Score one for the home team: can football be an instrument of soft political power?

While the football is not new to China, recent surge of interest and investment in this European sport suggest more than just a passing fashion. The political leaders of People’s Republic of China can use it as both an instrument of entertainment of their own citizens and a building block of China’s soft power.

china football prc

China Football Association has been FIFA member since 1979 but for years it remained an exotic curiosity rather than an entity that had to be reckoned with. However that changed in 2004 with the forming of the Chinese Super League which included 16 top teams from the whole country. The testament to fierce competition among the CSL teams is that 7 out of 16 managed to be on top, namely: Shanghai Shenhua, Shenzhen Jianlibao, Dalian Shide, Shandong Luneng, Guangzhou Evergrande, Changchun Yatai and Beijing Guoan.

The sport became really popular in the emergent Chinese middle class but the main focus of football is clearly pointed out by the very top of Chinese society. President Xi Jinping has disclosed three wishes for China and football: first, China to qualify for another World Cup, second to host a World Cup and finally, to win a World Cup. No deadlines were set and it is unlikely these “three wishes” are destined for official status. However it doesn’t mean those wishes remain without consequence. Chinese teams pro-actively recruit both international football players (like Nicolas Anelka in Shanghai Shenhua) and coaches (like Zaccheroni in Beijing Guoan). On the other hand, there is growing number of Chinese players learning football the hard way in European leagues – a trend that started almost 30 years ago when Xie Yuxin joined Dutch FC Zwolle back in 1987. And then there is money involved, with Chinese investors taking over famous and prestigious football clubs: their latest acquisition being Inter Milan bought by Suning Commerce Group.

Does it mean China national team is already a raising in FIFA ranking? No cigar there. In August 2016 China had 78th team in the world, being better than Jordan (79th), Qatar (80th) and Saint-Kitts-et-Nevis (81st). Chinese women’s football team is much better though, being 13th in the world ahead of Spain (14th) and Italy (17th). It is worth nothing that there is no guaranteed return on investment in football. USA and several Gulf States already went down this path. US football league despite billions of dollars pumped into it is viewed at best as a “semi-retirement home” for international players who have seen better days.

Why then put so much effort and money into sport alien to Chinese culture? As President Xi Jinping mentioned, China “should seek other countries” understanding of and support for the Chinese dream, which is about peace, development, cooperation and win-win outcomes… China should increase its soft power, give good narrative and better communicate its message to the world”. Football can be a powerful symbol of China in the popular international arena. As a soft power instrument football can support the development of the attractiveness of the country. Indeed football is a sport that benefits from a solid interest from people in Africa and Latin America which are areas of political and economic expansion for Chinese interests. Football is also strongly growing in Asia – a more natural zone of China influence. This sport reaches hundreds of millions ordinary citizens more than any other sport or arts except Hollywood movies industry. Therefore it’s hard to imagine another vehicle to promote the image of China abroad. On top of that, domestically football can also play an important role in strengthening national unity and pride. Indeed nationalism and football go hand-in-glove in many nations around the World.

This is also not new on global scale and could backfire on China as it was in case with Qatar. Huge ambitions of this Gulf nation lead to attribution of FIFA 2022 World Cup, yet the Qatar’s image has been severely damaged by rumours. If PRC want to use football as an instrument of soft power projection, it most definitely has to learn from both US and Qatar’s experience.