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How China wants to become a football heavyweight

November 4, 2022

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently cemented his political power and now he wants to turn China into a football heavyweight. However, social and cultural obstacles are in the way.

China's football players line up for a photo at the FIFA Asian World Cup qualifier against Japan
China is currently only 79th in the FIFA world rankingsImage: Keita Ilijima/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Photo/picture alliance

"I call it robot football," says Lars Isecke as he describes what he often sees in Chinese youth football training. The coaches work a lot with recurring drills. "Two players face each other and pass the ball to each other without changing positions."

Isecke, a German football coach, worked in the youth sector and coaching development of the German Football association for many years. Most recently, he has been head of the highest coaching education level at the Chinese Football Association (CFA). "It doesn't surprise me, that there are players in the national team, who can only pass the ball one-dimensionally and have no understanding of their teammates or a feeling for space, time and where to pass the ball."

Nevertheless, China has got big plans — not just geopolitically and economically — but also in football. Since 2015, the country is running a nationwide football program. At the instigation of President Xi Jinping himself, the country's football ambitions were even formulated as an official state goal. And that goal is ambitious: By 2030, China's men's team is supposed to be the best team in Asia, and by 2050, the best in the world.

Not competitive at international level

As it stands, China has a long way to go to achieve those goals. The country is currently 79th in the FIFA world rankings and has only ever participated in one World Cup (2002). That won't change this year either, as they have failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Oman's Issam Al Sabhi (right) celebrates after a goal during a a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 between China and Oman
China failed to qualify for the World Cup in QatarImage: Martin Dokoupil/AP Photo/picture alliance

Isecke often hears the theory that with a population of more than 1.3 billion people, it must be possible to find eleven talented players to form a good team. But it is not as easy as that. Money and infrastructure are available, but there aren't millions of active football players in China, not even hundreds of thousands. It's quite the opposite: The number of active football players is limited to just a few thousands. Isecke cites cultural and social reasons for the lack of numbers.

"The school system doesn't allow enough freedom for creative physical education. The school hours alone go well into the afternoon. That in combination with hours of homework prevents young people from playing football," said Isecke. According to the German coach, it simply doesn't happen that a group of friends or neighbors grab a ball and play football in the afternoon or on the weekends.

Elitist education system

Hangkun Strian is a sinologist, literature and linguistics scholar and works as an author, translator and lecturer in Berlin. She agrees with Isecke's assessment. "Everyday life is quite stressful for Chinese children, because of the elitist education system in China," she told DW. "The only way to stand a chance against social competition is to get good grades at school and study at an elite university." Parents therefore prefer to invest a lot of time and money into their children's performance at school - for example in the form of after-school tutoring courses - rather than in their interests or hobbies such as football.

Chinese childern throw footballs in the air in front of the school building
Football training China's schools often has little to do with the modern gameImage: CFOTO/picture alliance

China's one-child policy, which was only softened in 2015, also plays a role according to Strian. "Parents and grandparents tend to be overprotective of children," he says. "Playing sports is considered hard physical labor according to ancient Chinese tradition. There is a high risk of injury in football. Many parents are particularly cautious about their child taking risks. Popular sports in China tend to be those, that are calm and harmonious, for example table tennis or badminton."

Fear of making mistakes

Isecke points to another consequence of the one-child policy on the football field. "Chinese are not successful in team sports, because they have not learned to play as a team," he said. A family structure in which both parents and usually four grandparents focus solely on one child often encourages selfish behaviour. And there is another cultural phenomenon that often stands in the way of free-flowing play on the football field.

Lars Isecke in a Germany jacket, smiling and looking straight ahead
Lars Isecke was head of coaching education at the Chinese Football Association (CFA)Image: Kai Schwörer/Schwörer Pressefoto/picture alliance

"There is a big fear of losing credibility and respect in Asia," said Isecke. "If I make a mistake, I lose the respect of the public. So it's better to not do anything rather than doing something wrong." That mentality has got bizarre consequences on the pitch, according to Isecke. "The players don't want the ball at all — whether it's men or women, young people or adults. As soon as there are foreigners in their team, they pass them the ball and try to not receive it back."

Players abroad a rarity

According to 'transfermarkt.de', very few Chinese professional football players play abroad. 17 of them earn their money in Spain, but none of them play in the highest league, the Primera Division. A further 12 are playing in Portugal, four of them at Oriental Dragon FC. A very small number, considering that the third-division club was founded in 2014 specifically for the purpose to train and support Chinese players under Portuguese guidance.

Ten Chinese players are listed in Germany, but none of the play in either of the first three professional leagues. Two of them, Wang Bowen and Li Xiancheng, play for Werder Bremen's second team in the fourth division, but neither are regular starters.

No sustainability

Conversely, China's football federation and the clubs in the Super League like to hire foreign coaches, whose expertise is supposed to help improve Chinese football. But despite the fact that the association and the clubs are willing to pay a lot of money for that extra competence, the potential isn't fully exploited. Foreign experts are very rarely involved in drawing up the plans that are usually approved by the CFA, the state sports administration and the Ministry of Education. As a result, it often occurs that the numbers estimated in those plans - for example for coaching development — do not match the actual pool of suitable candidates for a coach pro license.

Jiyai Shao (middle) next to two Chinese officials watching the game between TSV Schott Mainz and the Chinese under 20 national team
Opportunity for change? Former Bundesliga player Shao Jiyai (middle) wants to work as a coachImage: Axel Kohring/Beautiful Sports/picture alliance

Isecke is hopeful that things are changing in Chinese football though. The Chinese federation started to specifically promote a group of former national team players with the goal to train them in the pro course next year. Among them is Shaw Jiyai, a former Bundesliga professional, and Zheng Chi, the long-serving captain of the national team, who used to play in England and Scotland. In the long term, the two former players can help to implement the changes needed to make China's football internationally competitive, but there is a long road ahead to satisfy the president's ambitions.

This article was originally published in German.