Just as China has grand plans for its burgeoning economy, it has lofty goals for football. But while figures suggest economic targets are being hit, the situation is less rosy when it comes to the beautiful game.
Back in 2018, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) announced the aim of getting its men's national team to the top 70 of the FIFA world rankings by this year.
With the year nearing its end, China still languishes in 76th position, behind countries such as Bolivia and Guinea, which have populations of less than 13 million each – compared to China's of around 1.4 billion.
For the women, a spot in the top 10 was targeted. They're currently sitting in a disappointing 15th place.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, international matches that could affect the teams' rankings – World Cup qualifying for the men and Olympic qualifying for the women – have been postponed until next year.
The CFA will therefore have to accept that both teams have failed to reach their targets for 2020.
Difficult path to the World Cup
Future prospects are no brighter, with the youth teams showing little signs of encouragement. The U23s failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics (postponed to 2021) after losing all three group matches at the Asian Football Confederation' U23 Championship in Thailand in January.
They were drawn in a difficult group alongside South Korea, Iran, and Uzbekistan, yet the team's meek surrender – conceding four and scoring no goals – was a worrying sign. China was the only team at the tournament that failed to earn a single point.
The men's team's prospects of participating at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar also look doomed for failure. China are second in Group A on just seven points, trailing leaders Syria by eight (though with a game in hand).
The eight group winners are guaranteed progression to the third round, with four spots remaining for the best runners-up. China are currently the seventh-best runner-up. Even if China do manage to sneak through, they'll face a tough challenge to win one of Asia's four qualifying spots against the likes of Japan, Iran, Australia, and South Korea.
China has only ever qualified once for the World Cup, back in 2002.
Pandemic adds to clubs' already existing problems
China too knows that the only way to developing a successful national team is through improving local football. This is why the CFA's Action Plan stresses the need to improve both the development of youth players and management of the clubs.
This comes against a backdrop of the financial excesses of the last decade, in which rich entrepreneurs spent small fortunes to bring in established foreign stars – like Carlos Tevez of Argentina, who was paid an estimated annual salary of €40 million ($47 million) in 2017 – before he upped and left China. Clubs can also face ruin when investors get in caught up in corruption cases – as was the case at Tianjin Tianhai FC, which went bankrupt after main investor Shu Yuhui was sentenced to nine years in prison for economic crimes in January of this year.
The CFA may have taken a step in the right direction by introducing a salary cap for the players in a move aimed at curbing losses. But then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to a shortened schedule and a limited number of fans being allowed into the stadium – causing more financial hardship. In May, the CFA announced that 11 clubs from China's top three divisions had had their licenses revoked due to their financial difficulties while another five clubs, including Tianjin Tianhai FC, had voluntarily disbanded for the same reason.
The pandemic has seen Chinese football going in the opposite direction to what was laid out in the Action Plan – instead of the number of teams expanding, it is actually shrinking. The third division, which last season had 32 teams, has been reduced to 21 teams this year.
Building a Chinese football culture
Besides dubious management decisions and the pandemic, it seems there is something deeper behind the Chinese football problem.
"Football is simply not in the DNA of the Chinese," says Leite Junior. China didn't even have a professional football league until 1994. And football pitches for recreational kickers are still hard to find in China's densely populated cities.
At the same time, though, Leite Junior believes that: "Despite many recent setbacks, football in China is on the right track."
He says that the Chinese government is well aware that it needs to foster a "football culture" – something that is reflected in the longer-term reform plan adopted in 2015. According to this plan, the goal is for the Chinese national men's team is to be at the highest level of the most popular sport in the world by 2050.
Despite the deficits on the pitch, football is one of the most popular sports in China, comparable only to basketball. In the season before the pandemic, an average of almost 8,000 more fans attended Chinese Super League games than in 2010.
The 2015 longer-term plan places a particularly high emphasis on increasing the number of soccer schools in the country. By this year they goal was to have opened 20,000 soccer schools throughout the country; in 2015 there were only 5,000. Most Bundesliga clubs have also become involved in sports in China.
"In these schools, the aim is to give students the opportunity to pursue football while at the same time doing well academically, which is extremely important for Chinese parents," says Qi Peng, sports scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University. According to the Xinhua state news agency, there were already 27,000 such schools in 2019.
Patience is a virtue
Since the reform plans were published, football has also been part of the curriculum at most regular schools too.
"But whether all this is enough to create a real 'football culture' will only become clear in more than a decade's when the next generation of youngsters enter the professional game," Leite Junior says.
China still has a time to rise to the highest level of world football. But football expert Leite Junior is reluctant to predict whether China really can make it there by 2050.
"It is too early to predict anything like that right now," he says. But after thinking about it for a moment, he does risk a prediction after all: "No! I don't think that China will be at the top, but maybe among the top 20."