Chinese football and the long march to world supremacy

Chinese football and the long march to world supremacy

The Chinese Super League has attracted worldwide attention with its high-profile transfers, but will the national team ever reach their ultimate goal?

Sam France

In 2016, more column inches than ever before have been devoted to the Chinese domestic football league. Ambitious, super-rich and outward-looking, the game in China in many ways is beginning to reflect the state of the country itself.

A constellation of imported stars is forming in the East, and the world's traditional footballing superpowers are being made to sit up and take note.

This talent drain, coupled with anxieties about the future of the national team in England, has led some to begin readying the World Cup trophy for its first Chinese inscription. China's ascent to the top is inevitable, they warn, and approaching quickly. Is this a realistic picture?

Their men's team currently sits in 83rd position in the FIFA World Rankings, behind the likes of Curaçao, St Kitts and Nevis, and Haiti. They are bottom of their World Cup qualifying group of six, behind Syria and Qatar.

Their women, playing in a more recently developed footballing environment, fare better. Ahead of Spain and Italy, their senior side is ranked 13th in the world and only a single goal from Player of the Tournament Carli Lloyd separated the sides when they faced eventual champions the USA in last year's World Cup quarter finals.

However, looking at present-day statistics can only be so helpful. It is more illuminating to consider the surprising journey that Chinese football has already undertaken, and that which must follow for the 21st Century's leading superpower to be taken seriously in the global game.

Football's oldest relative was born in Han China

China's footballing history is longer than you might think. Officially, in fact, it is the longest in the world.

Two millennia before Ebenezer Cobb Morley drafted the laws of association football which were to be adopted worldwide, the sport of tsu'chu was created during the Han Dynasty in the Zhou Kingdom, on the Eastern coast.

Officially recognised by FIFA as the oldest forebear to modern football anywhere in the world, tsu'chu is described as having the objective of "kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes". The Chinese have been kicking balls longer than the Italians have had a colosseum.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some of the nation's most significant historical figures have taken a keen interest in the game. 

Chairman Mao was always keen to promote physical education and exercise, which he said 'enhances knowledge, harmonises emotions and strengthens will', and he was no stranger to the beautiful game.

Studying during his formative years at the Hunan Normal Provincial School, young Mao Zedong was allegedly a talented goalkeeper, with the Tianjin Daily claiming that the nation's glorious liberator set a record in the Changsha Middle School Football League by not conceding a single goal across an entire season.

Meetings with the Leningrad Zenit football team and the Olympic champions Yugoslavia strengthened Mao's desire to see the Chinese national team improve their disastrous results; the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought a swift conclusion to the nation's footballing progress, however, with the team disbanded against a tumultuous background of political and social disarray.

He would go on to contribute to the country's footballing education in a typically Maoist series of pamphlets, Basics of Soccer. His words accompanied diagrams detailing the correct technique in shooting, tackling, saving, dribbling and free-kick taking.

Leaders' fanaticism hinders Chinese progress

Mao's successor as paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, was a more obsessive follower of the game.

He attended games at the 1924 Olympics as a student in France and, 66 years later, watched all but two matches at Italia 90, making his family record matches when he was busy so he could catch up on Gascoigne's tears, Milla's hips and Völler's phlegm in his spare time.

However, it was not until the rule of Jiang Zemin that China reached their first World Cup finals in 2002, when the team lost all three group games without scoring in the first tournament to be held in Asia. This is the greatest achievement to date of the national side.

It is reasonable to suggest that China's leaders' passion for the game has been an obstacle for the national team rather than a bonus. Where the state-driven system of athlete selection on the basis of physical attributes delivers Olympic golds aplenty, the same methodology simply is not appropriate in football.

While there may be an ideal body type for a child prodigy in gymnastics, diving or rowing, this is not true in the footballing world - try and pick the optimum striker's body out of Barcelona's former front three of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it is easy to see why.

Cleaner, richer league draws global interest

At a domestic level, Chinese football has never before experienced credibility to the extent that it is today; even on a local scale, Japan and South Korea's domestic leagues were more well-known to foreign fans and more attractive to overseas players.

Corruption has played a leading role in stagnating the country's footballing development. The sport was described in The Economist as "a painful national joke", caught in a vicious cycle of ineptitude and indecency.

A nationwide crackdown on the system of bribery and match-fixing orchestrated by powerful gambling syndicates has helped to make the game in China cleaner than at any point in recent memory, while investment from mega-rich property developers has driven the new influx of household names.

With the likes of Alex Teixiera, Ramires, Jackson Martinez and Ezequiel Lavezzi all plying their trade in the Chinese Super League and others such as Carlos Tevez - soon to be the world's best-paid player - set to follow, the standard of play in China is clearly now at its highest ever peak. But what does this say about the future of the national side?

Xi's 35-year plan for footballing dominance

In April this year, President and football fan Xi Jinping outlined a strategy which would see China blossom on the world stage in the short, medium and long term.

The construction of training centres and public pitches is a key component in this programme, which Xi hopes will see China emerge as an Asian superpower by 2030 and a global one by the middle of the century.

It was not spelled out exactly what sort of role the domestic league was expected to play in this development, but clearly the hope is that the imported stars will lead by example, their native teammates learning and improving by osmosis.

English fans of a certain persuasion may be quick to warn against this tactic, as the alleged increasing quality of the Premier League continues to suggest an inverse correlation with the fortunes of the national side.

The first 16 goals in this season's Super League were scored by foreigners, though the league retains a strict limit of four imported players, plus a fifth from elsewhere in the Asian Football Confederation, in each squad.

China must engage the masses in search for glory

China does rather enjoy the advantage of numbers in a way that English youngsters may not, with training centres ready to extract the latent footballing talent hidden away in a population 25 times larger than that of England. It will be difficult for foreign players to crowd them out, whatever the current difference in ability.

They will also enjoy the tutelage of the finest set of tacticians the Chinese game has ever seen, with former World Cup winners Marcello Lippi, Fabio Cannavaro and Luiz Felipe Scolari all working in the country. 

The state's enthusiasm for Chinese players to make an impact on the footballing world suggest that caps on foreign players are likely to stay, which again bodes well for the new generation of home-grown footballers.

It seems, then, that the success of Xi Jinping's football programme rests on the desire and ability of the Chinese people to carry it out, with the backing and framework being constructed to guide their journey. The fate of the national team is, in a sense, in the hands of the masses. How very Maoist.

The issue for Xi is that it is not quite clear just how many young Chinese harbour dreams of becoming their nation's first true footballing superstar. 

The reputation of football as the corrupt laughing stock of the country is unlikely to encourage parents to push their children towards a life of sporting toil, with the relentless education system already consuming so much of young people's lives in the country.

Education and hard work is ingrained in the nation's psyche as the premier tool of upward mobility, and it is this which presents the trickiest hurdle on the path to the World Cup.

If the Chinese people decide that football is a viable and respectable career path for their children, participation will rise and the standard of play will rise with it. If not, the project is doomed to fail.

The 2050 World Cup kicks off in about 34 years' time. Will China be ready for it?