How much does Xi Jinping really like soccer?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s supposed love of The Beautiful Game runs so deep that state media have even run cartoons of him depicting his futbol passion. But how much does he really like the sport?

Exhibit A.

Xi was invited by his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff to watch the World Cup Final at the Maracana – but he turned her down. Even a half-hearted football fan would bite your arm off to get a ticket to the biggest game in the world, and Xi had the perfect excuse: he was already due to be in Brazil for the BRICS summit, which kicks off on Tuesday. All accusations of a boondoggle could be safely batted away, given that he was already supposed to be there, plus he’s already done this sort of thing before, watching a Lakers game while on a trip to the US. Wouldn’t he instead be bringing China some national pride with a guaranteed pre-game TV close-up beamed into the homes of an estimated 13% of the world’s population? He could even have tried to lobby some FIFA delegates to bring the World Cup to China – one of his dreams, we’re so often told. Verdict: an unfathomable decision.

Exhibit B.

10446585037048830569When Xi allowed the state media cameras into his office for the first earlier this year, attention focused on the six photographs on the bookcases in the background. Four of them show family – one with each of his mother, father, wife and daughter. Of the other two, one is unclear and the last one shows Xi kicking a soccer ball during a visit to Croke Park in Dublin.

Except it’s not a soccer ball.

A full-size picture of the "soccer" photo in XI's office
A full-size picture of the “soccer” photo in XI’s office
"GAA" and Gaelic football manufacturer "O'Neills" can clearly be seen
“GAA” and Gaelic football manufacturer “O’Neills” can clearly be seen

Despite being widely reported as such by Time, WSJ, AP, Huffington Post, Foreign PolicyJoongAng Ilbo and, it must be said, this website, he is kicking a Gaelic football. Croke Park was designed for the sole purpose of Irish games, and “foreign sports” – such as rugby and soccer – were banned  by the Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, until 2007 (though apparently that ban of foreign sports didn’t extend to nighttime sexual hijinks). So when Xi Jinping was welcomed there on an official visit, you can be sure he was given the proper Gaelic football, not a soccer ball, as the pictures above make clear.

Does it matter? Absolutely – especially if you’re Irish. The O’Neills ball is heavier and harder and the difference would be immediately clear to any player of either sport. Given that Xi has that picture adorning his study – and has allowed the media to propagate the soccer legend – you have to wonder if he actually noticed anything when he kicked it, or whether he simply thought it was one of those balls you would ask the ref to change prior to kick-off. Verdict: suspicious at best…

Exhibit C, if further evidence is needed, is the fact that China’s national soccer team has shown no discernible improvement since Xi has come to power. In fact, China has slipped from 88 in the FIFA rankings in November 2012 to a current position of 103, and recently lost 1-3 at home to a young Mali side.

It’s not fair to blame Xi for the national team’s continuing struggles – they started long before he ascended to the throne – but he doesn’t appear to be doing anything to change things. Perhaps his love of soccer is just a myth after all…

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