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Opinion | Why Chinese soccer has to die before it can really learn to live

Shenzhen-based sports and entertainment entrepreneur Greg Turner explains why the appearance of trouble at the top of Chinese soccer should not be mistaken for deep-rooted issues in the foundations.

18 March 2021 Guest Contributor

At first look, recent news regarding China’s soccer industry doesn’t bode well for the sport in the Middle Kingdom and its well publicised soccer reform effort.

Suning.com, the last big investor in the international game, recently shut down its Chinese Super League (CSL) team. This is in spite of the team claiming the league championship last year. PP Sports, also owned by Suning, has run into issues with its various media rights deals from football leagues around the world, and most notably is still dealing with the legal fallout of the collapse of its deal with English soccer's Premier League. Finally, word is out that Suning-owned Inter Milan may be up for sale, or at least on the look out for additional investors to help Suning reduce its liability.

This news, combined with similar stories since the reform effort began and together with what can only be summarised as a checkered history for the sport in China, has led some to suggest that once again the state just cannot get out of its own way in reforming the sport.

However, a deeper look at how policy has developed since the start of the reform and where progress has been made in developing the sport shows that in spite of the misplaced initial euphoria that drove the massive Chinese investment into the elite levels of the game, the actual reform work has focused in large part on the grassroots and school levels to a degree never seen before in the country.

Kicked off with great fanfare by Xi Jinping back in 2014, the reform was meant to be the mechanism that will raise Chinese soccer up to the level of the world’s leading nations. It was also the route to finally realise Xi’s own dream of China hosting a Fifa World Cup.

But reforming something with as many entrenched interests as soccer in China isn’t going to be done overnight. Xi himself acknowledged the challenge the state's soccer push faced in a speech back in 2015, saying: “The success [with soccer] does not have to be during my time. It takes a long time to work, so continue to work hard, start from the basics, from the grassroots, and from the mass participation.”

That message seems to have made an impression.

Leading the reform, the State Council released a number of guiding policy documents in 2015 and 2016. The documents set a variety of different directives including reforming the Chinese Foootball Association (CFA) and the professional leagues, improving campus and community soccer and increasing the number of facilities available to players, teams and clubs at all levels of the sport.

And there has been notable reforms accomplished since 2014:

  • The CFA has achieved its greatest degree of independence from the government ever and has a new leadership group with the political heft and professional experience to drive real change
  • The CSL now has financial control systems to ensure it runs in a more responsible and sustainable way
  • There are now more than 70,000 soccer pitches in China, raising the ratio of fields to people from 0.08 fields to 0.5 fields for every 10,000 people
  • More than 24,000 designated ‘soccer schools’ have been established across the country

In fact, if you look at the short-term goals laid out by the policy documents there’s been substantial progress made on all of them. Now, as the reform enters its next phase, the foundations supporting grassroots and campus soccer are stronger than ever.

This is not to say there has not been missteps or that we should not expect more growing pains.

Anyone familiar with getting things done in China knows that every step can be a challenge. Issues that seem settled today can flair up tomorrow without warning. Dealing with nationwide reform is especially daunting. Local leaders and politically connected interest groups can quickly derail the best laid plans.

However, policy continues to evolve and build on the successes achieved so far. Importantly, the reform is opening more doors for private industry to get involved. Just recently, the General Administration of Sport released the 'Guiding Opinions on Strengthening the Opening and Operation and Management of Social Football Venues'. This document essentially requires those 70,000 fields remain available for community use and encourages local governments to employ private operators for long term stability and growth.

While the current issues facing Suning.com with its soccer investments may seem unsettling for the future of the sport in China, in actuality it may reflect a final last gasp of the traditional 'business as usual'.

Instead, the smart money will increasingly be following the government reform efforts. While it may lack the headline appeal of the world’s top professional leagues and players, China’s real soccer future will be found on those 70,000 pitches – with a target for that to grow to 140,000 by 2030 – and the players, teams and clubs who cultivate their love of the sport there.

Greg Turner has successfully led increasingly complex organisations in building, financing and presenting live experiences. Based in China since 2000, he has previously held senior leadership positions in both the live event and venue management industries. He has dealt extensively with various level of Chinese government and has vast experience working in first to fourth tier Chinese cities.

Greg Turner
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