Mar 30, 2021

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today's newsletter is a collaboration with Axios sports editor Kendall Baker. We're looking at Xi Jinping's dreams of soccer glory, the Chinese Super League's money problems, investment in Europe, and lots more.

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  • And check out Axios' recent deep dive into how stereotypes about Asian Americans make it harder for them to succeed in sports.

🚨 Situational awareness: China's government passed a new law overhauling Hong Kong's electoral system. Go deeper.

Today's newsletter is 1,597 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: China's soccer dream

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, Axios' Kendall Baker, Jeff Tracy and I write.

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.
2. Where China has ranked through the years
Expand chart
Data: FIFA.com; 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), Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • 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.
3. Burst bubble: Chinese Super League in financial turmoil

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Chinese Super League was on the rise and threatening to tilt the balance of global soccer during the last decade. Now, it's in complete disarray, Kendall and I write.

Why it matters: The CSL helped catalyze China's soccer boom, and its foreign stars brought a global audience to its shores. Now, the league's uncertain future could damage soccer's domestic popularity.

The state of play: Government regulations introduced in the past two years have made Chinese teams less appealing for high-caliber talent, China-based news outlet Sixth Tone reports.

  • New rules have lowered salaries, restricted the number of foreign players a team can have, and required teams to drop the names of corporate sponsors from their team names and logos.

Driving the news: Defending league champion Jiangsu FC shocked fans last month when it announced it would cease operations — the latest in a growing list of CSL clubs to fold or experience financial turmoil.

Catch up quick: The gold rush in Chinese soccer began in earnest in 2012. By the middle of the decade, the CSL had become a major player in the global transfer market.

  • In 2012, a handful of global stars headlined by former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba joined the CSL, hinting at its growing power.
  • Those players have come and gone, and the "golden era of cash that marked the peak of the CSL" appears to be over, notes ESPN's Joey Lynch.

What to watch: One silver lining for the future of Chinese soccer is that the new rules encourage clubs to develop more homegrown players, which could ultimately improve the national team talent pipeline.

The bottom line: In early 2016, the Chinese transfer record was broken three times in 10 days. Five years later, all three of those players have left China — and the club that paid hefty sums for two of them no longer exists.

4. Chinese investment retreats from Europe

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Chinese money, which five years ago poured into European soccer at a meteoric rate, is now returning home just as quickly as it went abroad, Jeff writes.

The big picture: China's long-term goal of growing its global soccer profile hasn't changed, but the strategy to attain it has become more focused.

The backdrop: In 2014, as China prepared to unveil its 13th five-year economic plan (2016–2020), Xi announced his intention to transform China's national team into a soccer superpower.

  • The directive to Chinese investors thus became clear: Buy European clubs, learn best practices for building successful teams from within and bring that knowledge home.
  • By mid-2017, China's fingerprints (aka money) were all over the game, with more than 20 European clubs under at least minority control by Chinese investors.
  • But none of China's efforts — whether in the form of club ownership, record transfer fees or huge media deals — helped move the needle regarding its global soccer standing, so the directive shifted from sending money abroad to infusing it domestically.

The state of play: Fewer than 10 European clubs now have Chinese stakeholders, as those investments continue systematically returning home.

5. What I'm reading

The Wire China had a great feature story this week on Xi and soccer., called "China's own goal:"

  • "Xi Jinping, a lifelong soccer fan, hoped to marshal China’s collective spirit behind 'the beautiful game.' In reality, he welcomed a fleet of vultures to feast on it," Sean Williams writes.
  • But still, "in some respects, Xi’s vision succeeded," Williams writes. "Today, soccer has either caught up with or surpassed basketball as China’s most-watched sport, depending on the source."
6. Soccer stars speak out on China's Uyghurs — and pay a price

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some European soccer stars have used their fame to raise awareness of China's campaign against Uyghur Muslims. At least one has paid a steep price for speaking out.

Why it matters: The Chinese government can deny access to its huge market of soccer fans to punish international players or teams whose speech crosses Beijing's red lines.

Details: In December 2019, Turkish soccer star Mesut Özil, then with English club Arsenal, condemned China's repression of Uyghur Muslims in a tweet that received more than 200,000 likes.

  • "They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men," wrote Özil, who is Muslim.
Mesut Özil during an Arsenal training session, March 2020. Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
  • After the tweet, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced it would no longer broadcast that week's game between Arsenal and Manchester City, teams that are both popular in China.
  • Özil's avatar was removed from video games in China, and even when China's broadcaster put Arsenal games back on the air, sports commentators didn't say his name.
  • Arsenal reacted by distancing itself from Özil's post. Özil later criticized the club for not backing him and has since left Arsenal for Turkish club Fenerbahçe.

Özil isn't the only prominent player to publicly criticize what's happening in Xinjiang.

  • In December 2020, French player Antoine Griezmann said he was severing his relationship with Huawei after learning the company had developed facial recognition software that targeted Uyghurs.
  • Griezmann had served as a brand ambassador for Huawei since 2017.

What to watch: Any sport with a significant fan base in China is likely to face similar pressure to stay silent on Xinjiang, Hong Kong or any other issue that the Chinese Communist Party deems off-limits.

7. FIFA's corruption and authoritarian regime problems

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Over the decades, several authoritarian regimes have hosted the World Cup, using the global spotlight to burnish their image. And FIFA, which is plagued by corruption, continues to give World Cup bids to countries with records of human rights abuses, Kendall and I write.

Why it matters: The Chinese government's ongoing genocide against Uyghurs may not stand in the way of Beijing's goal of hosting the World Cup by 2030.

Driving the news: In late February, the Guardian reported more than 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the country won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

  • This week, the Dutch men's team joined the German and Norwegian teams in protesting Qatar's human rights record.

Background: As they have done with the Olympics, authoritarian regimes have used the World Cup to bring renown and burnish their credentials on the world stage.

  • Italy hosted the World Cup in 1934, while the country was ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The Italian team performing a fascist salute before the 1934 World Cup Final in Rome. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Argentina hosted the World Cup in 1978, when it was ruled by a military dictatorship that designated the soccer competition as a matter of "national interest."
The Argentinian national team wins the World Cup final against the Netherlands, in Buenos Aires on June 25, 1978. Photo: Getty Images

Authoritarian regimes aren't FIFA's only problem. In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine FIFA officials on charges relating to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.

The bottom line: One of the world's most powerful sports organizations seems impervious to human rights criticisms. That can only work in Beijing's favor.

8. 1 fun thing: The Chinese word for "soccer"

Kindergarten children stand together to create the Chinese characters for "soccer" during choreographed exercises at Yangzhou University Kindergarten on Oct. 11, 2016, in Yangzhou, Jiangsu. Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images