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With Xi Jinping’s encouragement, China has poured billions into new fields and lavish player and coach salaries, but has little to show for it

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Chinese players Lin Yuping, second from right, and goalkeeper Peng Shimeng, right, leap for the ball at an Olympic qualifying match against South Korea this past April in Goyang, South Korea.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.

Earlier this year, Roast, a popular television show in China, turned its comedic scorn to sport. It brought former soccer player and coach Fan Zhiyi to the program, introducing him with a recounting of his own spirit-sapping defeats: the 4-2 loss to Iran. The 3-2 loss to Qatar. And others.

Then, the show invited him to take a few potshots of his own at a pair of basketball players, suggesting perhaps he could enliven their performance. Mr. Fan, a local soccer pioneer who was among the first two Chinese men to play in English leagues, balked. “How bad could they be if they need to let Chinese football save them?” he asked. “I never knew there would come a day that Chinese football could inspire someone else.”

The audience howled.

The jokes come quick and easy about soccer in China, a country whose dismal performance has crashed embarrassingly against its naked ambition.

With President Xi Jinping a personal fan of the sport, the country’s leadership has openly pledged to become “a first-class football superpower” by 2050. There is a published master plan to open 50,000 soccer schools and a mandate from the country’s powerful Central Reform Committee, chaired by Mr. Xi, that achieving soccer greatness “is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse.”

Those words have produced an immense outpouring of cash as the country’s rich seek political favour in soccer greatness. Over the past few years, China has boasted some of the highest-paid players and coaches on Earth.

None of it has produced any obvious result. The men’s team, which infamously failed to notch a single goal in its sole World Cup appearance, in 2002, is currently ranked 77th in the world – 40 spots below its position in 1998.

More recent attempts at greatness have ended in misery. Marcello Lippi, the man called one of the sport’s most successful managers of all time, came to China in 2019 on a $29-million salary. “To qualify for the 2018 World Cup is not impossible,” he said at the time. By 2019, after a 2-1 defeat to Syria, he quit.

Two years earlier, Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez came to China on what was widely called the biggest salary in the sport. He played for seven months, a period he later mocked as being “on vacation.”

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At top, players and staff of Jiangsu FC celebrate winning the Chinese Super League Title in November of 2020. Jiangsu's stars included Alex Teixeira, shown at bottom left after scoring the final's winning goal. But only a few months later, the heavily indebted team suspended operations, leaving its training centre in Nanjing, bottom right, empty.AFP/Getty Images

Since then, Chinese professional soccer has descended into turmoil. In the past two years, more than 20 teams have folded, declared bankruptcy or been booted from leagues – including heavily indebted Jiangsu FC, which suddenly called it quits earlier this year, barely three months after taking the Chinese Super League title. The club had previously signed Brazilians Alex Teixeira and Ramires for a combined US$122-million. When another failed team, Liaoning Hongyun, struggled to pay its players, the team auctioned its bus for cash.

The waste has been staggering: Last year, Chen Xuyuan, chairman of the Chinese Football Association, admitted that Chinese professional clubs had paid players nearly six times as much as clubs in Japan, and nearly 12 times more than their Korean counterparts – with little to show for it.

“I always say football is a microcosm of China,” said Cameron Wilson, a writer who founded Wild East Football, a news and analysis site that covers soccer in the country. “The overpoliticization of things. The fact that people who are making decisions are not football people, they are politicians.”

Problems plague the sport from top to bottom. Schools are willing to spend heavily on new fields to meet political requirements, but have less incentive to deliver high-quality training. The president of the Chinese Football Association, meanwhile, is an economist with a background in ports rather than sports – but one who is a high-ranking Communist Party member. That, too, is important at a time when Mr. Xi has sought to bolster the party’s reach across everyday life.

Can China succeed at soccer? “I don’t see that,” Mr. Wilson said. “Because the issues are extremely fundamental.”

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Children play soccer in Dongguan's Humen Park this past March. Soccer is not a widespread youth sport in China's urban areas, but schools are trying to do more to expose children to it at younger ages.Lorenz Huber/The New York Times

Start with the basic building blocks of the country’s program: schools and construction.

Between 2016 and 2020 alone, China built 26,000 soccer pitches, while education authorities have made soccer a major focus, even playing regular instructional videos from David Beckham to students.

Problem is, “this isn’t being born out of free will,” said Tom Byer, a Japan-based consultant and author who has consulted with the Chinese government on building its soccer program. Kids are “being told to play football” as part of physical-education programs. In China, he says, “physical education is used more to discipline children. It’s a way of keeping kids in line.”

In each of the eight countries that have taken home a World Cup trophy, kicking around a ball is a part of home and social life from a young age. Not so in China, where basketball courts are plentiful, but soccer pitches far fewer, particularly in urban centres where land prices are stratospheric.

Yet Mr. Byer is not prepared to count China out. “Everything on paper shows me that things should be headed in the right direction,” he says.

He spent years as a technical adviser to the top school sports leadership in China, and has watched classrooms across the country seek to make the changes he recommended. That includes bringing children in contact with balls at a younger age, through thousands of kindergarten programs.

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Guangzhou Evergrande fans cheer last November during the CSL final that Jiangsu FC won.AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the professional leagues are being reformed, with salary caps and a new ban on corporate brands from team names – changes that have brought chaos, but also the possibility of improvement. The head of the Chinese Football Association may be an apparatchik, but two of his top deputies are now former soccer players.

And the country has replaced the unfulfilled promise of the headline-grabbing Mr. Lippi with Chris Van Puyvelde, the Belgian who brought his national team to a bronze at the World Cup and is now technical director for the Chinese Football Association.

Mr. Van Puyvelde is a former teacher, and “I want to leave a legacy,” he says. But he refuses invitations to make World Cup predictions. Instead, he hopes to inspire the kind of systemic change that can entrench and enhance soccer in the country. Any national glory that results is just “the end of the process.”

Mr. Van Puyvelde has written a “redprint” for the country – think blueprint draped in Chinese colours – that starts with the fundamentals of athletic movement for young children and expands into ways of encouraging more creative, confident play. He travels the country beseeching coaches to stop screaming at players for losing the ball, an attitude that encourages apprehensive play. He has preached the virtues of instructional encouragement instead – and is seeing change. “The young generation in football, they dare to dribble.”

He recently watched China’s under-14 girls’ team play. In four games, he saw only four long goalkeeper kicks. For the remainder, the team built plays from the backfield.

“There are a lot of things we still have to do. But when I see this, I say, ‘oh we are on a good way,’<TH>” he says. “Chinese people are the best learners I ever saw.”

And Chinese women have consistently outplayed Chinese men.

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At the qualifying match in Goyang, China's players celebrate after scoring the first goal.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

Mr. Van Puyvelde’s sunny outlook is unclouded. Where critics see dim prospects for creative soccer play in a country that drills and kills, he sees soccer as a potential lever to change that. Building mental agility on the field, he says, can easily translate to the in other parts of life.

“It’s a revolution,” he says.

Mr. Wilson is less optimistic. Childhood in China is structured around preparing for the gaokao, the universal university placement exam. “As long as the gaokao exists, students will always be pressured to spend all their waking life preparing for it,” he says.

Across Chinese sports, “kids start off and they’re talented. They make progress. But then they drop off and disappear” – to study.

And China’s biggest school-based investments have so far yielded little. Take the Guangzhou Evergrande Football School, whose 22 pitches secured it a Guinness record as the world’s largest, which has not produced a single top-tier star. The school opened in 2012 and one of its prodigies, Zhang Aokai, was made captain for a few minutes in his professional debut for the Evergrande Chinese Super League team. That was 2016. He has not played another game in the league.

Still, Mr. Wilson hopes he’s wrong. Because the need, as he sees it, is great. As China’s foreign relations grow so strained that U.S. military planners are openly warning about an increasingly imminent risk of armed conflict, “we’ve never been more in need of a universal language to connect people,” he says.

“That’s why I still personally believe in football. I believe it can deliver a good result. But China is going to have to be very patient.”

Nathan VanderKlippe has been The Globe’s Beijing-based correspondent since 2013 and has seen the ambitions and discontents of Xi Jinping’s China take shape. He outlines some key areas to watch around China’s political and economic ambitions as it also represses ethnic minorities and holds two Canadians captive.

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