The Chinese passion for soccer has run high in past decades
By Tang Yuankai  ·  2022-11-14  ·   Source: NO.46 NOVEMBER 17, 2022
Qatar's Lusail Stadium is the first major FIFA World Cup stadium built with Chinese companies as major contractors (VCG)

Twenty years ago, the Chinese men's soccer team competed in World Cup competitions. However, in recent years, Chinese fans have had to enjoy the World Cup without a national stake in it.

Although China's national men's soccer team plays and stays at a regional level, the Chinese public is still excited for the upcoming 2022 Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in Qatar from November 20 to December 18.

Peaking enthusiasm

The time difference between China and Qatar is five hours. According to the schedule, most matches will take place during China's late nights and early mornings, particularly the knockout rounds.

Hardcore fans will not be satisfied with catching up via morning news feeds or video recordings. They will try their best to watch the whole match, even if weeks of sleepless nights will leave them with dark circles under their eyes.

Broadcasting of World Cup matches will greatly increase viewership. During the 2002 Republic of Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup, a China Central Television (CCTV) program devoted to the matches had an accumulated viewership of 6 billion.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, most Chinese soccer fans will have to watch the matches at home, and thus many fewer fans will head to Qatar for the competition.

In addition to fans, Chinese enterprises are also involved in this year's World Cup. Lusail Stadium is the first major FIFA World Cup stadium built with Chinese companies as major contractors. It is also the largest stadium Chinese companies have ever built in a foreign country and can accommodate 92,000 spectators. Products made in China range from stadium equipment and new-energy vehicles to soccer balls, shirts, scarfs and souvenirs.

According to the local sporting goods association in Yiwu City, Zhejiang Province, home to the world's largest small commodity wholesale market, 70 percent of the peripheral products sold during the Qatar World Cup tournament will come from Yiwu. Thanks to the special ocean shipping route for the World Cup, it takes just 20 to 25 days for products made in Yiwu to reach Hamad Port in Qatar from the ports in Ningbo, also in Zhejiang, and Shanghai.

China's FIFA efforts

In recent years, a growing number of Chinese businesses have begun to sponsor World Cup tournaments. Of the 14 top sponsors in Qatar, seven are Chinese companies.

When the Sixth World Cup began on June 8, 1958 in Sweden and was broadcast live for the first time, CCTV had been operating for little over a month. From then on, the Chinese team began to fight for the World Cup.

The Hungarian national soccer team visited China just before taking second place in the 1954 World Cup. The Chinese team lost all 11 of its matches against the Hungarian team, the widest gap being 1:8. After that, young Chinese soccer players were sent to Hungary for training. In the early 1970s, these players returning from Hungary to China became coaches of the national team, but rarely did they watch the World Cup games on TV because a TV set was too big a luxury for most Chinese families.

In 1978, CCTV broadcast the semi-final and final of the World Cup in Argentina. China began to implement the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, but at that point, only 13 percent of households owned a TV. In those early days of black-and-white television, dozens of people would gather around a single set. It was not until color television sets entered tens of millions of households that many Chinese came to witness the failure of their national team in their bid to qualify for World Cup tournaments.

Many efforts and attempts have been exerted to improve the Chinese soccer team in previous years. In addition to reforms, the team has naturalized foreign players and employed well-known foreign head coaches, such as Bora Milutinovic, who sent several national teams into the World Cup top 16, and Marcello Lippi, under whose guidance Italy won the World Cup in 2006. In 2001, under Milutinovic, the Chinese team finally qualified for that year's World Cup, much to the delight of Chinese soccer lovers.


However, the Chinese soccer team has since never again participated in a World Cup. Evergrande Group, a Chinese real estate giant based in Guangdong Province, got involved in the Chinese soccer game in 2010 and its Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club won eight championships in the Chinese Football Association (CFA) Super League in the past 10 years and even two championships in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. Meanwhile, with the arrival of world-class foreign coaches, the CFA Super League is extremely robust. Ballooning transfer fees in the past decade have led to more than 30 multi-million-dollar deals with foreign players.

In the long run, however, in a country of poorly performing soccer teams, money is distorting the sector. The Chinese soccer teams are falling behind even their Asian rivals in terms of league competitiveness, management, training systems and discovering promising young athletes. Worse still, the Chinese men's teams are lured into the traps of quick success by defying the actual rules of the game.

Fortunately, some are trying to draw lessons from these bitter experiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese women's team has brought hope. In the final of the AFC Women's Asian Cup in February, the Chinese team turned around an unfavorable situation and finally won the match by 3:2, taking home the AFC Asian Cup championship for the ninth time. In the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, the Chinese team managed to compete in the final. And after 14 years of missing from the FIFA list, the team is now set to compete in the 2023 Women's World Cup.

In October, several departments, including the General Administration of Sport of China, Ministry of Education and CFA, jointly released a plan for the reform and development of Chinese women's soccer between 2022 and 2035, setting the goal that by 2030, the Chinese team should return to world-class standards.

Nowadays, numbers of new recruits by the women's team have sharply increased and their training level and competition results continue to rise. The plan further states China is preparing to place its bid for hosting the 2031 FIFA Women's World Cup.

(Print Edition Title: Quest for the Cup)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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