Yeah! Let’s Hear It - We’re #81!

This is China’s world ranking in soccer (“football” to the rest of the world). China, you might remember, is the country that won the most gold medals, 51, at the Beijing Olympics. And yet in the world’s most popular sport, China is just barely ahead of Jordan and Equatorial Guinea and still trailing Zambia (#78) and Cyprus (#80).

China has only made the World Cup tournament once and at that event (2002) it lost all of its games and did not score a single goal. Trailing the rest of the world badly is not something that China is used to today. The country’s top leader Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan, wants things to change.

China has its own professional football league, the Chinese Super League (CSL) but it has been riddled with corruption, match fixing and only so-so play. Chinese businesses like Alibaba and the major property developers own CSL teams and they are very good at reading the Beijing tea leaves. When the Top Dog says, lets get good at soccer, they rush for their checkbooks. As the chart below shows, the CSL has been on a buying spree recently, bringing coveted international players to China. In addition, in March 2015 the Chinese government made soccer a compulsory part of the national curriculum in elementary and secondary schools and it’s expected that soccer training schools will increase tenfold by 2025 to 50,000.

China has an incredibly competitive school environment and sports have always played second fiddle to non-stop studying. Where sports have been emphasized, Chinese culture has placed individual events ahead of team sports. Interestingly, however, Chinese women have excelled at many team sports, including soccer and volleyball.  The men have lagged behind. Some say that school testing puts such an emphasis on individual accomplishment, that it discourages the type of teamwork that sports like soccer require. Who knows?

But the fact is that as long as Mr. Xi is in power, soccer will be a priority. The objective is to qualify for the next World Cup tournament, to host a World Cup (possibly in 2026) and then eventually win the World Cup. None of this will happen overnight but as we have seen with the Chinese economy, when the Middle Kingdom puts its mind to something, watch out. In ten years time, my bet is that China will not be ranked 81st in the world in soccer. They are not going to displace Argentina (now #1) and hopefully not the U.S. either (ranked #29) but they will be on the move.