BEIJING — One thing we know about China’s new leader Xi Jinping is that hosting and winning a football World Cup is on his wish list.
Another former president, Deng Xiaoping, also had high hopes for the sport. He reportedly sold his overcoat to go see a match at the 1924 World Cup in Paris, with the hope that football would become his country’s national sport.
But China seems no closer today than it was 90 years ago to becoming a football nation. It ranks 86th, just behind South Africa, in sanctioned world rankings.
In 2002, the only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, the team failed to score in any of its three matches. Observers even say the team’s level of play is worse today than in the 1990s, when China opened its state-controlled leagues to private investors.
For a nation that prides itself on winning more medals than the United States at the 2008 Olympics it hosted in Beijing, China has been unable to bring together a decent 11-man squad — a painful reminder that money cannot buy everything.
Indeed, a lack of money is not the reason for China’s football woes. Today, 13 of the 16 teams in its Super League are backed by wealthy real estate developers. While some of that money goes to developing home-grown talent, team owners spend a good deal of their cash on foreign players. Much like the U.S.’s Major League Soccer, China is an Eldorado for players from European leagues looking to finish out their careers and, more importantly, fill their bank accounts.
Take, for example, two-time league champion Shanghai Shenhua, a team that reportedly paid former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba €12 million ($15.25 million) a year before he opted to leave last month for the Turkish club Galatasaray. Former teammate Nicolas Anelka earned more than €247,000 ($334,500) a week to score goals for the Shanghai club. But Anelka, too, recently left the team for a six-month stint with Italian club Juventus of Turin.
Of all the Super League clubs, 2012 champion Guangzhou Evergrande has unleashed the most cash to attract foreign talent. Last year, Italian World Cup-winning football manager Marcello Lippi inked a €10 million ($13.6 million) contract to coach the club.
There may be a good reason that even sky-high salaries haven’t been enough to make foreign talents stick around. Major League Soccer is filling up stadiums with a growing and devoted fan base, but despite its seven-digit salaries, China’s Super League remains largely ignored both inside and outside China.
Unlike European teams, Chinese clubs get little revenue from television rights and sales of tickets and jerseys.
“It’s largely for ego and also helps owners beef up their address books with key (political) relations,” said Rowan Simons, who wrote a book called “Bamboo Goalposts” about his experience playing soccer in China for 20 years. “Financially, it does not make sense.”
The numbers bear out Simon’s assertion. Last year, Guangzhou Evergrande registered a loss of 80 million yuan ($12.8 million). Former champion club Dalian Shide, unable to pay its debts, will be bought by a rival club, Dalian Aerbin, for 320 million yuan ($51.4 million). In the summer, a shareholder dispute rocked Shanghai’s Shenhua club, resulting in a state of chaos that had players demanding their paychecks.
Besides its lackluster fan base and poor finances, Chinese soccer lacks the sophisticated grassroots scouting system that has allowed European clubs to find once in-a-generation talents like Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona), Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain) or Lukas Podolski (Arsenal FC).
The China Soccer Association, the country’s governing body, has only 8,000 registered players, compared with more than 1.46 million in France.
Part of the problem is that Chinese parents have little trust in a sport known for corruption and hampered by a lack of infrastructure.
“The problem is that there are no pitches in China. Kids just don’t play football. You actually see more people playing basketball,” said Yan Yue, a sports journalist based in Beijing.
China’s football association has worked to root out the kind of corruption that saw the former head of the national soccer association and 10 former national team players jailed. But illegal gambling remains rampant, according to Rowan Simons.
“It’s not a question of money,” he said. “The whole system needs to be overhauled.”
For now, China’s Super League has yet to nurture the sort of home-grown talent that could help it become a true fan favorite.
Photo courtesy of 龙人制造 — (Flickr)