interesting to see how Chinese fans will react to “seeing the rest of the world partying—in the stadiums with no masks, no COVID, everyone having a good time.”

“They are going to be sitting there wondering not only, ‘Why can’t we be there?’ but ‘Why can’t we watch football in stadiums like people can everywhere else in the world?’”

Outside of soccer, though, China’s quest for soft power through sport continues apace. It sent its largest athlete delegation outside of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to last year’s Games in Tokyo, where China finished second to the United States in the total medal count, and then Beijing hosted this year’s Winter Olympics. In 2018, Beijing announced it would build a $813 billion sports industry by 2025, while in September 2019, the State Council announced its “Outline for Building a Leading Sports Nation,” with a target date of 2050. Soccer remains at the heart of that.

“The progress in popular big events such as soccer is the top concern of not just the general public but also the country’s top leadership, so to build the country into a sporting power, we have to improve levels in these events,” Li Jianming, a deputy director of the General Administration of Sport, told media at the time.

“To host the World Cup and one day become a winner stays in line with our ambition to build world-leading sporting prowess outlined in the plan,” Li added.

Before that, though, China needs to qualify.

Could that be at the expanded 2026 tournament in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, where Asia will have more places?

“Even then, it’s far from certain,” Dreyer says. He believes China “has a lot to do to course-correct” and be in contention to qualify.

“There is no excuse for China not being one of the top teams in Asia, but right now they are miles away from that.”

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