Chinese authorities want to turn China into a world football power by 2050
President Xi Jinping has previously expressed his wish that China wins a World Cup
Football in China has been beset by corruption and poor performances on the pitch
China has unveiled its blueprint to transform the country into a “soccer powerhouse” able to challenge the world’s top teams by 2050.
The plan, unveiled this week by Beijing’s top economic planning body, sets out short, mid and long-term objectives, starting with the creation of up to 20,000 soccer schools and 70,000 pitches by 2020. More than 30 million primary and secondary school age students will be encouraged to play regularly.
And at the other end of the scale, “two to three” professional clubs should be dominating Asian competitions in the next four years, according to the National Development and Reform Commission’s vision, with the Chinese Super League (CSL) expanding its appeal worldwide.
In recent months, several top Chinese clubs have invested tens of millions of dollars on importing top foreign talent, including Guangzhou Evergrande, who recently paid $45.8 million to sign Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez – a record transfer price for the burgeoning league.
The recent spending lies in part with a policy led by Chinese President Xi Jinping of putting cash to work in the league, with an eye to winning a World Cup bid and one day winning the tournament.
So far, China’s brief spotlight on the international stage stood at the 2002 World Cup, where the team failed to score a single goal. The tournament was hosted by regional neighbors South Korea and Japan – countries that have advanced far ahead of China in soccer terms.
The next phase of the development plan involves creating one pitch for every 10,000 people by 2030, with the men’s national team becoming a super power in Asia, and their female counterparts turned into one of the leading teams in the world.
China’s women are currently ranked the 12th best team in the world by soccer’s governing body FIFA, with the men’s team languishing in 81st place.
By 2050, the plan envisions a complete turnaround in fortunes, with China transformed into a “world soccer powerhouse,” while contributing greatly to the game’s international growth and “realizing the ‘soccer dream’ for the entire nation.”
Dogged by poor performances on the pitch and corruption scandals off it, the professional Chinese game has been far from beautiful. In 2013, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) banned dozens of former and current football officials, referees and players from the sport following a crackdown on match-fixing – two senior officials were actually jailed for taking bribes, Chinese state media reported at the time.
Club side Shanghai Shenhua was stripped of its 2003 league title, one of 12 clubs punished after the same investigation. Shenhua, who once boasted the likes of former Chelsea superstars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka on its playing roster, were found guilty of fixing a game against Shaanxi Guoli during the 2003 season.
The CFA insisted that their anti-corruption drive achieved “positive results” and in a statement claimed that “public enthusiasm for football is gradually restored, with the audience and television viewers for the CSL at record highs.”
While the men’s national team has continued to struggle – it failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2014 – China’s pro clubs have enjoyed rather more success. Guangzhou Evergrande, who is bankrolled by e-commerce giant Alibaba, won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015, and became the first Chinese club to win a place in the FIFA World Club Cup in 2013.
Journalist Motez Bishara also contributed to this report.