China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is one of the most powerful people on the planet.
He is also a soccer fan.
Since taking office in 2013, Xi has put soccer squarely at the center of his ambitious plan to turn China into a wealthy superpower. Xi has a “World Cup dream.” He wants China to qualify for, host and eventually win the World Cup by 2050.
To date, China has qualified for this global soccer tournament just once, in 2002, and it has never scored a goal in the World Cup.
Can China go from soccer dud to soccer superpower? My guess is probably not – at least not in Xi’s lifetime.
Not a winner
I’m a China expert who has researched the country’s top-down political system and its approach to economic development. I also lived in Shanghai, in 2012 and 2013, where I shuttled my three school-age children to and from soccer practice.
China certainly has the money and political wherewithal to expand its commercial and political influence over this global sport, just as it has lately done with the Olympics and international relations.
Chinese companies have bought several major European soccer teams, including the U.K.‘s Wolverhampton and Italy’s AC Milan. Chinese brands like Mengniu and Luci bought serious advertising space in this year’s World Cup, publicizing these little-known companies alongside global giants like Budweiser and Rozneft.
Xi can also ensure that his countrymen see and play more soccer. China’s 2016 plan for Chinese soccer greatness proposes to build 70,000 new stadiums and develop 20,000 new specialized schools, with the aim of having 30 to 50 million Chinese children playing soccer by 2020.
China’s ferocious academic culture
So Chinese soccer may well improve dramatically over the next two decades. But I believe China lacks the culture and institutions to achieve Xi’s third goal: winning the World Cup.
For one, history shows that investment from China’s soccer plan will inevitably be directed mostly to coastal megacities and capitals because of the country’s administrative hierarchy. That hierarchy systematically benefits provincial capitals and large municipalities. My experience is that the trickle-down to rural areas, where about half of the population still lives, is slow and minimal.
China’s fierce academic culture is also a barrier to nurturing soccer talent. The drive to achieve at school starts early, intensifies during elementary and middle school and culminates with the “gao kao” – the infamously difficult college entrance exam.
Even when students have great athletic talent, test preparation and homework inevitably crowd out all but the most traditional extracurricular activities, like classical music training. In some Chinese cities, severe air pollution even makes having recess outside hazardous.
Parental pressure has been found to be one of the most significant sources of Chinese teenagers’ high levels of stress and anxiety. As a parent, too, I heard many other parents complain that their kids were maxed out. Adding athletics to their children’s agendas seems an unlikely choice.
Schools also frequently underemphasize athletics because this is not how reputations and strong student demand are earned in China. High academic performance, measured through testing, is the singular goal.
I see no evidence that China is currently training the next generation of global soccer stars.
Not enough space
Even China’s economic boom does not work entirely in soccer’s favor.
The bulk of China’s 1.38 billion people live in central and eastern China, where cities are among the most densely populated in the world. Urban real estate prices there are sky high, so recreational space in cities – like soccer fields that can be used for pickup games and local leagues – are few and far between.
Japan has 200 sports fields for every 10,000 people. China has seven, and most of them are owned by schools or the military. Your average American has access to 19 times more sports space than the average China resident.
China is massive – bigger than Germany, Brazil and South Africa combined. But that doesn’t mean there is a lot of free space. Land in rural China is still dominated by small-scale agriculture.
The central government’s 2016 soccer plan addresses China’s deficit in youth talent development and infrastructure by proposing more childhood soccer training and building more soccer stadiums.
The culture gap may prove harder to overcome, though. China just isn’t a soccer country. I rarely saw kids playing informal games in the streets of China with a soda can or a half-deflated ball as one does across Latin America and Africa.
Only 2 percent of Chinese play soccer, compared to 7 percent in Europe and Latin America. China does not rank in the top 10 nations of youth participation in soccer, according to FIFA’s last survey.
Will China follow the US’s lead?
Rich countries without much of a soccer culture can build it – over time. That’s what soccer advocates in the United States have been trying to do for decades.
The country got its professional league, Major League Soccer, in 1988. By the early 1990s, the league was establishing teams and building stadiums across the country. Managers imported popular – if aging – global stars like England’s David Beckham to boost the sport’s American profile. Former U.S. National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired in late 2016, also put emphasis on youth soccer development.
The U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 and will host it again, alongside Mexico and Canada, in 2026.
But for all this money and effort, the results have been middling. The U.S. men’s soccer team did not even qualify for this year’s World Cup.
The U.S. women’s team, on the other hand, won the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Chinese women have also seen more global success than male players.
That’s because many traditional soccer powers have marginalized women’s participation in the sport. If Xi wants China to make its mark as an upstart, the Chinese women’s team may be his best investment.
Mary Gallagher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.