Chinese brands will be the largest sponsors of this month’s World Cup, spending $1.395 billion compared to the $1.1 billion spent by U.S. companies (in third, behind Qatar) according to Al Jazeera. The news highlights an absence elsewhere, though. Because in marked contrast to Chinese business, the Chinese men’s football team aren’t in Qatar, having been knocked out of qualifying in early February, after a 3-1 defeat by Vietnam. This failure may not exactly dominate the strategic thinking of Chinese President Xi Jinping, but there are a couple of reasons to guess that it may sting, particularly now the tournament has kicked off.
Firstly, it’s personal, because he has convincingly declared himself a football fan. The famous photograph of him kicking a football in Ireland was on the wall behind him when he gave his first presidential address after assuming power in November 2012, and he’s been gifted football shirts by countries like Brazil and Argentina in recognition of his fandom. What’s more, unlike some leaders who use football support to sound “in touch” with their populations but then forget which team they say they support, Xi’s support seemingly has deep roots: His presence at a game in which a China XI was thrashed 5-1 by Watford in 1983 is often cited as proof of his credentials and commitment. (Watford is an unfashionable English team, albeit those were some of its peak years.)
Of course it is also political, too, though. In 2011, Xi told a South Korean politician that he had three football wishes: For China to qualify for the World Cup; to host a tournament; and to eventually win the world championship. In the same year, Xi unveiled “The Great [China] Soccer Dream,” a plan for the progress of Chinese football, designed to encourage the development of the sport in China through improving the “environment,” encouraging participation at youth level, and eventually hosting a World Cup. These are not only sticks to beat Xi with as progress looks slow — China has still only ever qualified for one World Cup in its history, in 2002, and is currently ranked lower in FIFA’s rankings than it was at the end of 2011 — they also point toward significant political capital that China is currently missing out on.
There are two schools of thought on why being good at football broadly benefits a country. Looking inward, there is the idea that “successful national sports teams play a significant role in forging national solidarity,” while “conversely, failure on the international stage can undermine attempts to unify the nation,” according to Alan Bairner, editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Sport and Social Science. This is theoretically important as the fragile fiction of the nation always needs reinforcing. On the other hand, looking outward, there is the idea that winning football matches carries soft power. Through this frame, holding up World Cup trophies can help “set the political agenda by having others admire or desire to embrace or duplicate your ‘attractive culture, desirable ideologies, credible, innovative, and forward-thinking institutions and policies.’”
In other words, being good at by far the world’s most played sport makes your country look cool to both your own population and others, while losing to Watford does not. And if there are consequences to winning there are also probably consequences to losing. It’s a kind of humiliation, as England’s defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016, days after Britain had voted to leave the EU demonstrated: It was dubbed “Brexit 2.0” and was particularly powerful because it conformed to already-existing ideas about the direction the country was going in.
For China, aside from being a non-entity on the (men’s) international stage in the eyes of most football fans, its lasting contribution to (men’s) football culture in the last 20 years has been offering obscene salaries to fading stars of the European game before being hugely disrespected by said stars. As The Diplomat notes: “In 2016, Argentine striker Carlos Tevez signed a two-year deal for $40 million with Shanghai Shenhua. He scored only four goals and eventually returned to his boyhood club in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors. He was quoted in Argentina calling his stay in Shanghai his ‘China vacation.’” This is obviously not how anyone wants to be seen.
There have been some successes alongside all this. China’s women’s team, for instance, is ranked far higher than its men’s team. And attempts are still being made to gain greater success in both the men and women’s game. What’s more, it was always likely to take a long time for a country that only re-entered FIFA in 1979 and whose top flight only went professional in 1994. But all the same, Xi Jinping may wish to avoid the main sports channels over the next few weeks. Watford have a game on December 11 if he does need to get the buzz back during the international break.