You almost never see this in China. Tens of thousands of people expressing raw emotions in public. Chinese people love football, or soccer if you’re American, but in this story we’re going to call it football. It’s the second most popular sport in China, just after basketball.
But it’s also a constant source of pain and humiliation, Because Chinese men’s football really sucks. The Chinese men’s national team wallows in the 72nd position, in FIFA world rankings. But China is trying to change that, read more on this website.
Since 2014 the government has started a massive campaign adding tens of thousands of new football schools and fields, and pouring money into developing a football culture. The goal is to bring football to every corner of the society, from big cities to small towns. But the effort is about much more than football.
It’s about how China sees itself, and how the world sees it. I’m Isabelle Niu. This is Quartz. Please subscribe to our channel.
This is what China’s plan for football domination looks like. Benny Huang started this football academy for kids about three years ago. Football schools like Benny’s have been popping up everywhere in China in recent years. The thinking is that if enough kids can be encouraged to play eventually China will have a strong national team. This is the first generation groomed to be the future of Chinese football. But China’s love for football goes way back.
It was a football power in the 1920s. Mao Zedong was a goalkeeper in college and Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader in the 80s, reportedly played as a winger. And it’s not just these two.
Every generation of Chinese communist leaders since Mao has tried to use football as a way of nation building and earning international respect. But none have succeeded. Enter Xi Jinping. Xi told the world that he dreams of China one day qualifying for, hosting, and winning a World Cup. And in 2014, the government released a series of policy papers that spelled out three deadlines to achieve his football dreams.
By 2020, China wants to see 300 million children regularly playing football. To do that, the government will put mandatory football programs in 20,000 elementary and middle schools. By 2030, China wants its men’s national team to be as good as Japan and Korea. By 2050, China wants to be recognized as a world class football power. The first deadline is coming up.
This elementary school in Beijing is one of the 20,000 schools where football is now mandatory. Students train three to four times a week and the top players get funneled into professional football clubs. There’s something distinctly Chinese about this approach to popularize football.
Instead of making football seem more fun, they’re making kids do it in school. Khalid Bakri became a coach at this elementary school, after retiring from pro football in Sudan. – My football started from the neighborhood.
Just bring a ball we have a few kids who go out and play. In China it’s different. From the morning to the afternoon all the kids they are in school. So you need to have these coaches inside the school to inspire more Chinese children to come and play football. In the past three years, the central government has spent more than 94 million dollars on just the campus football programs alone.
It also plans to build 70,000 new pitches and train hundreds of thousands of new coaches by the first deadline. That’s a lot of money to spend on a national pride project, unless it’s about more than that. I called up political scientist Jonathan Sullivan. He’s writing a book about Chinese football. Football is a great way to unlock middle class consumption, which fits into China’s overall economic goals. In 2016, the total football-related revenue in China was 18 billion dollars.
It’s also a great opportunity for Chinese commercial interests to invest abroad. A large influx of Chinese money entered the European football market in recent years. At one point in 2017, the China Super League surpassed the UK’s Premier League as the world’s biggest spending league.
The massive enthusiasm for football also comes with risks for the Chinese leadership. A poorly performing national team can become a reminder of all the problems with the government in general — the corruption, lack of transparency, and the deep insecurities that China will always be seen as an inferior power. And when the national team suffers an especially embarrassing loss, the response can be even more extreme. This video of angry Chinese fans rioting went viral after a mostly junior team from Thailand destroyed the Chinese national team in 2013. And the same thing happened again, after China suffered a surprise loss to Syria in 2016.
Hundreds of fans took to the streets demanding the top football official resign. But for the party those risks are worth it. Because the potential upsides of a strong national team are huge. Just ask anyone who is alive and in China in 2002, when the team qualified for the World Cup, for the first and only time. This is a documentary the state TV made for the 10th anniversary of China qualifying for the World Cup.
This is what people looked like that day. And that was just for qualifying. Then the team lost all three of their games and scored zero times. But no Chinese football fan will ever forget that moment. Xi Jinping has coined a term to describe what China wants. He calls it the Chinese Dream, a growing economy, respect from the world, and a strong national identity.
And the project to become a football powerhouse isn’t just a metaphor for that, it’s also a big part of the plan. These tens of thousands of men and women aren’t just cheering for their local team. They’re participants in a massive project to shape the future of China. So, are you ready to support a Chinese football club? Let us know who you’re rooting for in the comments. And subscribe to our channel for more videos like this one.