There’s an old saying in China that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
China’s football pilgrimage is well on its way to becoming just that, but while the Chinese Super League has improved the global brand of the sport in the Far East, the national team continues to struggle, and crowds continue to dwindle across the nation’s lower leagues.
For a country with the largest economy and population, it is perhaps surprising that China is playing catch up to South America and Europe regarding footballing infrastructure and ability.
What China needs is a catalyst. An event which encapsulates the world on a grand stage. It is a no brainer for the nation to bid for the 2030 World Cup if FIFA changes the rule which allows a continent to skip just one World Cup before hosting again. Perhaps it will inspire the next generation of footballers and awaken a dormant footballing giant.
Decades ago China found itself in a similar position in athletics. Between the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 2004 Games in Athens, China won a total of 102 gold medals, but they never finished first in the table despite containing one of the largest teams.
In 2008 their prospects of dominating world athletics changed when the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the rights to host the Games. Amongst the rhythmic drums and visionary light displays were a domineering team, who swept past their competition much to the delight of the home fans.
A new vibrant sporting franchise with moderate success on a global scale emerged and a nation watched in excited anticipation.
Since then China’s athletics programme has improved, with the country winning more medals in the last two Olympics than any other individual Games before 2008.
And now they want to replicate this in football. The Chinese government has recently decided to build the world’s biggest sports economy, which could reach a staggering $850bn in costs by 2025.
Hosting the World Cup will allow China to assert its global status and power, a view already enhanced through the promise of enormous investment, from bottom up grassroots projects in Shanghai to top down ventures through ownership of elite European football clubs.
Amateur football in China, founded in 2002, has yet to grow to full fruition and that has created an urge for Chinese Super League to attract foreign stars. The multimillion contracts offered to Hulk and Jackson Martinez signify the vast inequality between the summit and foot of Chinese domestic football.
Hosting the World Cup in 2030 would not be able to solve every problem regarding the pyramid of Chinese football, but it could make a difference. When the world’s media centred on Beijing in 2008, they concentrated on the legacy of the Olympics and not just the athletics over two weeks.
Negativity surrounded a lack of infrastructure at the local level, enhanced by the eye-watering $428m cost of the Birds Nest Stadium.
So with the long term goal of hosting the World Cup in sight, the Chinese government promised that they would sanction the building of 20,000 special “soccer schools” after five years, rising to 50,000 by 2025.
It was just under 20 years ago that an eccentric coaching genius named Xu Genbao, inspired by Manchester United’s youth development programme, built one of the first major football academies in the city of Chongming.
People in business who have made billions through China’s soaring economy have also been encouraged to plant their money into private franchises and academies to improve the quality of Chinese football in the one thousand clubs who participate in the amateur leagues.
The paranoia emerging from leading football decision makers in China is that although they may be able to win the bid for the 2030 World Cup, their national team could be embarrassed against more historically rich football nations in front of their own supporters.
China currently sit bottom of their World Cup 2018 qualification group, below Uzbekistan, Syria and Qatar with just one win in eight.
The national team are 86th in the world rankings and have coined a comparison with England; big hopes followed by inevitable football failure. China are not far behind countries such as Japan and Australia regarding the size of the pool of players available for the national team, but there is an apparent talent gap.
And it is not a surprise that in a country where instant success in capitalist commercialization is now somewhat a culture, media pressure for the football team to perform well on the international stage is high.
While crowds vary in the Chinese Super League, the popularity amongst the national team from the fans is immense.
Last October football fans took to the streets to demand the resignation of the president of the Chinese Football Association after the national side crashed to defeat against Syria.
A capacity crowd of 40,000 had flocked to the northern city of Xi’an but saw their team downed by a late strike. Chinese commentators erupted on social media calling the performance “amateurish”.
However, China may not be that far off World Cup qualification in 2022 as people think. Although 2018 is now a write-off, they did record a 1-0 win against South Korea four months ago, the first in seven years against their great rivals.
China did qualify for the 2002 World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan but failed to score, let alone win a game in the group.
In 2017 though, the country’s footballing influence is concentrated at board level, not on the pitch. Chinese investors own shares in five English, four French, three Spanish and two Italian clubs, the latter pair being AC and Inter Milan.
Back at home, top-down investment has had an enormous effect. After its creation in 2005 Shanghai SIPG languished in the Chinese League Two, with players as young as 14 participating in the first team.
Now the side is owned by the multi-billion pound terminal operator Shanghai International Port Group, with a team including Hulk and Oscar worth over £142m. And in 2015 that investment nearly paid off as Shanghai SIPG agonisingly lost out to Guangzhou Evergrande in the CSL by just two points.
In President Xi Jinping China have an ambassador for the sport. A photo in his office depicts him kicking a ball in the air during a trip to Ireland’s Croke Park stadium on a visit in 2012. On occasions, Jinping has jumped at the chance to visit football stadia on diplomatic trips to Europe, including Bayer Leverkusen and Manchester City. His vision is for China to become a footballing superpower by 2050.
If the country wants to produce a Chinese football revolution, it still has a long way to go though. Attracting a myriad of well-paid stars may attract foreign talent, but what China wants and needs is the production of their own awe inspiring generation who can draw in media publicity on a global scale.
And although a World Cup in 2030 won’t instantly change China’s football fortunes, it could potentially become the catalyst for their ambitious dream.