The world's most populous country is turning its attention to the world's most popular sport. And if China can follow through on an ambitious plan pushed by President Xi Jinping, the nation could someday become a soccer superpower.
Last spring Xi, a fervent soccer fan, signed off on the most sweeping reforms in the history of modern Chinese sport — ones that apply only to soccer. In a dramatic break with Chinese bureaucratic traditions, Xi separated the country's ruling soccer federation from the government-run sports ministry and initiated a crackdown on corruption that has led to jail sentences for dozens of officials accused of match-fixing.
At the grass-roots level, the president's 50-point State Council plan calls for the expenditure of billions of dollars on developmental programs, including the creation of 50,000 soccer schools, over the next decade. The government also has helped inspire a massive wave of investment in China's first-division soccer league, which has lagged behind similar leagues in South Korea and Japan since its formation 21 years ago.
It's all part of a coordinated effort to raise the level of play in a country that ranks 88th in the world, behind the likes of Oman, Gabon and the Dominican Republic. But it's one the government concedes could take decades to fully implement.
"It's a cultural thing," Cameron Wilson, a Scottish journalist, said from his home in Shanghai, where he manages a soccer blog. "It's difficult to change people's ideas all at once in a big way. But that's what needs to happen in order for the Chinese to get better at football."
China has long been an Olympic power — it won 121 gold medals in the last three Summer Games, the most of any country. But it has excelled in individual sports such as gymnastics, swimming, badminton and table tennis rather than team sports like soccer, especially on the men's side.
And though the Chinese have played in the women's World Cup six times, reaching the final in 1999, the men have qualified for their world championships only once, going winless — and scoreless — in 2002.
"The interest is there," Wilson said. "But … there's simply not enough talented players."
So China's grassroots soccer initiatives are essentially starting from scratch. The country has few recreational leagues, and in small cities and the countryside, even soccer fields are scarce. Many parents see the game as a recipe for injury and a distraction from school.
That might be changing. Soccer is now a mandatory part of the academic curriculum in China, which is also home to the world's largest soccer school, the $185-million Evergrande Football School in Qingyuan, where more than 2,800 students — including 200 girls — train on 50 fields under the direction of Spanish and Chinese coaches.
In the Chinese capital, Cai Wei, general manager of Beijing Guo'ao Yueye, a youth soccer club, stood on the sidelines as about 100 rain-soaked children ran drills for coaches from Rwanda and Pakistan, who barked out orders in Chinese.
"Of course the new policy will help us out a lot," said Cai, whohas seen his program's enrollment grow by 10%, to about 800 children, in the last five months.
"The most important aspect is financial," he said. "But school principals support soccer now, local governments support it — all that support helps."
"There are still challenges," he continued. "Now, everybody wants to participate [in the boom] — even people who don't understand soccer. Before, our greatest conflict was with society. Now it's the market — the competition is getting intense."
Xi's reforms are designed to speed that transition, which would win China respectability in international soccer, perhaps paving the way for it to host the World Cup. (China may have taken a first step down that path in March when the Wanda Group, the country's largest private property developer, became the first Chinese company to sign on as a top-tier FIFA sponsor.)
China's professional Super League has also been flexing its financial muscle. Five months ago the 16-team league spent a record $366 million acquiring players during international soccer's winter transfer window, about what Europe's top three leagues — the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and Spain's La Liga — spent combined.
China's second-tier League One — the equivalent of a minor league in baseball — spent another $110 million.
The Super League also sold its television rights for the next four years to China Media Capital, a government-backed company, for $1.3 billion. That's more than 30 times the value of the league's last broadcast deal.
The goal in attracting foreign players — such as Brazilian national team stars Alex Teixeira and Ramires, who jumped to Chinese club Jiangsu Suning this winter for a combined $88 million — is to raise the level of play in the Super League. And that, the Chinese believe, will trickle down to the national team.
The investment has already proven a big hit at the box office, with the Super League reporting an average attendance of 26,933 eight weeks into the season. That's better than established leagues such as France's Ligue 1 and Italy's Serie A and about 800 a game behind Spain's La Liga.
Four Chinese teams — including Jiangsu — are drawing more than 40,000 a game.
China's rise hasn't gone unnoticed in the rest of the soccer world, where it has proved both frightening and alluring to the sport's European heavyweights. Those clubs have already begun mining the country's newfound interest in the sport for money — and might soon be taking out players as well.
English club Liverpool, outbid for the services of Teixeira this winter, announced Tuesday it was opening an online merchandise site in China, where it already has 1.7 million social media followers. And Germany's Bayern Munich, which lost out on Ramires, opened a marketing office in Shanghai last year.
The German champions, who made more than $11 million on a 2015 summer tour of China, hope to earn $29 million in revenue from the China market alone by 2020. Three other European superclubs — England's Manchester United and Manchester City and German runner-up Borussia Dortmund — will play three games in China in July
"The significance of the Chinese football market is immense and it will only continue to grow," said Jochen Rotthaus, director of marketing and communication for German club Bayer Leverkusen, which is considering a Chinese tour of its own next year.
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Kevin Baxter reported from Los Angeles and Jonathan Kaiman from Beijing.