6: Big changes in a short time
To speed up football in China, a number of concrete measures have been proposed : establishing 0.5–0.7 football pitches per 10,000 inhabitants, each local community must have at least two football pitches open to all, doubling the number of football referees and establishing amateur leagues in 100 Chinese cities in four years.
It is a long leap from the conditions of football in China in the 1990s to today’s ambitious policy. In the fantastic book Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic of China to Love Football, Rowan Simons writes about how he was prevented from playing football matches with friends. It was illegal to gather more than 10 people in one place without applying to the Communist Party. This made it practically impossible to gather the group of friends for five-a-side tournaments in the park. And when local football clubs were almost non-existent, it was impossible to create particular football enthusiasm. Now it is no longer a problem for the Chinese Communist Party. Now they rather encourage everyone who wants to play football together.
7: State capitalism and commercial sports
Chinese state capitalism also in football will affect all other players in this market. Not only because the state is a strong player, but also because the Chinese government has given much of the responsibility to achieve its football goals to the richest business people in China. China’s football policy also most likely contributes to the richest in the country becoming richer and gaining even more power. Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs face competition to own attractive football clubs in Europe and elsewhere.
Billionaires Wang Jianlin and Jack Ma are the most important business players in Chinese football policy. In line with the Chinese strategy, they have – with the support of the government – started to buy up clubs both in and outside China. The owner of Alibaba, Jack Ma, the Chinese version of E-Bay, bought the Guangzhou Evergrande football club in 2014 to give Chinese football a boost. Jack Ma is China’s richest man. Another of China’s richest men, Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Property Group, has bought 20 percent of the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid. The goal is to use the Madrid club as a starting point to create a global entertainment empire. This is probably just the beginning of Chinese acquisitions in the sports world (see facts).
The strong link between China’s authoritarian government and the private industry, where private actors must ensure that the government achieves its national plans, is unusual in the world of sport. And it can have some special effects. When the highly controversial FIFA president Sepp Blatter (who had to resign from FIFA because he is accused of corruption) was re-elected in 2015, Wang sat by his side. Maybe not so strange since his company was in negotiations to become FIFA’s first Chinese sponsor. There are many ways to show power in the world of football.
To achieve the goal of becoming a great football nation, China is completely dependent on training football leaders. China must also develop players who are good enough to get China World Cup gold. We are therefore investing heavily in talent development. Evergrande Real Estate Corporation, which is partly owned by Ma, has, for example, invested heavily in Asia’s largest football academy, which both cultivates players and trains new football leaders.
8: China copies Qatar
China’s plans to conquer the sports world are very similar to Qatar’s efforts to dominate the sports field. In 2008, the authorities in Qatar launched Qatar National Vision 2030 and in 2011 and just a few months before Qatar was surprisingly and controversially awarded the World Cup in 2022, Qatar launched its Sports Sector Strategy 2011–2016. It tells how Qatar will become a dominant sports nation both on and off the sports arena.
In its sports plan, Qatar has also invested heavily in European big clubs such as Paris St Germain and Barcelona, and now the Chinese are following up. Other Arab countries such as Abu Dhabi and the Caucasus country of Azerbaijan have invested heavily in football to promote themselves. But there is a big difference:
Instead of investing in a pension fund as we have done in Norway, Qatar has invested in sports and is investing in securing pensions in the future. Qatar will live off the sport when oil runs out. At the same time, they use sport as a security policy tool. Sport will help build Qatar’s identity and strengthen their image (reputation) externally, but they also believe that being the organizer of major sports championships and being a major investor in major European football clubs means that they will not be attacked by enemies. In many ways, Qatar has reformulated the well-known theory in international politics that “democracies never go to war against each other” to “host major sporting events are never invaded.” But where Qatar believes sport provides tangible security guarantees, China thinks more about economic security and the welfare of its citizens.
9: Western to China – China to Europe
To stimulate interest in football, according to RCTOYSADVICE, Chinese clubs have recruited Western football stars to Chinese football clubs. In this way, they will attract more people to the matches and thus also increase interest in sponsorship. In addition, they want to get other countries interested in the Chinese football league. Football coaches who have had great success on the football field are also recruited to Chinese clubs. Therefore, you will find players like Didier Drogba and coaches like Marcello Lippi and Luis Filipe Scolari (see photo on the front page) there.
Chinese interests are buying up European football clubs to increase the country’s influence abroad, and especially in Europe. Of course, they do this to make money, but also to gain influence with clubs and associations that will ultimately decide who will be awarded the World Cup in 10-15 years. In this way, Europe has become the front line of Chinese governments in their quest to achieve their football vision.
European football clubs with Chinese owners
- 100% stake in Aston Villa, owned by Recon Group, invested £ 76 million
- 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, owned by Dalian Wand, Wang Jianlin Group
- 56% ownership in Espanyol (Spain), owned by Rastar Group
- 55% stake in Inter Milan, owned by Suning Zhang Ji Dong, worth $ 307 million
- 13% stake in Manchester City, the CMC consortium, estimated value up to 265 million pounds
- 60% stake in Slavia Praha, the energy company CEFC
- 100% stake in FC Sochaux (France, level 2), the Ledus group in with 7 million euros
- 100% stake in Granada (Spain), owned by Link International Sports
- 100% stake in ADO Den Haag (Netherlands), owned by United Vansen Sports
- 80% stake in OGC Nice, owned by a group of Chinese investors