Even if you can’t play soccer, ‘Gukppong’ is the best in the world… Chinese football in crisis [한중일 톺아보기]

◆ 2022 Qatar World Cup ◆

[한중일 톺아보기-101]

The moment Hwang Hee-chan of South Korea scored the winning goal in the match between Korea and Portugal on the 3rd. The Chinese Wanda Group logo is visible in the background.

WANDA (Wanda), Mengniu, Vivo, Hisense (Hisense)…

These are the letters often caught on the screen during this Qatar World Cup game. These are companies representing China, and they are sponsoring this competition following the 2018 Russian competition. Chinese football has shown outstanding skills that have never advanced to the finals for 20 years since its first ever advance to the finals in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, but as a water owner, it is a ‘leading level’. The International Football Federation (FIFA) selects official sponsors called ‘partners’ and ‘World Cup sponsors’ to raise the hosting costs, because Chinese companies are the largest among the sponsors included here. Chinese companies account for 3 out of 7 sponsor companies, including 1 partner company. Chinese companies paid $1.4 billion in sponsorship fees for this event, beating American companies ($1.1 billion) and taking first place for the second consecutive time.

In fact, the history of Chinese companies starting to become World Cup sponsors is short. In 2014, when a corruption scandal broke out in relation to FIFA’s host bid, many sponsors fell away, and when FIFA’s financial difficulties aggravated, it was Chinese companies that filled the vacant seats. For FIFA, World Cup sponsor fees are an important source of revenue, accounting for about 30% of annual income along with broadcast rights. The interests of Fifa, which was suffering from financial difficulties, coincided with Chinese companies that wanted to increase their reputation through the world’s largest sporting event.

Even stadiums, buses, supplies, and equipment are made in China… “Everything except the soccer team is there”

Chinese CCTV reports that Qatar’s Lusail Stadium was built by China. [CCTV 캡처]

Lusail Stadium, where the closing ceremony and finals will be held, was also built by China Railway Construction Group (中國鐵建) with local Qatar companies. In this regard, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “In addition to the stadium, Chinese companies also participated in the construction of solar power generation.”

Yutong Bus, a Chinese electric bus company, provided 1,500 vehicles, and Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, known as the world’s largest producer of miscellaneous goods, is producing and supplying various items such as official matches for the World Cup and whistles. In response, the Global Times, a sister newspaper of the People’s Daily, made a fuss, saying, “From stadiums to buses, air conditioners, and other facilities, there is nothing that has not been touched by China.” China’s CCTV reported that two giant pandas sent to Qatar were welcoming the audience while shining the Chinese five-star red flag during the opening ceremony.

However, no matter how much companies show off their presence, people say that the World Cup without a soccer team is meaningless in the end. A Shanghai citizen shook his head, saying, “I don’t want to talk about the World Cup without a Chinese team,” while on Weibo, there was a self-deprecating lament, saying, “Chinese companies and products are all available, but only the Chinese soccer team is missing.” Foreign Policy (FP), an American diplomatic magazine, also pointed out, “There are Chinese companies in this World Cup, but there are no Chinese players and fans,” and “China is isolated from world-class sports.”

‘Soccer fanatic’ Xi shouted ‘soccer rise’, but… Chinese football ‘immovable’

President Xi Jinping celebrates at the newly built Qinhuangdao Stadium in 2008. [연합뉴스]

President Xi Jinping, who formalized his third consecutive term last month, is a self-proclaimed soccer fanatic. In 2008, when he was vice-president of the country, a photo of him kicking a ball at the Qinhuangdao Olympic Stadium in Hebei Province was released, and in 2011, he said, “China’s three dreams are to host the World Cup, advance to the finals, and win.” It is also known that there is a photo hanging in Xi’s office during his visit to Ireland in 2012.

He has a lot of interest in football and has been injecting ‘Gukppong’ to the Chinese people by shouting ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation’. For this reason, from the beginning of his reign, he has been directing the development of football by mobilizing powerful financial power. In 2016, he presented a specific timetable to conquer Asian football by 2030 and achieve the Chinese dream, and by 2050 to become the world’s best football player.

Chinese people are also very interested in football. Chinese people’s love for soccer is second only to their favorite sport, basketball. The number of people watching soccer broadcasts alone is close to 200 million, and due to restrictions on movement due to the corona blockade, it has decreased sharply from the last Russian tournament, but only 7,000 tickets for the game purchased by Chinese people during this tournament.

China, which has abundant human resources thanks to its large population and has invested heavily in sports based on rapid economic growth, has achieved good results every time in various sports events such as the Olympics and Asian Games. However, it is popular and money is spent, but it is not good, so it is said that China’s soccer skills are one of the world’s four wonders.

Reasons why China can’t play football, corruption, unique individualism, etc.

China’s soccer performance since 2000. [그래픽=유제민]

There are many analyzes as to why China can’t play soccer, but I’ll just pick three big ones.

First of all, they paid huge salaries to bring outstanding foreign players to their home league, but this did not lead to improvement in the skills of domestic players. Regarding Chinese soccer, K-League Gangwon FC coach Choi Yong-soo said, “Even though it is possible to bring in outstanding foreign players and improve the club’s performance in a short period of time, the national team’s performance is very different.” Astronomical money was invested to call overseas players, but in the process, Chinese players were treated excessively compared to their skills, and there is an analysis that this rather hindered Chinese players from overseas challenges. As a result, from 2019, we tried to naturalize a large number of foreign players, such as those from Brazil, but this strategy, which had short-term results in mind, ended up failing to advance to the World Cup finals.

China’s unique individualism is also cited as a factor. Soccer is a representative team sport, and as 11 players play, you often have to cover your own position as well as other positions depending on the situation. It can be said that the attitude of conceding and helping the opportunity that came to oneself is more required than other sports. However, it is argued that this kind of team play and sacrifice does not fit well with the Chinese mindset of “I don’t care what happens to other people besides me”.

There is also the influence of corruption peculiar to the communist bloc. Match-fixing, bribing referees, as well as widespread corruption in the process of appointing players have been discussed for a long time. Since the 2010s, there has been a movement in China to benchmark Europe and grow step by step from childhood, but corruption has also surfaced in the player selection process. It is evaluated that it is difficult for really talented players to be properly treated and grow as there are many cases of attracting and pushing with bribes or government officials. Former Japan national team coach Takeshi Okada, who took the baton of Zhejiang Lucheng in the Chinese Super League, said, “In China, players with authority and authority do not get severely punished even if they do illegal things. He pointed out that these factors hinder the development of Chinese football.”

A series of bankruptcies in Chinese Super League clubs… Chinese football swayed by politics

The Chinese national team lost to Vietnam in the World Cup qualifiers earlier this year. [연합뉴스]

In the final World Cup qualifiers in February, China lost 1-3 to Vietnam, the bottom of the group, and failed to advance to the finals. This was virtually the first time China lost to Vietnam in football, and it seemed that their performance had declined more than in the 2018 Russian tournament. In the background, there is a crisis that the Chinese professional league is facing.

It is now difficult to find foreign players in the first division of Chinese professional football, the ‘Super League’, which was crowded with foreigners in the past. The Super League was once evaluated as a soccer stage representing Asia with its financial power, but many clubs went bankrupt before and after the Corona 19 incident and are walking the path of downfall. The 2020 winning team, Jiangsu Suning, faced an embarrassing situation in which it was disbanded just a few months after winning the title due to financial difficulties of the club’s parent company, and Tianjin Tianhai’s parent company chairman was arrested for illegal activities and the club was disbanded as well. Last May, Chongqing Liangjiang also delayed payment of players’ salaries due to financial difficulties, and eventually announced its dissolution. The 2013 and 2015 AFC Champions League winner Guangzhou Hengda (Evergrande) is also rumored to be disbanding due to the bankruptcy of the parent company Hengda Group.

In this process, the Chinese ‘Exodus’ of foreign players receiving high salaries appeared. The market value of the Super League has also plummeted. Chinese sports industry analyst Mark Dryer said, “For about five years after 2016, there was a boom in the Chinese soccer world with a huge amount of money flowing in, and then the bubble suddenly burst and bankruptcies followed one after another. I have never heard of a soccer club going bankrupt so suddenly,” he said. Support from state-owned enterprises has also declined. He analyzed, “It is because the political gains that can be expected by supporting football have disappeared.” At some point, it became impossible to find President Xi mentioning football in public.

China’s CCTV (left screen) edited and exported the scene where the camera was reflected on the audience. On the right are relay screens from other countries.

More worrying is the absence of fans. Since 2020, when the corona crisis broke out, Super League matches have basically been held almost without spectators. No player wants to play in an empty stadium. Professional sports cannot exist without fans. Because of this, the International Football Players Association (FIFPRO) recently warned players to refrain from signing contracts with Chinese clubs.

A while ago, it was reported that the former coach of the Chinese national team, who had been suddenly sacked, was under investigation. As a result, speculation came out that the world was enjoying the World Cup, but they were the only ones shouting zero corona and trying to find a ‘scapegoat’ to turn people’s resentment against the reality of self-injury. Chinese authorities are even censoring the appearance of spectators taking off their masks and enjoying the World Cup relay broadcast for fear of stimulating antipathy for Zero Corona. As long as the purpose of enjoying and nurturing football is buried in political logic, the day when Chinese football will be active in Asia as well as the world is likely to be far in the future.

Lower Reporter’s Page+subscribeIf you click ‘, you can easily receive the next article. serialized on Saturday [한중일 톺아보기]examines various issues related to Asia, focusing on Korea, China and Japan.

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