Friday 13th July, 2001. Four candidate cities wait nervously to hear the IOC’s announcement from Moscow. As the news filters through, the date brings no luck for Toronto, Paris or Istanbul. Instead, jubilant scenes of flag waving, fireworks and street parties begin in Beijing, as China’s capital is chosen to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
The joy was understandable. After painfully missing out to Sydney for the right to host the Millennium Games years earlier, China finally had their chance to show the world the dominance that can be achieved with a population of 1.3 billion.
It didn’t take long for satisfaction to be replaced by ambition. And for their first ever Olympics, the Chinese had only one: to top the medal table. Given that the country’s first full Olympic appearance came only 17 years earlier in Los Angeles, their target was a lofty one.But they had time - seven years to be exact - and a government-backed plan. They called it Project 119, and the smell of celebratory sulphur had not long left the air in Beijing’s hutongs before China’s sporting infrastructure was undergoing a complete overhaul.
Project 119 took its name from the number of gold medals that were on offer in events where China had been traditionally weak. Historically dominant in events such as table tennis, badminton, diving and gymnastics, they deduced that to topple the Americans, they were going to need to widen their field of expertise. By the time Athens came round in 2004, China had employed more than 50 foreign coaches as they humbly sought to plug their gaps in proficiency and know-how. Along with recruiting international expertise, the government had financed state-of-the-art complexes all over the country, providing dedicated hubs and intensive training programmes to the Olympians at the forefront of China’s desperate gold rush. With money seemingly no object to this ruthless drive for the top, a country with no previous history in sports such as swimming, rowing, boxing and sailing were, by 2008, ready to field world class entrants in those very events.
That China would succeed in their goal was almost inevitable even before the first athlete had taken their mark. Beijing’s multimillion dollar opening ceremony began with 2,008 drummers in the Bird’s Nest stadium, each banging their bronze Fou drum with such jaw-dropping synchronicity that it provided the world’s first telling insight into a seven-year preparation of military-like precision. “Isn’t it delightful to have friends coming from afar?” recited the drummers, quoting the 2000-year-old Analects of Confucius. But the cordial welcome would last only until the first event; for China had gold medals to win. And win they did, with 51 gold medals in total almost doubling the number accumulated in Sydney eight years earlier. Not only did China achieve their aim of topping the medals table at their own Games, but they did so by a decisive margin; 15 gold medals in front of the USA.
Saturday June 15th, 2013. President Xi Jinping, an avid football fan, is celebrating his 60th birthday by watching his beloved country play in his favourite sport. But instead of putting on a show for their President, China contrive to lose 5-1 at home to a Thailand side largely made up of under-21 players. For China, ranked 95th in the world, to lose to the second string of a side ranked 47 places below them represented a new low even for a team all too often a source of deep national embarrassment. It was a result so shameful that not only did it cost boss Jose Antonio Camacho his job, it prompted post-game riots that saw angry fans clashing with police, with over 100 injured. For President Xi, it was the final straw. Never again would he have a birthday ruined by his football team, as he vowed to make the Chinese national side one his country could be proud of. That night, football’s very own Project 119 began to take shape.
This was no kneejerk reaction from the President. His love for the game, which he played as child growing up in Beijing, was well documented. It was on a visit to South Korea as vice-President in 2011 that he first outlined his bold plans for the game, revealing the three wishes behind his Chinese dream; to host the World Cup, to qualify for the World Cup, and by 2050, to win it. China had only ever once qualified for the tournament, back in 2002, when they finished bottom of their group without a single point from three games. They didn’t even manage a solitary goal. To rub salt in the wounds, the finals were not only superbly hosted by Asian rivals Japan and South Korea, but their respective football teams competed admirably among the world’s best.
For a game so adored in China, with a population so vast, that its team continued to under-perform remained a continual head scratcher. In President Xi, China finally had a leader eager to propose a solution. His reasoning was not entirely philanthropic on the part of the country’s millions of football fans. His great vision for Chinese sport, with football leading the charge, had political motives at its core.
For while a thriving national team and domestic league would give Chinese football fans the respect they’d long craved, it would also provide the President with a positive legacy, boosting his personal ratings as well as the government’s coffers. A domestic sporting economy worth $850bn was the target set for 2025. For Xi to achieve this, he and his government knew that they would be up against a tide of history and cultural norms. The sport in China comprised a dark tale of mismanagement and corruption, while longstanding societal expectations meant generations had prioritised academia over leisure.
But Xi was confident. Backed by his government and with the will of the people, he identified three key areas for reform. Corruption remained public enemy number one. For the Chinese game to have the legitimacy it needed to welcome back corporate sponsors and overseas interest, it had to appear clean and transparent. Match-fixing plagued the Chinese top flight in the 1990s to such an extent that the term “black whistle” was coined to refer to corrupt referees. Even as recently as 2010 two Super League clubs, Guangzhou GPC and Chengdu Blades, were demoted as part of a wide-ranging investigation into match fixing. In 2012 Lu Jun, China’s top referee and a former World Cup official, was sentenced to five years in prison for taking bribes. Since then, President Xi’s crackdown on corruption in all areas of high office has seen dozens of football officials banned for life along with a complete restructure of the Chinese FA, professionalising the organising by separating it from state control.
“The more obvious corruption like match-fixing and bribing players and referees has mostly been stamped out. But it's hard to say it no longer exists at all,” says Cameron Wilson, editor of Wild East Football, a blog dedicated to all things Chinese football.
Stamping out corruption would also help when it came to their second key area of focus; building its domestic league into a fully established, internationally-recognised competition. With an enthusiastic and burgeoning fan base, it was expected that a successful league competition would further fan the flames of Chinese passion for the game. And so far, it’s working. Recent levels of investment in the Chinese Super League has forced the rest of football to sit up and take notice. “Big companies support football teams to gain political capital. By supporting the government's key aims, they gain traction and influence in the corridors of power in Beijing,” says Wilson, explaining why corporate sponsors are returning in their droves to endorse the President’s grand plans and invest large stakes in China’s biggest sides. Take the once disgraced Guangzhou, who after promotion back to the top flight are now 60% owned by Evergrande Real Estate Group, while Alibaba, the country’s largest e-commerce company, purchased the remaining 40% stake in the club for £150m in 2014.
Where the money flows, the big names follow, and the appointment of Marcelo Lippi as manager in 2012 inspired the side to become the first Chinese team in 23 years to win the Asian Champions League. The retired Italian coach is no longer in charge, but the club has since won the trophy for a second time, in 2015, to sit alongside their five consecutive league titles. Luiz Felipe Scolari is the man in the Guangzhou hotseat now, while Sven-Goran Eriksson and Felix Magath are also Super League bosses. Manuel Pellegrini, fresh from his title-winning stint at Manchester City, is the latest high-profile manager to make his way east.
Naturally the players got in on the action too. Mirroring the progress of the MLS, the Chinese league enjoyed initial success attracting well-known players reaching the twilight of their career. The likes of Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Frederic Kanoute and Asamoah Gyan arrived in their advancing years, to varying degrees of success. But while it took the MLS 20 years to finally be able to attract players close to somewhere near their best, it’s taken China just two. The astronomical fees in question - the Chinese league broke its own record four times just this year - has seen the likes of Hulk (£48m to Shanghai), Alex Teixeira (£42.5m to Jiangsu), Jackson Martinez (£35m to Guangzhou), Ramires (£24m to Jiangsu), Gervinho (£15m to Hebei) and Graziano Pelle (£13m to Shandong) all recruited at an age many consider a footballer’s peak. Crucially in most of the above cases, the players turned down rival offers from established European clubs. Teixeira, for example, was widely reported to have opted for China over Liverpool.
With corporate companies following the government’s lead, and big-name coaches and footballers adding prestige to a league growing exponentially, attracting interest from broadcasters was always likely to be the next logical step. In 2015, TV rights for the league were sold for £6m. In 2016, a new five-year deal meant this annual figure rose to £190m. Although it’ll take some catching up to do to match European levels (the Premier League’s TV income for the 2016/17 season was £5.1bn), it still represents a phenomenal 3,000% increase.
Encouragingly for the Chinese Super League, attendances are showing a similar trend for growth. Ten years ago, the average top flight attendance was 10,611. This season will reach an average attendance of nearly 25,000 for the first time, beating last season’s average attendances in Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Holland’s Eredivisie and coming only a couple thousand short of Spain’s La Liga. But while efforts to stamp out football fraud and to provide a facelift for the domestic league would be key in his new drive for soccer success, President Xi knew that the most important factor for his dream to be realised was the third, and most crucial, area of reform: youth participation.
As the most populous nation on the planet, China should boast the largest pool of players from which to select their national team. For several deep-rooted reasons, this has never been the case. But with the help of his education ministers, President Xi believed he’d found a way of making it so…
Wednesday November 12th, 2014. Wang Dengfeng, China’s director of Physical Education, announces that football is to become part of the Chinese school curriculum. Declaring that 20,000 “soccer-focused” schools will be built by 2017, the schools will be tasked with finding 10 full-time players from every 1,000 scholars, giving China a pool of 200,000 potential players. He confidently asks: “as long as we cultivate 100,000 outstanding soccer players, how can our soccer not progress?”
In a country where gatherings of large groups had long been forbidden for fear that they take on a dissenting political motive, it should come as little surprise that China has never boasted a flourishing grassroots culture. But Wang’s statement of intent was followed months later with a detailed 50-point plan to remedy this problem and fill a community vacuum that has prevented keen Chinese youngsters from having the chance to advance their childhood passion into a profession. With grants being offered by the government to encourage schools to get on board, the number of participating schools is expected to rise to 50,000 by 2022. And while this system appears to be similar in concept to the successful collegiate pyramid seen in the USA, the Chinese aren’t putting all their footballs in one net. Private academies are also sprouting up, the most impressive of which sees league champions Guangzhou establishing the largest sporting academy in the world. Comprising 167 acres and over 50 football pitches, it was built in just ten months at the cost of £140m. A giant replica of the World Cup trophy greets its young attendees, reminding them on a daily basis of the heights they are expected to attain. A partnership with the Real Madrid Foundation has allowed Guangzhou to man their complex with 24 Spanish youth coaches in the hope that some tiki-taka magic will rub off on their best prospects.
But while schools, academies and the kids themselves are eager recipients of the government’s new footballing philosophy, there is one group who may yet prove the toughest nut to crack: parents. Like many in China, Wilson remains unconvinced that the centuries-old family dynamic can be altered in the short-term: “There will be an increase in youngsters playing, but it's debatable whether Chinese parents' unhealthy obsession with forcing their kids to spend all their spare time doing homework can be properly overcome.” The Chinese government are attempting to sway its nation of pushy parents by promoting the health benefits of the sport. In a country that owns the unwanted stat of having 62 million obese people - second only to the USA - it is hoped this will work. And if it doesn’t, the draw of academic qualifications remains. Four-year bachelor degrees in football are being offered, with scholarship places ensuring the best prospects are unearthed regardless of their family’s financial wealth.
President Xi’s three-step reforms are therefore well underway, and working almost symbiotically. As corruption drops, the profile of the Super League rises, in turn attracting more Chinese youngsters to the increasingly glamourous domestic game. But as with anything that China dedicates its vast resources to, the effects are felt globally.
Inevitably then, football’s “bamboo revolution” has resulted in Chinese billions spreading west. Fans of Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Aston Villa, Wolves, West Brom and Slavia Prague will know this only too well, as the welcome beneficiaries of new Chinese owners. China’s broadcasters are also investing abroad, and not just with the usual European heavyweights. The Scottish Premiership signed a £500k contract last year with a Chinese digital channel to show 55 games over three years, described by SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster as “a fantastic deal for Scottish football."
Back in February Arsene Wenger proved less enthused, but eerily prescient, when he predicted that China’s resurgence would dramatically impinge on the established leagues in Europe. When asked by journalists if the Premier League should fear the growth of the game in China, he responded: “Yes, of course. Because China looks to have the financial power to move a whole league of Europe to China.”
“We are long enough in this job to know that it’s just a consequence of economic power and they have that. Will they sustain their desire to do it? I don’t know how deep the desire in China is, but if there’s a very strong political desire, we should worry.”
Wenger believed the game’s first £100m player was only round the corner. Six months later, Paul Pogba’s €105m (£89m) transfer to Manchester United moved that scenario ever nearer. So while Europe may be benefiting from an injection of Chinese treasure, a fully mobilised set-up in the Far East also brings with it the risk that Wenger hinted towards. As well as warping the transfer market, a super-strength Super League threatens to hoover up the lucrative and previously untapped Asian market that Premier League and La Liga sides have spent millions (and years) trying to woo. What use a pre-season friendly in Hong Kong if the thousands in attendance turn up wearing the red of Guangzhou Evergrande?
“The Chinese Super League does present a significant problem to clubs hoping to build a fan base in China,” says Wilson.
“Chinese fans will increasingly in the future be more attracted to support their own clubs, and that can only be good for the overall development of the sport in China.”
Of the top ten best followed clubs on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Chinese Super League teams now account for six. The other four are Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona and Arsenal. It’s hardly a scientific study, but with over 260 million active users aged predominantly between 20-35, it does add further weight to the school of thought that Chinese clubs are finally displacing Europe’s biggest clubs in attracting the next generation of fans from their own backyard. Copying a model straight from their Olympic textbook - dedicated academies, unlimited funds, foreign coaches and devoted youngsters - suggests, at least in these early stages, that Chinese football’s very own Project 119 is on the road to success.
But is the model sustainable? Wenger alluded to it requiring continued political desire otherwise the momentum, along with the fortunes, may wane. It’s a theory that rings true even with the previously all-conquering Olympic setup. China followed their stunning Beijing haul of 51 with 38 in London four years later, falling back to second in the table behind the USA. This year in Rio, they dropped to third with 26 golds, a result made even more surprising given Russia’s diluted participation.
China’s golden dip is no freak accident or fluke, but a direct result of a reduced political desire for medals following a public backlash towards their gold-at-all-costs mentality. The case of diver Wu Minxia, whose parents withheld news of the death of her grandparents and also her mother’s breast cancer until after winning gold in London, was one of a number of high-profile cases that forced China into a national debate about their sporting philosophy. "We accepted a long time ago that she doesn't belong entirely to us," Wu’s father told the Chinese press at the time. "I don't even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness."
By the time Rio came along, state broadcaster CCTV reflected China’s new philosophy. In a Weibo post titled “When we are no longer obsessed with gold medals”, it read: "As our attitude matures, and we know how to better appreciate competition, we will be able to openly applaud our rivals to reflect our great country's confidence and tolerance.” The message effectively confirmed that China’s politicians had taken their foot off the pedal, just 15 years after Project 119 was launched.
China’s great football manifesto requires dedicated political backing for at least double that time to achieve its aggressive targets. But with a Presidency limited to only two terms of five years, there’s no guarantee of such stability. And should the political will dissipate, don’t expect the corporate sponsors or state broadcasters to hang around. As Wilson explains: “It is not sustainable at all. There is no guarantee that the money being poured into the game here will not suddenly dry up when it is no longer expedient for the donors to do so.” Given how much political capital President Xi has invested into this dream, not to mention the Chinese cultural notion of saving face, his resolve is unlikely to waver while he remains in charge. Which means the Premier League and its European counterparts should start making other plans, as the Chinese Super League is going nowhere.
For now. As for the national team? Already there are signs of improvement. At the time of writing, China have made it to the third round of World Cup qualifying for 2018, and have risen to 78th in the FIFA rankings, their highest in five years. The new youth initiatives will of course take longer to produce any breakthrough, but the Super League’s current rule of restricting foreign players to five per team (to be reduced to four for the 2018 season) is a commendable policy that should reap short-term rewards for the national side.
So President Xi will be confident of seeing his footballing fantasy one day become reality. For by the time he relinquishes his presidency in 2023, an improving China will have had two attempts to qualify for the World Cup. And, depending on the outcome of Swiss prosecutors’ investigation into the Qatar bid for 2022, China could even be presented with a fast-track route to hosting their first World Cup. And if not, expect a strong bid by the time Asia gets another go in 2030.
As for winning the World Cup by 2050? That will depend on whether Xi Jinping’s successor is quite as comfortable with a ball at his feet. Otherwise it could well be one Chinese dream too far for the boy from Beijing.