China’s five-year football plan

China's players line up for a team photo before the start of their Asian Cup Group B soccer match against North Korea at the Canberra stadium in Canberra

Fantasy football: can government planners win them the World Cup?

When the Chinese national football team reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup in January the fans and the media were ecstatic. Xinhua hailed their three-match winning streak in the group stage as a “fairy tale run”. Even when the team failed to make it to the semi-finals the players were still dubbed as “heroes”.

Despite being a country of football lovers, Chinese fans have learned to moderate their expectations when it comes to the men’s national team. It suffered early exits during the group stage for the last two Asian Cup tournaments and has only once made it to the World Cup finals – in 2002, when the team failed to score a single goal.

However, if China’s ruling Communist Party is to have its way, all that is about to change.

Earlier this month the State Council issued a 50-point development plan for the beautiful game which covers everything from getting more children playing soccer, to changing the structure of the government agencies that administer it.

The ultimate aim is for the both the men and women’s teams to be listed alongside other footballing superpowers and to host a World Cup.

“The unswerving drive to reform and revitalise football will improve China’s image as a sporty country and help it realise the national dream,” claimed the plan. Xi Jinping’s Leading Group on Reform is thought to be the power behind the overhaul. The Chinese leader is a self-confessed football fan and in the past he has listed China winning the World Cup as one of his dreams.

The questions is, can a plan – which also includes bland references to Deng Xiaoping Theory and strengthening the role of the Party – stand any chance of achieving that? Some have argued that the better fortunes of the Chinese team recently is largely due to officials’ washing their hands of the national squad so as not be tainted by its failure. Now that football has been made a national priority, the fear is more political meddling will ensue.

Yet the plan does take some steps to prevent that. The Soviet-style General Administration of Sports will relinquish its role overseeing the game and the Chinese Football Association – which has greater familiarity with the sport – will take full responsibility for it.

It also points out that people should have “reasonable expectations” of how quickly success will be achieved. The men’s team attaining international excellence is very clearly listed as a “long term goal”, for instance. (According to FIFA rankings, it sits 83rd in the world.)

Because the women’s teams have been more successful in the past –they won the Asian Cup in 2006 and rank 13th globally – they are expected to achieve greater things “over the medium term”.

So how will China go about making all this happen? Well, the plan aims to increase the number of specialist football schools from 5,000 today to 20,000 in 2020 and 50,000 in 2025. It also calls on local governments to find long-term investors to ensure local football clubs will have stability and funds to develop.

But perhaps most bizarrely the plan has also occasioned the publication of a series of illustrated textbooks from which more kids will learn how to play the game.

However, as WiC has pointed out before, the major problem facing football at the grassroots level is a lack of pitches – a situation that has worsened over the last 20 years as local governments have sold the best-located playing fields to property developers.

Textbooks are no substitute for turf…

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