This week, a small city in England has taken over headlines thanks to its football team. The tale of Leicester City FC’s unlikeliest of Premier League triumphs illustrates both the reach of football and the appetite the public has for an underdog story. It is this same global impression and response that China hopes to recreate by gracing the highest echelons of the football world.
In the last month, China has revealed its master plan to become a footballing juggernaut by 2050, further reinforcing their commitment to the sport. This follows up the recent waves China made in the world of football during the last transfer period, with more money being spent on player transfers by clubs in the Chinese Super League than any other league in the world. This includes the transfers of established names in football, who previously would have never entertained the idea of moving to China to ply their trade. The potential investment is enormous, with hopes that the industry will be worth $850 billion by 2025. These moves raise two main questions: why the interest in football and could China successfully become a football superpower?
Investments are generally intended to produce an economic return; however, football is far from a guaranteed moneymaker. Even most of the English Premier League clubs, among the richest in the world, are indebted, with only a handful being consistently profitable. The new Chinese Super League TV deal for 2016-2020 does total more than $1 billion, which is a big jump compared to before, but the majority of investors are unlikely see a return for a long time, if ever. In a period where there is never-ending talk of the slowing Chinese economy, why would the country invest so much in an industry that might never make a return? The official line from the party is that they expect to create a significant domestic sports economy and create jobs while diversifying their economy. This is a reasonable goal, but there is likely more to it.
Football could provide a vehicle to improve China’s soft power and succeed where previous attempts have struggled. The beautiful game is the most popular and most watched sport in the world; the World Cup held in Brazil in 2014 produced more than 3 billion viewers, while the English Premier League is watched by 4 billion. These numbers illustrate the staggering potential reach of the sport. There are two standout advantages football has over other mediums of soft power for China. One is football’s global resonance and accessibility. Mandarin is notoriously difficult to pick up for foreigners, so reaching non-Chinese speakers is often difficult. Football, on the other hand, is a “universal language” transcending communication and cultural barriers. Another plus is that relative to the arts or education, there is less opportunity for the product to be diminished due to interference from the state as football does not actively communicate a message beyond the realm of sport. This would help shield China from the accusations of propaganda that usually badger China’s best efforts to improve its international appeal.
Chinese authorities can draw confidence from previous successes in using sport to shape global perceptions of their nation. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 successfully showcased the strength of the country, dispelling any notions that China remained an undeveloped nation. Elsewhere, Yao Ming, former NBA All Star, is a respected and recognizable figure, particularly in the United States. He has been involved in a variety of global events and movements since his retirement, taking on an unofficial ambassadorial role for basketball as well as his country.
Getting China’s football standing to the point where it could manifest into some form of soft power will be a difficult process. The stated long-term goals are hosting and eventually winning the World Cup; lofty ambitions indeed for a country that is currently ranked 81st by FIFA and has only qualified for the World Cup Finals once. Two factors China does have in its favor are political will and domestic support. President Xi Jinping has not hidden his personal admiration for the sport, so much so that he has introduced a 50-point plan to improve the state of football in the country. Political will is often key to the success of almost any industry in China, as a significant amount of investment is state-led. Xi’s personal interest gives football a chance to prosper. These chances are boosted further by the appetite for the game that the Chinese population possess. Involvement in the game, from watching on TV to playing on the pitch, is growing by the day while the people continually crave a national team that they can be proud of.
Xi’s dream is hardly unique, however, other countries have also attempted to challenge football’s big boys. The United States has made the most headway but despite the resources invested, the American league (MLS) is seen as a semi-retirement home for top players whose careers have already peaked, and the national team is still far from elite level. The Chinese league will face a similar uphill battle to improve its image and attract a large number of top players. The difference so far between the United States and China’s experiences of attracting foreign talent is that China has recently acquired a handful of quality players seen to be at the peak of their careers. The catch-22 here is that those players are commonly labeled “mercenaries” who are throwing away their prime years for higher pay packets, as motivations within football are unique to the nuanced traditions and emotions of the game. This perception will take time — and ironically a lot more money — to change, but as Leicester City proved, shrewd management and a strong motivation can also go a long way.
There is a second major caveat to China’s pursuit of soft power via football other than the huge gap that exists between China and the established nations. It is that sport is by no means an infallible vehicle for soft power. Qatar is currently facing a PR nightmare thanks to the numerous scandals surrounding its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup; a prime example of how sporting pursuits can backfire. The popularity and significance of large scale sports events brings with it an increasing scrutiny from both the awarding body and the global population. China will be wary of bringing unwanted international pressure to areas such as domestic human rights issues.
There are considerable obstacles in the way but all the signs are that China will make a serious push toward building a respected football image and increasing the opportunities for greater sports diplomacy. Leicester City proved there is always a chance, but China will need the blessing of the footballing gods to score its soft power goals.
Aédán Mordecai is a Research Analyst with the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research covers political economy, development and sporting affairs.