Is Xi Jinping’s love of soccer a double-edged sword?

There’s a particular official within Chinese soccer circles who has developed a habit of starting each press conference or meeting with the words “I don’t know anything about football, but…” The intent is clear: if (when) this all goes south (again), it’s not my fault.

Xi Jinping at Croke Park in Feb 2012
Xi Jinping at Croke Park in Feb 2012

The state’s control of Chinese football is a large reason for its poor performance over the years: what is needed is a long-term plan, but Chinese officialdom rewards short-term thinking.

Having a man in charge of the country who loves the game would appear to be a positive, but this week’s Sports Talk column looks at how Chinese President Xi Jinping’s love of soccer may not actually be such a good thing for the sport after all…

When pictures of the office of Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared in the media earlier this year, many people marveled at the rare sight of such an intimate setting.

But within the soccer establishment in China, the reaction was a little different.

Look carefully in the background...
Look carefully in the background…

One of the six pictures on view showed Xi kicking a soccer ball inside Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, which for years actually banned soccer and ­other sports deemed “foreign” by the Gaelic Athletic ­Association.

Taken in February 2012 ­before Xi reached the top office, it showed a different side to one of the world’s most powerful men, but these things are ­never accidental. Xi’s love of ­soccer has long been known, and for the millions of soccer fans in China, that is surely a good thing. Now, finally, goes the logic, there is a president who cares enough to devote some of his attention to improving the sorry state of the game in China.

But that attention also creates pressure, namely on those charged with doing so.

Ten years ago, a report was issued in which the goal for the Chinese men’s national team was to be ranked in the world’s top eight. The reality could hardly be any different: the national team has just limped into next year’s Asian Cup finals in Australia only courtesy of a late consolation goal scored by Thailand in a game against Lebanon, sending ­China through on goal difference. China used to be contenders to win this tournament; now simply qualifying appears to be a monumental challenge.

But while the coaches and players have traditionally borne the brunt of the public’s anger at disappointing results, only those in charge have the power to make changes.

Recent moves have not been encouraging. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) arguably chose the wrong man to lead the national side, while the Chinese Super League (CSL) arguably chose the wrong company to be its main sponsor, rejecting Ford and its decades of global sports sponsorship ­experience in favor of a four-year deal with faceless insurance firm Ping An.

But there’s the rub: Four years later, how many people at the CFA or CSL will still be in the same position? Government appointments typically are rotated every few years, and officials can be moved on to very different portfolios. With Xi now in charge, the sector has attracted more attention, and many officials now working in soccer will be keener than ever to move out of the spotlight.

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