China misses Xi Jinping’s football goal

Xi Jinping’s dream of making China a soccer superpower is crashing to earth amid a public backlash over defeats that left the national team’s 2018 World Cup hopes in tatters.

The straight losses — to war-torn Syria and fellow football minnows Uzbekistan — unleashed an outpouring of anger among fans and in the press. Even the Global Times, a tabloid bastion of chest-thumping Chinese nationalism, exhorted the country to abandon the beautiful game and “go play ping pong instead”.

“How could the hopeless Chinese fans continue to support such national team?” the paper whined on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

Team coach Gao Hongbo resigned immediately after this week’s 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan. A 1-0 loss to Syria last week prompted fans to take to the streets to demand his removal.

Despite its prowess in Olympic sports such as gymnastics and swimming, China’s football team has been a failure on the world stage, qualifying for the World Cup finals just once in 2002, when the team was ejected without scoring a single goal. 

That was all supposed to change after Mr Xi, a big football fan, said in 2011 that he had three dreams for Chinese football: to qualify, to host, and to win a World Cup. As part of his football plans, the president has decreed that China will have 20,000 training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. 

Since he became president in 2012, Chinese businessmen have rushed to back his vision, taking stakes in European clubs such as Manchester City and Atlético Madrid and buying up top players such as Brazilian midfielder Ramires and Ivorian striker Gervinho for their own teams in China.

During the latest winter transfer window, Chinese Super League clubs outspent the big money English Premier League, splashing out more than $280m on foreign talent. Meanwhile, a media mogul paid a record Rmb8bn ($1.2bn) for the five-year rights to broadcast the Super League. 

But while the money raised interest and expectations, this has yet to be reflected in an improvement by Chinese players. Ting Wai-kit, a veteran football commentator, said the arrival of top foreign players may even have stunted the development of homegrown talent in China. 

“In the Chinese Super League they have world-class coaches, overseas players and resources,” he said. “But all these are somewhat irrelevant to the national team and almost causing damage. Because the Chinese players now don’t know what to do without the overseas players.” 

Mark Dreyer, a former Sky Sports reporter who runs the China Sports Insider blog, said “the massive investment in football, and in particular President Xi’s personal involvement, has raised expectations to wholly unrealistic levels”.

But while the failure came as a shock to many fans, it was no surprise to insiders.

“The hope lies in the younger generation,” said Zhang Geyuan, chief coach of Guoao Yue Ye, a youth football club in Beijing, who said it would be a decade or two before the results of grass roots programmes began to bear fruit.

“The failure is nothing but normal,” sighed Mr Zhang. “Nobody inside the industry would be shocked by the failure. The frustration and ranting is mostly from Chinese football fans who have elevated hopes.” 

Cameron Wilson, founder of Shanghai-based soccer blog Wild East Football, likens the situation to a love affair: “You know how it’s going to end. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing.”

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju

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