China’s absence from this year’s World Cup was hardly unexpected. The last, and only, time its national team ever made it to the once-every-four-years competition, in 2002, it played three games, failed to score once, and left after crashing out of the first round. As authors like Rowan Simons and others have pointed out, the country may be full of millions of people who are truly passionate about football, but its national game has been riddled with issues of corruption, poor management, and serial failure, which has meant the men’s game has never performed as well as Chinese people expect.
Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, aspiration reaches everywhere. While travelling on the high speed train to Tianjin in 2016, observers could see hoardings of imprecations by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary to “play soccer well for the nation.” Xi Jinping Thought, the ideology recently enshrined in the CCP Constitution, might as well have a line in it about the need to finally bring home a game that many Chinese claim they invented. A date was even set for this in the past – 2050, around the time the country celebrates 100 years as the People’s Republic.
Football has always been a metaphor for national ambition and aspiration. It can even be compared to Clausewitz’s description of the field of battle in his great classic, On War: a place where time speeds up, decision making is put under immense stress, and the whole space is filled with the mixed emotions of uncertainty, honor, glory, and fear. Football comes close to duplicating that, albeit in a far more benign environment.
Some argue more boldly that it embodies values of justice and fairness through creating equality between players as they cooperate to set up scoring opportunities and create tactical advantage, a model that suits the mindsets of those in democracies better than inhabitants of other forms of governance. This might account for the preponderance of winning sides being from this sort of political background in the last few decades. But that makes sense only for the men’s game. For the Chinese women’s team, in fact, they’ve often been very strong – sometimes standing at the top of global rankings. Generalizations about football and politics are treacherous, and the best that can be said of the game is that it is unifying, and a truly global sport, no matter its surrounding politics.
One principle reason football is global is because of the clarity over its rules. There too, it offers a nice metaphor. China plays, and seeks to get better at a game, where there is little ambiguity in its widely shared regulations, norms, and processes. Without this, there would be chaos or fragmentation. It must be part of football’s allure to Chinese that it is the world’s most popular, and most widely accepted, game. They want to excel in front of a global audience, and the football pitch, in the realm of sport, is one of the most powerful places to do so. That is the motivation behind their dreams for their men’s side, no matter how remote they seem now. And football’s rules-based nature is an important factor in that worldwide reach.
One other glory of football is the absolute clarity of its aim. Not only does everyone play by the same rules, but they are aiming for the same goal of victory. In this area, therefore, it seems that even a power that regards itself as culturally exceptionalist as China relaxes its tight grip and plays on the field under the same rules as others. In the end, those rules and aims are the great source of alignment, the ultimate equalizers. Country differences are forgotten, and the rules reign supreme.
Or are they? Sides can play the same game, by the same rules, and aim for the same thing, but then have a wholly different subjective experience. Teams from liberal democracies might think their play exemplifies the freedoms of the environments in which they live, but Chinese players are, as they are with the global trading system, perhaps more pragmatic and circumscribed. And as for the issue of “winning” – of all the experiences, this simple word has radically different meanings depending on who says it.
A win for Brazil means reaffirmation that they are a soccer superpower. After all, they’ve won the World Cup five times before. For England, it gets wrapped up (if it were ever to happen again) with the idea that football comes home to the inventors of its modern rules. That gives a potential victory much heavier significance. With a country like China, winning (however far into the future that may be) would figure into a very individual and specific narrative that balances the country’s success with its ability to observe and perform to rules and procedures laid down by others. A victory at soccer for China would be symbolic of their battles over the last century and a half: to modernize, to be equal, and perhaps even superior, to the world powers that once looked down on them. One can imagine the massive emotional messages that would be extracted from an event like this. The bottom line is that a World Cup “win” for Brazil and a “win” for a country like China are two radically different things.
We can draw a lesson from China’s enthusiastic embrace and ambitions toward football. Football appears uniform and the same for all competitors when solely looking at its rules and the objectives of the game, but the underlying mentality is profoundly different. And as in other areas, China is among the parties that hold a cultural and philosophical background that historically differs from most others. We can all be playing the same game, and we can all be aiming to win, for sure. But the meaning of what we are doing is different as the actors themselves see it. And if we forget that, we cut ourselves off from a true appreciation of what we are observing: the spread, adoption, and personalization of a unified, global game.
Kerry Brown is Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.
Layne Vandenberg is a Ph.D. student at King’s College.