As a collective, China is not good at soccer. This is baffling to pretty much everybody outside China for all the requisite reasons. For one, it’s the largest country in the world. But it’s also firmly ensconced in the old world realm of “using sports as a vehicle to heal long-held prejudices through state-guided PR.” The 2008 Beijing Olympics was nothing if not a giant billboard.
A year before Xi Jinping took over the Chinese presidency in 2012, he laid down his “three wishes for Chinese football:” hosting the World Cup, qualifying for the World Cup, and winning the World Cup. When he took over a year after those comments, China’s first “soccer president” was born.
Just this week, Jinping’s vision, simply to be called “The Program,” was released into China like a wild animal. If you can read Chinese, feel free to peruse the general idea here. In lieu of that, the basic gist is fairly straightforward: Chinese soccer isn’t good enough. Chinese soccer will be better. To that end, Chinese soccer will convene a number of conferences to figure out how that happens on short, medium and long term bases.
How far apart is the vision from reality? During one of the most recent of these conferences, nobody said a word for more than 20 minutes. Not. A. Word. When the silence was finally broken, it was a goods manufacturer. After his tepid speech, another five minutes of stone silence.
Jinping’s most tangible, sweeping reform is the institution of a 10-year plan to pull China up to the world’s adult soccer table. This year alone, 6,000 schools and colleges will become “soccer schools,” meaning they’ll add a special soccer training component. He hopes that number to increase to 20,000 within three years. According to Jinping’s vision, that training involves a single person tasked with teaching the students how to play soccer. More specifically:
Specific pedagogic material is to be created for these instructors, in the form of both textbooks and online materials, including 3-D illustrations of various soccer tactics. All students enrolled in such classes would then receive at least one hour of soccer training, either by playing on field or through behind the desk instruction from their coaches.
If it seems idealistic and naive to entrust the soccer training of entire schools and age groups to a single instructor, there’s a reason. From the state’s perspective, though, you have to start somewhere. In this case, it just happens to be the typical Chinese-styled top-down agenda tricking into the cities and villages like a river. Of course, this cuts out nuance and individualized training (to say nothing of the paltry time commitment asked of the players) but we’ll see. Chinese collectivism has produced impressive things before.
It just seems to be taking a strange tack this time around.
China also has a tremendous amount of corruption to deal with at the highest levels, which Jinping is dutifully fighting through the press. If he succeeds in rooting it out, he’d be the first.
The most interesting thing so far, perhaps, is that three early photos of China’s youth training sessions hit the internet this week. All three are bizarre. Of course these are only snapshots, but not one involves a player, you know, using feet. These do, however, look like some pretty fantastic dance moves.
As in many things, China’s soccer program is a sleeping bear. The country’s strong and exponentially growing economy has allowed its billionaires to begin investing in European clubs. In January, Wang Jianlin’s Wanda bought a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid, which signaled the first major Chinese investment in European sports. Other Chinese companies are spreading into the sport’s largest arenas like tendrils, and it’s merely a matter of time before its league sprouts wings. Its corruption issues will curtail growth, but only for so long. International investment typically produces transparency as an outgrowth. China has time.
But whether Jinping’s reforms stick on the national team level are another matter. China’s qualified for exactly one World Cup, in 2002. If you want to read more, I highly suggest Grant Wahl’s piece on Bora Milutinovic from that year. China has the weight of history working against it. Now it’s time to see if its hibernation is drawing to a close.