At the World Cup, Chinese companies are doing better than Chinese football

At the start of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, China once again stands out with its absence. Team China failed to qualify for the 22nd World Cup, extending its absence to 20 years since its only appearance at the joint Japan-South Korea edition when the team was eliminated in the group stage, losing all three games and failing to score.

But even without China on the field, the country’s soft-power push continues on the fringes.

The spectacle will take place at the China Railway International Group-built Lusail Stadium, which features on Qatar’s new 10-riyal banknote, and Chinese fans will be among the spectators: FIFA announced ahead of the tournament that between 5,000 and 7,000 Tickets were sold to Chinese nationals. Beijing has sent two pandas — Jing Jing and Si Hai, renamed Suhail and Soraya for the occasion — to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to receive Chinese giant pandas, while Chinese companies Hisense, Mengniu Dairy, Vivo and Wanda to the World include cup sponsors.

At the start of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, China once again stands out with its absence. Team China failed to qualify for the 22nd World Cup, extending its absence to 20 years since its only appearance at the joint Japan-South Korea edition when the team was eliminated in the group stage, losing all three games and failing to score.

But even without China on the field, the country’s soft-power push continues on the fringes.

The spectacle will take place at the China Railway International Group-built Lusail Stadium, which features on Qatar’s new 10-riyal banknote, and Chinese fans will be among the spectators: FIFA announced ahead of the tournament that between 5,000 and 7,000 Tickets were sold to Chinese nationals. Beijing has sent two pandas — Jing Jing and Si Hai, renamed Suhail and Soraya for the occasion — to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to receive Chinese giant pandas, while Chinese companies Hisense, Mengniu Dairy, Vivo and Wanda to the World include cup sponsors.

But while Chinese power may be present, Chinese fans mostly aren’t. Ticket sales would have been higher, but China’s zero-COVID policy has restricted travel and restricted most of the country’s football fans to watching the event on TV. A prominent Hisense pitchside ad reads in Chinese, “China first, the world second.” It’s probably meant to refer to sales rankings – No. 1 in China, No. 2 in the world – but it carries an unfortunate message in the COVID-19 era.

“I think the World Cup will reinforce the sense of difference, the sense of isolation that China has embraced,” said Cameron Wilson, founding editor of the Wild East football website.

“It’s closed to the world because of the pandemic. It’s practically closed, and with the World Cup, basically the biggest party on earth, China isn’t back. From an international perspective, it’s quite poignant,” he adds.

“We’re not going to see all these stories about how there are a lot of Chinese fans but China isn’t there. Most Chinese cannot travel.”

For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA sold 40,000 tickets to Chinese fans, while Chinese media reported that 60,000 had traveled there. According to Russian figures, around 100,000 visitors came from China during the tournament.

“The World Cup is poorer for that. I think it’s good that Chinese people could share the party atmosphere with other people from all over the world. I think that’s something that’s badly needed now, but it’s not going to happen to the extent that it has in the past,” Wilson says.

Make no mistake, China wanted to be at this World Cup – the first full qualifying campaign since the country’s giant stride towards its goal of becoming a ‘world football superpower’ by 2050. It gave itself every chance to qualify and pursued a controversial naturalization policy, with several Brazilians representing China and also pausing the Chinese Super League (CSL) to allow for national training camps.

Qualifying hopes ended with a 3-1 defeat by Vietnam in February, in what netizens branded a national embarrassment. It was the first time China had lost to its Southeast Asian neighbors and Li Xiaopeng, China’s fourth qualifying campaign head coach, apologized afterwards.

If anything, Chinese football has been in decline since the 2018 World Cup.

Just two players from CSL clubs (South Korea’s Son Jun-ho, who plays for Shandong Taishan, and Cameroonian striker Christian Bassogog from Shanghai Shenhua) will be in Qatar, with fewer than nine in Russia – a clear sign of how progress is heading into the got stuck.

The CSL has seen an exodus of foreign talent that began even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Some CSL players at the 2018 World Cup were among the influx of star names that followed the flow of investment into Chinese football that began in 2016.

“In the last five years, we’ve really seen the boom of Chinese football and everything related to Chinese football, 2016, 2017 and maybe even 2018, with a huge rise of football and Chinese Super League and money,” he says Chinese sports watcher Mark Dreyer.

“Then we saw bankruptcy very quickly too, with teams, including Super League teams, not just lower-league teams, going bankrupt, which is at an unthinkable level compared to other footballing countries, the number of teams that have gone are out of business in such a short time.”

Champion Jiangsu Suning, funded by the eponymous e-commerce giant, collapsed just months after winning the 2020 CSL title due to its owner’s financial woes, while Tianjin Quanjian was already gone and owner Quanjian was embroiled in allegations of a pyramid scheme.

Just this month, it was reported that Hebei FC could be the next CSL team to pull out due to financial issues, which players have complained about not being paid.

Even before COVID-19, money started falling out of the game and club owners like Evergrande Group have seen their pockets hit.

“There is no longer the same political priority that we saw from 2015 onwards. Yes, [President] Xi Jinping is known as a football fan, but for as long as I can remember we haven’t even heard him talk about football,” says Dreyer.

Teams that have been supported by local government and big real estate companies as well as state-owned companies “suddenly don’t have that support anymore,” he says, “because it’s not seen as a political priority and so there’s no political benefit to supporting and supporting a football team.” .”

“So you pull out the money and what you’re left with is a failing business and that’s why a lot of these clubs went under.”

To make matters worse, since 2020 CSL games have been played almost exclusively behind closed doors, with only a handful of games open to a limited number of fans. Teams and officials have been largely confined to bubbles to allow for reduced seasons to be completed. Some players have left these terms, while FIFPro, the global players’ organization, has warned against signing for Chinese clubs.

“Unfortunately, football in China is really dead. It’s hard to describe without using clichés. I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but it’s definitely in deep hibernation,” says Wilson.

“There isn’t a football league in the world that can go three seasons without fans at home without causing significant long-term damage to progress for the game, without progress for the CSL. The sad thing is that’s not going to change,” he says.

“Next year’s league isn’t going to be very exciting, though [it’s] there at all. It’s just so hard for people to keep up with it. Football without fans is nothing. It’s not a cliché – it’s true.”

Wilson also says it will be interesting to see how Chinese fans will react to “seeing the rest of the world partying — in the stadiums with no masks, no COVID, everyone having a good time.”

“They’re going to sit there and not just be like, ‘Why can’t we be there?’ but ‘Why can’t we watch football in stadiums like people can do all over the world?’”

Outside of football, however, China’s pursuit of gentle power through sport continues. It sent its largest athlete delegation outside of the Beijing 2008 Olympics to last year’s Tokyo Games, where China finished second to the United States in total medal count, and then Beijing hosted this year’s Winter Olympics. In 2018, Beijing announced it would build an $813 billion sports industry by 2025, while in September 2019 the State Council announced its “Framework Plan for Building a Leading Sports Nation” with a target date of 2050. Football remains the heart of the matter.

“Progress in popular major events such as football is the main concern not only of the general public but also of the country’s top leadership. In order to build the country into a sports power, we need to raise the level in these events,” said Li Jianming. a deputy director of the General Sports Administration told media at the time.

“Hosting the World Cup and becoming a winner one day aligns with our ambition outlined in the plan to build world-leading athletic ability,” Li added.

Before that, however, China must qualify.

Could that be the 2026 expanded tournament in the United States, Canada and Mexico, where Asia will have more seats?

“Even then, it’s anything but safe,” says Dreyer. He believes China has “a lot to do to correct course” and can fight for qualification.

“There is no excuse for China not being among the top teams in Asia, but they are miles away from that at the moment.”

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