April 7, 2015, by Tony Hong

Soccer and Soft Power

By Joseph Healy,

MA candidate in Contemporary Chinese Studies, UNNC.

Coming back to wintry Ningbo from the summer in Australia – and the glow of the Australian soccer team winning the Asia Cup – was a shock to the system, but l was soon warmed up by reading the front-page headline in the China Daily (28 February, 2015) which screamed ‘China moves step nearer soccer goal.’

The article reported on the leadership that President Xi Jinping is taking with the strategy to “mobilise society to develop soccer and enable it to achieve breakthroughs in China’s sports and education reform. Soccer is to become a compulsory part of the physical education classes”.

China is far from being a newcomer to soccer. The global governing body, FIFA, have acknowledged China’s claim to the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to soccer during the Han dynasty in the 2nd Century BC. The game was called vi ju or “kick ball.” Progress since then has been slow, with soccer being an unintended exemplar of Deng Xiapong’s philosophy on international matters of ‘biding time, hiding brightness and not taking the lead’.

In an article headed ‘Why China fails at Football’, The Economist, 17th December, 2011, noted that in a country so proud of its global stature, football (soccer) is a source of embarrassment, despite the encouragement of senior political leaders. For example, Chairman Mao played as goalkeeper when at teachers college and Deng was a keen watcher of the game following his time in Paris. He said to the national team in 1952 that he hoped they would become an excellent team, “as soon as possible”. In 2011, then Vice-President, Xi Jinping, added his three wishes: first, China to qualify for another World Cup, second to host a World Cup and finally, win a World Cup. No deadlines were set and it is unlikely these “three wishes” are destined for official status.

Critics within China, correctly point out that the national team has performed poorly in the past and that China has only once earned a place on the global stage at the World Cup Finals in 2002 – China is currently ranked 83 out of 203 FIFA nations and has averaged a ranking of 71 since records began in 1993 (highest was 37 in 1998). However having watched China at the recent Asian Cup, l was very impressed. The team won its group stage unbeaten and exited the competition to the eventual winners, Australia.

I didn’t see a “poor” China, but a hardworking, disciplined and talented team that left a strong impression that China can achieve a credible position amongst the world’s leading soccer nations, much in the same that the US (ranked 32), Japan (53) and South Korea (56) have.

In the long term, World Cup success will depend on building a strong domestic soccer culture which means a credible Chinese Premier League (CPL) and gettingchildren playing early with role models they can emulate.

I am impressed with the progress that the CPL is making. Some experts now believe that the best CPL teams would comfortably hold their own in the English Championship – the level below the English Premier League.

I know also that critics will point to a modern history of the game that was rife with corruption. Much has been done to eradicate that cancer and time spent dwelling on the past is time wasted. In sport, forward momentum is much more important than history.

I believe that soccer can be a powerful symbol of China in the popular international arena. Shambaugh (2013) describes how genuine global power is multidimensional and how sporting prowess is an example of a nation’s soft power and international reputation. Soccer is a sport that is growing strongly in developing nations, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America and it is a sport that reaches billions of ordinary citizens in a way that many other sports, arts and culture, don’t. When it comes to promoting ‘Brand China’ to the world, it’s hard to think of anything as powerful as soccer. Domestically, soccer can also play an important role in strengthening national unity and pride. Indeed nationalism and soccer go hand-in-glove in many nations around the word.

There are other benefits of President Xi Jinping led soccer initiative, including having the active participation of all schoolchildren will play a role in addressing a growing problem of teenage obesity in urban China (Morgan, 2014).

I am very much an optimist when comes to the future for soccer in China. l look forward to the day that China hosts the World Cup and perhaps one day win it. That would bring the ‘China Dream’ to life around the world in a way that only soccer can.

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