Since its inclusion in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, China has performed superbly on the world’s largest sporting stage, finishing outside the top four of the medal table on only one occasion at Seoul 1988. The country’s greatest Olympic moment was hosting the 2008 Games, where their 639 athletes finished top of the medal table, with a haul of 98 medals. Such sporting excellence comes at a price – the Beijing Games cost $44 billion – but the Chinese government views sport as an important “softcore” political display of their nation’s prowess and so willingly invests in its Olympic programme. Under current President Xi Jinping, China’s sporting investment is growing, encompassing new sports not regularly associated with the Asian powerhouse, with global dominance their goal.
This January transfer window, football acquired a new buzzword: China. A deluge of investment from the club owners in the Chinese Super League has seen lucrative deals being signed by several high-profile players. Headlining the movers is Carlos Tevez, who exchanged his hometown club of Boca Juniors, in Argentina, for Shanghai Shenhua, in a £14 million deal with a wage package speculated as the world’s largest, possibly as high as £615,000 a week. Similarly, the £29.75 million paid by Shanghai SIPG for Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Oscar makes him the league’s most valuable player.
Whilst the owners of China’s top-flight clubs gentrify their league through individually investing in foreign superstars, notable coaches have also been attracted to the league in recent years. These include ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini, who currently manages Hebei China Fortune; ex-Sunderland manager Gus Poyet, who secured the Shanghai Shenhua job last November; ex-Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who manages current champions Guangzhou Evergrande. Meanwhile, ex-England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has managed in the Super League before, will take charge of second-tier side Shenzhen FC in the coming season, highlighting the extent of the growth of the Chinese game. The calibre of managers and players flooding into China will continue to raise the profile and standard of the league, with the aim of being one of the world’s best divisions.
With such massive expenditure on top coaches and players, parallels to the English Premier League are not difficult to draw. Whilst England currently boasts the strongest league in world football, its national side’s failings are well documented. This is a fate that the Chinese government is unwilling to accept for its own national side. President Xi dreams of national success; qualifying, hosting, and winning the FIFA World Cup are all goals for the men’s national side by 2050. The government’s desire for their team to be a “world football superpower” will be achieved under a two-part scheme: careful regulation of the Super League and a massive grassroots development of the game across China.
New regulations aimed at developing Chinese players within the Super League were implemented on 16 January this year. The changes limit the number of foreign players on the pitch to three – down from the previous total of five. In addition, all goalkeepers must be Chinese nationals and at least two under-23 Chinese players must be in every match day squad, with at least one on the field of play. Whilst the league ensures progress for China’s upcoming stars, the grassroots initiative aims to get more Chinese people playing football nationwide. This huge undertaking is designed to have 50 million adults and children playing football on 70,000 new pitches by 2020. In the short term, the foreign stars joining the Super League should increase interest in the game and inspire the next generation of Chinese players. Whether China can balance their domestic league with a strong national team and learn from English mistakes remains to be seen.
With a television market serving 1.4 billion people – roughly 18.5 per cent of the global population – many different sports are looking to reach out to Chinese viewers.
Last November, the Premier League agreed a $700 million deal with Chinese television and internet provider PPTV. This untapped market is proving a huge draw for a whole range of new sports – ones which hope to develop not only Chinese audiences, but grow their sport in the country as well.
Although Asia is largely virgin territory for Rugby Union, the game is becoming increasingly popular in Japan, who are hosting the next World Cup in 2019. This tournament – alongside the inclusion of the shorter version of the game, Rugby Sevens, in the Olympics – are potential springboards to launch rugby on the continent.
Currently, rugby is played mainly in Hong Kong, but the mainland military have used it as a team-building exercise. A $100 million investment into China last year, aimed at increasing participation – which rose to 76,000 last year – is a big step for world rugby.
Other sporting bodies, including the NFL and the NBA are also negotiating TV deals with Chinese providers. Although basketball is already very popular, this is new ground for American football.
Can China radically change the international sport status quo by lifting the FIFA or Rugby World Cups by the end of the century? The scale of the investments into these new sports, the size of the new television audiences and the already increasing participation suggests that China could achieve its aspirations. China has only previously qualified for one football World Cup finals back in 2002, and are currently ranked 81st in the world. Humble beginnings perhaps, but China is a nation with big visions and the foundations to one day dominate sporting fields which today might seem inconceivable.