The Chinese Soccer Dream
Chinese brands raised their global profile during the recent FIFA World Cup in Moscow by spending big. Seven of the World Cup's 17 commercial partners were Chinese, among them official FIFA partner Wanda Group and the tournament sponsors Hisense, Mengniu and Vivo.
"Chinese companies spotted the opportunity for a relatively cost-effective way to get their brands in front of billions of global eyeballs," Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in the UK, to state media China.org.cn.
China is well aware of how sports can help shape a nation's image. In the early 1970s, "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" helped spur a watershed in Sino-U.S. relations. The visit of U.S. ping-pong players to China - at the behest of the Chinese - came ahead of President Nixon's landmark 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said at the time.
By the early 2010's China was so dominant in ping-pong that it began to train other countries' players. Yang Peifang, the vice party secretary of the Chinese Academy of Table Tennis in Shanghai, told The Telegraph in 2010 that China would help foreign ping-pong "lambs" become "wolves."
Beijing is keen to replicate its ping-pong success in soccer, the most popular sport globally. Chinese companies are naturally keen to support Chinese President Xi Jinping's goal of cultivating a soccer culture in China and ultimately winning a World Cup. For companies, being present at the World Cup as sponsors is one way to do that.
Yet China's actual performance in soccer has been modest, despite heavy investment. The problem China faces in soccer is straightforward: Achieving excellence in the game, just like cultivating an innovative business culture, requires more than top-down directives and massive capital expenditure.
To be sure, Beijing could improve its soccer prowess by importing star foreign players. A June Quartz report notes that some Chinese Super League teams have made significant investments in such players.
But for China to make real headway in soccer, it probably needs to reform the way it plays the game. In the best-selling book Soccernomics, the authors suggest that China's brittle athletics culture is holding back its success in soccer. While China has cultivated plenty of Olympic champions, achieving excellence in soccer requires a blend of creativity, improvisation and individualism, the authors say.
In a June commentary published on The Conversation's website, Mary Gallagher, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, says it will be tough for China to win a World Cup. She points out that China's intense academic culture leaves limited room for athletics. If kids are so busy cramming for tests that they don't have time for sports, how can China become a soccer juggernaut?
It should be noted that soccer greatness is hard to achieve. Only eight nations have ever won a World Cup. Further, the world's largest economy, military and No. 3 cultural power - the United States - is not one of them. Still, as Gallagher points out, the U.S.'s women's soccer team won the 2015 Women's World Cup. She believes that China could move in that direction.