Mar 30, 2021 - World

China's soccer dream

Illustration of a soccer ball that resembles the Chinese flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese President Xi Jinping hoped to make China a global leader in soccer, his favorite sport. After years of massive government support, that dream has so far fallen short.

The big picture: China's soccer dream isn't ending, but the initial investment frenzy seems to have slowed.

  • Soccer is a hugely popular sport in China. On the weekends, soccer fields at schools and universities are often filled with dozens or even hundreds of people of all ages sharing the field, playing a pickup game with their friends or practicing by themselves for fun or exercise.

But China's national teams have struggled to win on the international stage.

  • The men's team has only qualified once for the World Cup, back in 2002, where it lost three matches in a row and scored no goals.
  • The women's team has enjoyed significantly more success, participating in seven of eight World Cups and finishing as runners-up in 1999, though their world ranking has steadily declined from the top 10 to the mid-teens in recent years.

Then came Xi, the Chinese dictator who is also an avid soccer fan. As early as 2004, several years before he arrived at China's highest echelons of power, he expressed hope that China might one day boast a great soccer team.

  • In 2015, Xi said, "My biggest hope for Chinese soccer is that its teams become among the world's best." His announcement spurred a raft of new government initiatives, from the central government and locally, to boost Chinese soccer.
  • In 2016, the Chinese Football Association outlined several long-term goals: for China to host the World Cup, to win the World Cup and to become a "first-class soccer superpower," all by 2050.

What happened next: Plans to build hundreds of new soccer schools and thousands of new fields were announced.

  • China also began naturalizing foreign soccer players whose talent might help strengthen Chinese teams.
  • The Chinese Super League got a massive influx of funding.

By the numbers: There are now more than 70,000 soccer fields and 24,000 designated "soccer schools" across the country, per Sports Pro. The former represents an increase from 0.08 fields for every 10,000 people to 0.5.

The results: So far, not much. The rankings of neither the men's nor women's teams have improved significantly.

What to watch: Aside from those 70,000 fields, which they hope to double in number by 2030, China has also begun building more substantial infrastructure.

  • That includes the $1.7 billion "lotus" soccer stadium, which would be the centerpiece of China's next goal en route to becoming a global soccer power — hosting the 2030 World Cup.

The bottom line: The initial flurry of investment may not have had much effect on rankings, but Xi did acknowledge back in 2015 that the road ahead would likely require more than such a quick fix.

  • "The success [with soccer] does not have to be during my time. It takes a long time to work, so continue to work hard, start from the basics, from the grassroots, and from the mass participation," Xi said.

How Chinese soccer has ranked through the years

China's FIFA world ranking
Data:; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Chinese men's national team is currently ranked 75th in the world, up from where it was 10 years ago (90–100 range) but down from where it was before the turn of the century (30–40 range).

  • The women's national team is currently ranked 15th in the world. It's hovered around that number since debuting at No. 4 in 2003.
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