Be first in everything you do — the biggest, the richest, the loudest. When China organized the Olympic Games in 2008, it’s opening ceremony was a massive, gigantic, high tech overkill performance with a very strong cultural identity. It was beautiful and super powerful, conceived in a way that it could never be exceeded.
We thought this was it; that with the Olympics 2008 China had definitely entered the family of (developed) nations. We hoped that Beijing’s leadership would finally feel liberated from their compulsion to compete all the time, to prove the country had cast off its colonial past. That’s what we thought and hoped in the year America got its first black president. Looking back, 2008 was not altogether a bad year – excluding the crash of financial markets, of course.
But some things never end. So while scrutinizing the usual Chinese geopolitical topics, such as the fast militarization of the country, something else caught my eye in the last few weeks. It was soccer. Soccer and China are topics I know, where I possess some fluency. But I do not understand much about Chinese soccer. And Beijing is now telling me that I – and the whole world — should be paying attention.
Recently, after only a decade into its history of professional soccer, China’s Super League(CSL) went on a shopping spree in Europe and Latin America. Chinese professional soccer clubs that already have foreign coaches are now signing contracts with seasoned foreign soccer stars, offering them contracts they could only dream of while playing in Europe. Last month the CSL clubs spent almost half a $ billion in purchasing a dozen soccer stars who had previously played on European clubs.
So what’s happening? How can Chinese clubs pay up to $50 million for the transfer of a single player, awarding him with a $10 million per year contract?
The Chinese fever for soccer started years ago, when China qualified for the World Cup in 2002 in South Korea. It was the first time China made it into the world soccer arena and it was with the help of an exceptional coach, Bora Milutinović, from Serbia. Milutinović, once a formidable soccer player, later specialized in coaching national teams of countries that were not (yet) soccer superpowers. He was very successful in Mexico and Nigeria and became a new Chinese divinity after he managed to bring the Chinese national team to the Seoul World Cup tournament without a defeat. Except that once in South Korea his team never scored and Milu, as he was called in Beijing, packed the suitcases overnight, while Chinese fans got really depressed and angry.
But the Chinese soon understood that without a strong national league, there could not be any important victories for the national team. This is how the CSL was born and a more prosperous China start moving money into a soccer industry. There were ups and downs and with a lot of corruption, of course. There were scandals, but the fever was out. Just as the Chinese discovered wine at the turn of the century and the whole nation started imbibing, now it was the soccer time. No matter what China does it moves in waves. In this sense, China is still a Maoist country. Surely the hunt for famous soccer players from the West reflects China’s new prosperity; soccer often acts as a very well-calibrated barometer for pressure shifts in the global economy. China’s Super League, once best known for corruption and match-fixing, is growing into a powerhouse — on the player transfer market, anyway.
“In the world order of soccer leagues, both Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League could be categorized as “aspirational.” Each league is attempting to break into the upper echelons of the game, but the means by which they attempt to achieve their respective goals could not be more different.MLS has been all about slow, steady growth in an already-saturated sports market. Its centralized, single-entity structure — whereby all player contracts are held by the league, and not individual teams — is designed to provide stability in the process.
Chinese soccer, at the behest of the country’s president, Xi Jinping, has engaged the capitalist hyperdrive and launched itself well past light speed. Since the start of the year, it seems that not a week has gone by without the CSL setting another transfer record.”
The fact that American soccer – MLS, grows in a planned and centralized way, while the Chinese CSL has engaged the capitalist hyperdrive, says it all. The times has changed, one might be tempted to say.
Yes and no. As so often in China, it is not the people, but one Chinese strongman, in this case Xi Jinping, who seems to be the real catalyst behind the phenomenon . Xi is madly in love with soccer . To that end he freed China’s soccer body from a complete government control. He then followed up with a dose of Totalitarian methodology:
The Chinese government has recently unveiled an ambitious blueprint to get 50 million children and adults playing soccer by the end of this decade, with the broader objective of becoming a “world football superpower” by 2050.
Time reports, “on plans to have at least 20,000 soccer training centers and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. Every county should have two full-size soccer fields, says the document, and every new urban residential compound should have at least one five-a-side court.
Officials hope this will boost the national team’s FIFA world rankings. China currently wallows in 81st position — sandwiched between Cyprus and Jordan, which share barely 8 million people between them. A stated interim target is to become one of Asia’s top teams by 2030.”
So get ready: There’s a follow up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics, which will be centered on that same city in 2022. In a few years, China may be a high-profile epicenter of world soccer. Brazil, you may get out spent and outplayed.
Also published on Medium.