Earlier this week, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan’s dreams of glory faded as the club exited from the preliminaries of the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, suffering an unforgiving 6-0 defeat against China’s Shandong Luneng FC. Neither the elimination nor the manner of capitulation caused particular disgruntlement among the Indian players or fans, but the result did highlight China’s lofty footballing potential, originating from both a historical and political context.
Football in China is not a recent phenomenon. In the third century BC during the Han dynasty, cuju, or kick-ball, was a leather ball game between two teams on a marked pitch with goals at two ends. Kicking was a key form of propulsion. Emperor Wu Di was both an aficionado and connoisseur, according to historical accounts.
Cuju might have been rudimentary, but China was the cradle of the earliest forms of football. China’s early settled cities and social hierarchies allowed for a framework wherein spontaneous play became organised and institutionalised. Yet the historical importance of the Chinese for football never translated into much in today’s global game.
For years, football has been a synonym for abject failure in China. Serbian coach Bora Milutinović, a doyen of international football, guided China’s team to the 2002 World Cup, but Lóngzhī Duì ,or Team Dragon, finished bottom of Group C with a goal difference of -9 after matches against Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica. Chinese clubs also failed to make much of an impact internationally.
Xi Jinping embraces the beautiful game
Then came President Xi Jinping and, with him, an insatiable desire to propel China onto football’s world stage. The president is a self-declared football fan – of the Manchester United inclination. In 1983, he attended a friendly between China and Watford in Shanghai. The London club’s comfortable 5-1 victory must have been traumatic for Xi: in 2011 he proposed a goal-orientated vision for his country. The Chinese president listed three ambitions, all football-related: to qualify for the World Cup, to host international football’s biggest jamboree and, ultimately, to win it.
Those Greek dreams speak of a larger narrative of Chinese nation-building. As an editorial in China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper pointed out:
“Dreams have power, and the constant jarring reality of Chinese football threatens nothing less than the Chinese ability to dream of a more powerful nation.”
Football is a reflection of the president’s profound insecurities that, notwithstanding the republic’s great strides forward, China remains a B-list power, shunned for its many peculiarities and deemed unfit to join an elite club of countries that matter.
For Xi, football is a soft-power tool to mitigate the nagging fear that China’s quest for hegemony might never materialise, but rather fizzle out and be absorbed by the open and integrated global order. Football is required by the Chinese administration to rule with more legitimacy, for increased geopolitical standing and projection of power, according to Xu Guoqi, a Harvard-educated historian at the University of Hong Kong.
Football neatly fits in to the everyman image Xi has been cultivating since he became president in 2012. Yet Xi’s self-proclaimed football love is more than just hoopla.
A rapid resurgence
Chinese club football is improving drastically with Guangzhou Evergrande a prime exponent. They won the Chinese Super League or CSL five consecutive times and rose steadily to become a continental powerhouse, winning the AFC Champions League under Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Club World Cup was still a step too far as they failed to muster any pugnacity in the semi-finals against FC Barcelona’s triangulated game and Luis Suarez’s goal-poaching instincts.
In the January transfer window, Guangzhou signed Colombian midfielder Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid for £31.5 million, 2016’s highest fee. Ramires, Elkeson and Gervinho also completed high-profile moves to inject the CSL with star ethos and quality. At this rate, China will become the biggest non-European league, overtaking the Major League Soccer, with healthy average attendances of 22,000 and a television rights deal package worth £850 million over the next five seasons.
The CSL may form the basis for a stronger national team, together with a grassroots level movement. By 2017, about 20,000 football-themed schools will be opened with the aim of educating and producing more than 100,000 players. They might be part of a future generation of Chinese star players. Mohun Bagan and the rest of the football world may want to take note: China’s footballing power is not to be taken lightly.