SUZHOU: China wants to unite its 1.4 billion people through football while also using the sport as “a bridge to work with the rest of the world”, a top FA official says.
Chinese Football Association Secretary General Liu Yi explained to AFP what lies behind the country’s aggressive push to become a major football power by 2050.
Under President Xi Jinping — described by state media as an “avid soccer fan” — the world’s most populous country has grand plans to host and even one day win a World Cup.
In rare comments to international media, Liu talked of “using football to motivate the whole nation”.
“Football is a beautiful game to educate the new generation of young Chinese and also to (help) our nation to team up as one and be more cohesive,” he said.
Like China’s success in recent Summer Olympics, Liu called football “another tool to unite a nation and also demonstrate what we can deliver.
“And football, as I said, is a bridge between China and the rest of the world. Everyone plays football.”
Expanding on that theme, which comes as China is embroiled in a variety of disputes with countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, Liu said: “China is still open.
“And the development of Chinese football needs help from external stakeholders like the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), FIFA and also other federations as well, and other leagues as well.
“We are definitely going to carry on with that kind of partnership, working with all the international governing bodies, brands and stakeholders.”
China’s football ambitions are striking for a country which has reached the World Cup only once, in 2002, when they failed to win a point or score a goal.
China are 76th in the FIFA rankings and their chances of reaching the Qatar 2022 World Cup are in the balance, underlining how far they have to go to reach the top.
But speaking in Suzhou, where the Chinese Super League is in a “bubble” to thwart the coronavirus, Liu said that failing to qualify will not deter the country from its long-term goals.
“To win a spot (in Qatar) means a lot to the Chinese, to the country and also the Chinese football community because that boosts the confidence and gives motivation to every stakeholder and to the football community to contribute more to the development of Chinese football,” he said.
“If we fail, you might have a short-term setback, but the president of the central government (Xi) understands football and that developing football is a process.”
Sustainability over spending
Along with building a football infrastructure and overhauling grassroots, school and youth systems, the CSL is a crucial part of the determination to be a superpower in the sport.
The league made headlines in recent years when a series of well-known foreign players — along with coaches — arrived on generous contracts and for inflated transfer fees.
Attacking midfielder Oscar moved to Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea in 2017 for what is still an Asian-record 60 million euros.
However, the CFA has since introduced measures such as a salary cap so that the largesse is redirected towards developing young Chinese players.
“We want to be one of the top leagues in Asia, for sure, which we probably already are, but the benchmark is not supposed to be big spending,” said Liu.
“It’s about sustainability.”
Liu conceded that Oscar and other overseas stars, such as fellow Brazilians Hulk and Paulinho, have boosted the CSL’s profile.
“But has that (expensive foreigners) helped the development of the local players? That’s our question mark,” he said.