In Part One of this article, I discussed the relative weight to USA and Brazils ability to topple the European monopoly on domestic football. In Part Two, I will be discussing the strength and weaknesses, of China and Japan’s claim to be the next football powerhouse.
China has a leg up on its competitors in the USA when it comes to transforming itself into a global football powerhouse. There is no ingrained spectator sport culture in China, unlike the USA, where there is direct competition with Basketball, Baseball and the NFL,
In 2004, FIFA, the governing body of football, identified the eastern Chinese province of Shandong as the sport’s birthplace. Football in its most primitive form had originated in China in as early as the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. However, the game we know and follow today is generally believed to have been born out of Europe, and the professional game, specifically in England.
Despite this, there is a clear foundation in place for Chinese liking for football, both watching and playing. Although China entered the professional world of football in 1924, with the establishment of the CFA, the progress of the game has been marred by stutters in its development. This is based on a number of factors, but it is mainly to do with the political aspects at the governing level. For example, in the 1950s, Beijing withdrew from FIFA in a protest against Taiwan’s membership. This was all in contrast to how popular the sport was in the area though, and when China re-joined FIFA in 1979, the country has made progress towards being a footballing nation.
So, what are the positives for China, when analysing if they have the capability to be a footballing powerhouse? Well, if you had read Part One, I spoke of the USA and their dominance in the Olympics and their ability to produce World-class athletes in many disciplines. Again, China’s participation in the Olympic games has been affected by political tensions, whereby the People’s Republic of China did not participate in the Summer Olympics between 1952 and 1984, due to disputes over the political status of the country. Although, whilst only competing in 10 official Summer Olympic games, China ranks seventh on the all-time medal table. In the 21st century, there has not been a summer Olympic games, that China has not finished in the top 3, coming first in their home Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
What this means is, China have a known ability to produce talented athletes at the elite level, just like the USA, and if that energy was turned primarily to football, would there be a chance China could produce a generation of talented footballers which could make their domestic leagues a powerhouse?
China, unlike America, has not yet produced many well-known talents in football. I spoke in Part One, about America’s need for a superstar footballer that could compete with the Basketball and American football stars that cover the front of Sports Illustrated. However, America has had a number of names play across in Europe’s top leagues and they have become well known. China has lacked that, and it is definitely holding them back because the passion is there. In 2003, Everton and Manchester City played a Premier League game, where Li Tie and Sun Jihai, two Chinese players competed against each other. This game alone drew in a Chinese audience of hundreds of millions of viewers. It is incredible to imagine how dominant that Chinese football audience would be, if Li Tie and Sun Jihai were superstars competing at the level of Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi. This may not happen for a long time for Chinese football, despite the government’s lofty ambitions to be World champions. China currently ranks 81st in the World and have often been seen as simply lacking the fundamental understanding of some of the key proponents of the game, most importantly, defence.
There have been great positives though in China’s claim to be a domestic football powerhouse, and that is the fact that the governing body themselves are determined to become one and has a strategy in place. China has invested a ridiculous amount of money in imported talents. One of the most incredible signings was Oscar from Chelsea, two-time Premier League winner, in his prime years, at the age of 25. Unlike the USA who had the issue with the retirement league moniker. Without capped spending, China was able to get prime talents like Oscar for simply throwing money at it, with a $400,000 per week contract. Importantly, this spending is matched by ambition from the top. Chinese football issued a reform plan. The aim is to host a World Cup and establish the domestic sports industry at the ‘global forefront’. Average attendances in China are growing steadily and are currently at around 23,000 in the Super League. Furthermore, the investment isn’t only in the playing staff. China is, as always, being clever with their ventures. Investments have been made in Atletico Madrid and Manchester City, and smaller clubs like ADO Den Haag have been completely taken over by Chinese investors, growing a web of board-level connections, power and knowledge are clever. China, especially at a business, level are experts in growing themselves in a sector and dominating. They have put in place the infrastructure to host a World Cup. They have made the right steps, albeit through massive investment, to create exciting growth in Chinese domestic football. China has become global superpowers in a variety of industries that they were minor players in only ten or fifteen years ago. What’s to say they won’t be able to do the same in football?
The only thing holding them back now is their ability to produce homegrown talents. In the book Bamboo Goalposts by Rowan Simons, a statement is made that “soccer has become an entertainment show based on a sport the people have forgotten to play”. Importantly, the infrastructure at the grassroots level is the logical next step for development, because the fans are there, but they need to take the leap from idolising their global superstars, to trying to emulate them. Facilities and massively improved coaching are needed. As expected though, China has this covered, with a plan to build 50,000 soccer schools in the next 10 years. The Evergrande International football school will become the largest academy in the world. The Chinese nation is experts in dominating a field, no matter what it is, it would be naïve to think they wouldn’t be able to do the same with football, especially with the whole globe now recognising how lucrative the sport is and how much it is worth to the economy of the country. Whilst also importing grade A coaches from Europe, simultaneously these Chinese football schools will not only be teaching the possible future football-playing stars, but also the development of home-grown coaches. As always, no stone is left unturned. China is truly at the city gates demanding to be let in, but whether they can win the throne of domestic football powerhouse, that is left to be seen and could take some time.
The leading players in Asia, have a structured blueprint for how they aim to become a football powerhouse. Since the formation of the J League, Japan has been undertaking their one-hundred-year vision. A plan which sees them becoming World Champions and leading power in domestic football. This vision is particularly modest. In a lot of manifestos, you see from football governing boards in countries, they cite they expect to create a World cup winning team within ten or fifteen years, in contrast to that, Japan’s one-hundred-year approach is much more realistic. Due to this, it became a lot more plausible to build a picture of Japan achieving such a feat. With China, and the USA, you see them putting building blocks in place, but their goals still seem a far way away and, in some cases, their quick fix philosophies make the dream to have a sustainably dominant domestic league unimaginable.
Therefore, to understand what makes Japan seem more realistic, we need to dig a bit deeper into their one-hundred-year vision and just what makes it so plausible.
Similar to the USA, Japan needed to establish a strong fan base for football again, and prior to the J-league being established, domestic football in Japan was entirely amateur and therefore drew in small attendances and interest. The J-league was established in 1992, 12 years before the Chinese Superleague, which gives Japan a handy upper hand on their Asian competition. They, therefore, were the first to bring in well-known European names and increase the popularity of their league through foreign imports. In recent times, they’ve had Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski, however in the early years the league saw Gary Lineker ply his trade, and on the managerial stage, Arsène Wenger. This started a boom in supporters in the early years, prior to an economic crash in Japan, which left clubs filing for bankruptcy, attendances crumbling and investors abandoning ship. Therefore, Japan was able to recognise, moving into the future, they needed a sturdier foundation to build from. This realisation is something China has not had to contend with yet, and it is important we keep in mind that, even with China’s thorough and thoughtful approach to becoming a global football powerhouse, they’re extreme salaries and blue-chip players, is precarious, to say the least.
Japan’s foundations are in grassroots, encouraging professional clubs to find solid footing with the local economy and community. Therefore, less reliant on multi-national investors, whilst simultaneously developing the local interest in football, both to create players for the future and the fan base of today.
This approach is working, Japan haven’t missed a World Cup since 1998, and that is not through lack of competition. The Asian qualifiers are a tough draw, and most countries are desperate to improve, so it is not a stagnant pool of competitors where the same countries are shoe-ins each time. Furthermore, unlike in China, Japan has produced some very well-known names. Keisuke Honda burst onto the big stages with his free-kicks and flair at the 2010 World Cup. Shinji Kagawa was one of Alex Fergusons last signings as manager of Manchester United and won the clubs last Premier League title to date. Producing these stars make their national team more exciting year upon year and the fact they also play fast, attacking football, meaning they are never simply looked past by any team. Although, for the time being, the J league and Japan’s grassroots approach is simply nurturing stars for European clubs to poach away. It is nonetheless promising that more and more of these players are coming through with the quality to compete at the highest level. The most important player to mention though is Hidetoshi Nakata. One of the first to ever break onto the European scene from Japan, Nakata has since been named one of FIFA’s 100 greatest players of all time and paved the way for interest in Japan, and the possibilities for Japanese stars to be recognised.
Japan seems to be adopting a patient approach to be a global football superpower. The fruits of this labour are indeed showing. For me, Japan is one of the most exciting names to be pulled out of the hat in the World Cup draw. Furthermore, the number of young potentials being nurtured in Europe is exciting. Hiroki Abe, who is 21, currently at FC Barcelona, or Ritsu Doan, 22, at PSV Eindhoven, and Premier League fans are yet to see much of champions Liverpool, investment in Takumi Minamino who at 25, still has a lot to show. Again, this doesn’t directly benefit their domestic leagues, but it sets a stall for future development in the national team, and it shows their grassroots approach is working. The coaches in Japan are encouraging young kids to adopt the sport and are nurturing the talent they possess. This puts eyes on Japanese football by top clubs and the keen football fan hipster who wants to be the one to spot the next gem from the Land of the Rising Sun. If the league continues to develop upon this it may become a domestic football powerhouse, whilst also making Japan a major player on the national scene. However, this process takes a lot of time, and unlike China, USA, and Brazil to some degree, Japan recognises this. It won’t happen overnight, but Japanese and J league fans, definitely have reason to be excited about the future.