They've got the world's biggest football fan behind them, but China is still bad at the sport. Here's why (2022)

Shuhang Li may be one of China's football team's biggest fans.

But when asked about their recent performanceat World Cup Qualifiers, his smileimmediately vanished and he started to grumble.

"Of course I'm not happy," said the 23-year-old university student, who hasbeen following the team since age 14.

"No football fans — wherever they are from — would accept that their national football team had such a dreadful performance."

On March 30, after losing to Japan 0-2 and Vietnam 1-3,China's national football team was defeated by Oman0-2, ending its run forthe upcoming FIFA World Cup finals.

They've got the world's biggest football fan behind them, but China is still bad at the sport. Here's why (1)

It has been 20 years since China last qualified for the tournament.

In 2002, the team made it to the World Cup finals but was knocked out in the group round after losing all three matches to Turkey, Brazil and Costa Rica.

The awful results this year sparked outrage on Chinese social media.

"We have 1.4 billion people in Chinaand we couldn't find 11 football players that can make the team qualifyfor the World Cup, this is a huge shame,"one personwrote on Weibo.

So what has stopped China, anation that for decadesdominatedsports like badminton and table tennis, from finding the best players to kick a soccer ball?

Xi Jinping's football dream for China

Youmight think the poor performances of China's national team results from the nation's lack of interest in soccer.

They've got the world's biggest football fan behind them, but China is still bad at the sport. Here's why (2)

But in fact, Beijing has madefootball one of its main sporting prioritiesover the past decade.

President Xi Jinping makes no secret of his football obsession.

In 2011, a year before he became president, he told a South Korean politician that he had "three wishes": For China to qualify for the World Cup, to host a tournament and to eventually win the world championship.

Beijing saw the financial potential of China's football market too. Apolicy guideline in 2014 predicted the domestic football market would reach $42 billion by 2025.

The next year,Beijing launched a plan to make football China's national sport, targeted at training good young players for futureWorld Cup tournaments.

The policyrequired all schools to include football in their physical education curricula.

It also aimed to increase the number of schools with football pitches from 5,000 to 50,000 by 2025.

They've got the world's biggest football fan behind them, but China is still bad at the sport. Here's why (3)

And itset targets for increasing women's participation in the game.

The main aim of the plan was to push China's national football team to qualify forthe World Cup.

In 2016, China's Football Association hired Italy's former coach Marcello Romeo Lippi to lead the team to victory.

The reform plan also tried to clean upChina's professional football leagues, which had a long, scandalous history of corruption and gambling.

Dr Qi Peng, a lecturer in sports management and policy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the changes in 2015 havebeen productive in terms of creating more opportunities for young people to develop their skills.

"There was such a big hope and confidence towards football back then," said Dr Peng, who interviewed insiders in the sector for her research.

"[The insiders] believed this wasanother big opportunity for Chinese football todevelop, because thegovernment hadreally prioritised football as the national strategy."

With Beijing's support, investment from China's business giants such as Alibaba flushed the sector with cash.

By 2018, the massive investment paid off.

There were an estimated 187 million football fans in China, and each China Super League team had audiences of 24,000 in their stadiums.

The same year, China's Super League earned $3.34 billion.

How did it go so wrong for China?

After failing to qualify forthe World Cup this year, former captain of the national football team Xiaoting Feng said China would still struggle to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, and maybe even for 2030.

"The youth are not good enough," he said.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports at Emlyon Business School and director at the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry, said there was still a lack of a talent pipeline for Chinese football.

He said even thoughfootball has a huge fan base in China, it's still a "minority interest sport" compared to other sports like badminton, table tennis and basketball.

"Football is the people's game, and some people refer to it as the global game. And the reality is that I think China doesn't play the people's game or play the global game particularly well," he said.

"There are some details within China that really precludes the development of football in the same way as we've seen elsewhere in the world."

They've got the world's biggest football fan behind them, but China is still bad at the sport. Here's why (4)

Professor Chadwick said a sceptical parental attitude still exists toward the idea of children pursuing football as a career.

He said while many parents in the UK might be supportive of a talented child pursuing their soccer dreams, many Chinese parents might reject the idea.

He also said Chinese education does not necessarily teach children the skills they would need on the pitch.

"It's widely acknowledged that great footballers are creative thinkers and very independent people, and they're very good at making personal decisions and personal judgements," said Professor Chadwick.

"So I simply don't think that the Chinese education system is necessarily set up to facilitate the development of the kind of soft skills that successful footballers need to have."

China lures foreign players with huge salaries

To fill the talent pool, Chinese football authorities have tried to lure overseas football players, such as Brazilian footballer Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso, who joined the national team in 2019.

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Chinese commercial football clubs also have traditions of hiring foreign football players with massive salaries.

In 2016, former Chelsea footballer Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Júnior joined a Shanghai football club for$106 million a year.

Professor Chadwick said while there was a peak in hiring foreign players from 2015 to 2018, Chinese authorities have cooled on the idea in recent years.

"I think one of the things that strikes me about Chinese football is the constant intervention by the government, by the state authorities," he said.

"It appears to me that the authorities have learned that the quality or the standard of Chinese football is not going to improve by hiring foreigners."

In 2020, the China Football Association announced a wage cap for foreign footballers at the commercial clubs to $4.41 million a year, much lower than what many were receiving at that time.

Analysts predicted this might discourage foreign footballers from joining Chinese teams.

China throws money at the game

While Chinastill couldn't qualify for the World Cup, the game was a clever way to buy influence.

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At the 2018 Russia World Cup, seven out of 14 official sponsors were Chinese companies. Chinese enterprises spent $1.134 billion on advertising during the event, twice that of US companies.

From property to retail and e-commerce, Chinese corporations also invest in domestic and overseas football clubs.

By 2015, 15 foreign football clubs, including AC Milan, Manchester City and Atlético de Madrid, had received investments from Chinese companies.

Emanuel Leite Jr, a football politics researcher at that University of Aveiro, said the capital investment from Chinese companies to foreign football clubs had helped Beijing develop diplomatic relationships before pushing state-led projects overseas.

"[This is] Chinese globalisation with Chinese characteristics," he said.

"Frommy perspective, football and sports are related to that as well, as a way to open doors and to establish relationships in business."

Is China's football dream over?

But when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, uncertaintyrippled throughthe Chinese football sector as their investors suffered from the financial crisis.

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Last year, China's prominent property developer Evergrande was reported to be on the edge of bankruptcy.

The company was the chieffinancial backer of GuangzhouFC, eight-time champion of China's Super League and a two-time winner of the Asian Cup.

The ailing property giant had also founded the Evergrande Football School for talented teenage players.

Last year, another top football team, JiangsuFC, announced plans to cease operation after its backer, retail giant Suning, said it wouldfocus on its ownbusiness and shut down all other investments.

Chinese media reported that more than half of the country's professional football clubs failed to pay their footballers last year due to financial troubles.

As the 2022 season of Chinese Super League approaches, another top team, Qingdao FC, announced its withdrawal due to a financial crisis.

While Beijing and businesses heavily invested into the male football team, little attention was paid to China's national women's team.

They recently won the Asian Cup after defeating South Korea3-2.

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While cheering for the women's team, loyal football fan Li Shuhang worried that the worst moment for Chinese football was "yet to come".

Hestill hoped to see the Chinese football team appear at the World Cup in 2026.

Football officials have increased the quota for Asian countries to qualify forthe championship, giving China a better shot at glory.

"If the team couldn't make it to the next World Cup, then the team is really helpless," he said.

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