"Almost everyone from China is at the World Cup,” mused a well-known Chinese journalist Bai Yansong this week. “Well, except the national team.”
It certainly feels that way in Beijing, a football-crazy city where all eyes are on Russia. Beijingers – like most of their compatriots – are passionate about football, and every week, around 30,000 die-hard fans pour into the Workers’ Stadium to watch local club Beijing Guoan. There isn’t a bar in Beijing that isn’t screening the World Cup every night, even if it means staying open till 4am.
Despite only ever qualifying for the World Cup in 2002, China is making itself felt in Russia in many ways.
Some 40,000 Chinese fans are in Russia, while some of the tournament’s biggest sponsors are Chinese companies, from the Wanda conglomerate to consumer electronics firm Hisense, which spent millions of dollars to have their logos broadcast worldwide (and perhaps more importantly, beamed back home to the huge number of viewers tuning in China).
The problem for these fans is the pitiful state of the national team, which is ranked 75th in the world. There is, however, rising optimism about a change in fortunes, with the boom of the Chinese Super League in the past few years.
Guangzhou Evergrande winning the Asian AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015 — the first Chinese club to win it twice — was seen as reflecting the growing muscle of Chinese clubs, which have started signing top stars on the bank of the money pouring into the league.
This even prompted former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson to say he thinks China would become a football “superpower” and make it to a World Cup semi-final in 15 years.
A rather rash prediction perhaps, but that is also the ambition of President Xi Jinping, a self-confessed football fanatic who, in a rare candid moment during an official visit to England, posed for a selfie with Manchester City and Argentina forward Sergio Aguero.
Xi has publicly announced “three World Cup dreams”: “qualifying for the World Cup, hosting the World Cup, and winning a World Cup”.
Of these, hosting the World Cup is the first — and most realistic ambition — and China is already laying the infrastructure with top-class stadia across the country, now being used for both CSL matches and high-profile international friendlies between top European clubs.
As a paper by the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in April pointed out, Xi’s aim is to clean up football and “eradicate the deviant activities of match-fixing, gambling and gang manipulation, which have plagued Chinese professional football since its foundation.”
There is also a concrete policy to start at the grassroots, and have “85,000 on-campus football fields by 2020 and 50,000 football-featured schools by 2025.”
Unlike cricket in India, there isn’t a dominant rival that poses an obstacle to the popularisation of football, which perhaps shares the space for the most popular sport among young Chinese fans, along with basketball. All that’s missing is for the national team to punch its weight, and for many in China, that can’t come soon enough.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)