EXPECTATION: Chinese football fans hold a banner to express their hopes for the future of the sport in the country during a quarter-final game at the World Cup on July 5, 2014, in Brazil (XINHUA)
With China seeing its economy take off and its national strength grow, it is now turning its sights to something else close to its people's hearts—football.
On March 16, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued an ambitious reform plan aiming to overhaul the country's football management system in the hopes that the middle kingdom can finally achieve World Cup recognition.
The 50-point plan passed in late February by China's leading group of central reform, chaired by President Xi Jinping, outlines a reform that will involve almost every aspect of the sport, including the management, clubs, leagues, national teams and construction of playing fields.
It is widely seen that the plan showcases the Central Government's determination to meet the need to popularize the sport across the country and finally improve the level of its national teams.
"Revitalizing football is a must for building China into a sports powerhouse and also an earnest desire of the nation's many fans," said the plan, named the Overall Plan of Chinese Football Reform and Development.
Goals are set in the plan that include a mid-term goal of returning the women's team to their previous status as some of the best in the world—they previously won the AFC's Women's Asian Cup seven tournaments in a row from 1986 to 1999, as well as placing second in the 1999 woman's World Cup. The more ambitious long-term goals are for the men's team to enjoy the same status as well as making a bid to host the World Cup.
Zhang Lu, a veteran football commentator based in Beijing, believes that the reform plan provides the foundations for healthy development of football in China.
"The plan summarizes the developing path of football in China in the past 20 years and outlines a direction for the sport in the future. It shows a true understanding of the sport by the central authorities," Zhang said.
Wang Dazhao, another Beijing-based sports commentator, said that the importance of football development transcends the playing fields and may serve as the impetus for other social and economic reforms in China.
"Football, as the world's most popular sport, can drive economic growth and encourage social participation in China. Its development will also boost the country's cultural soft power," Wang said.
Breaking the bind
Football was chosen by the country to be its ice-breaking professional sport in 1994. However, Chinese football has shown little noticeable improvement over the two decades since.
Measures that have proven effective in other parts of the world have been ineffective in China. In particular, a series of scandals like match fixing and gambling has given Chinese football a bad name among fans.
One number can be used to summarize the woeful story of the sport of football in China: 83. This number is the current global ranking for the country's national men's team by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's global governing body.
The Chinese men's team has qualified only for the FIFA World Cup finals once, back in 2002, when the team was eliminated at the group stage without scoring a single goal.
Since then, the Chinese team has continued to fare poorly despite efforts to bring in world-class coaches like Bobby Houghton and ex-Real Madrid manager Jose Antonio Camacho.
On the women's side, the national team is also facing an uphill battle to recapture the glory of their 1999 World Cup second-place peak, failing to even qualify for the 2011 event.
The women's team now ranks 13th in the world, down from the Top 10 just a decade ago.
The stalled development of Chinese football is often blamed on a history of corruption, bureaucratic red tape and weak efforts at cultivating talented youth.
"The key obstacle to China's progress in football is its current management system," the General Administration of Sport of China (GAS) said in a statement released on March 16.
Wang, the commentator, agreed. He said that the lack of regulation and supervision of the football management authority have given rise to corruption in the sector, which in the long term would hurt the sport's reputation and the public's confidence in China's football program.
JOYFUL MOMENT: Chinese football player Sun Ke (left) waves to fans after scoring a goal during a game against the North Korean Football Team at the Asian Cup in Canberra, Australia, on January 18 (XINHUA)
He has likewise proposed legislation to define the role and responsibilities of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to prevent abuses of power.
"The management of the CFA is constantly reshuffled, which prevents consistent long-term policymaking. The absence of football professionals in management has also given rise to unreasonable policies that are inconsistent with the needs of the sport's development," said Ma Dexing, deputy editor of the Changsha-based newspaper Titan Sports.
In the newly released football reform plan, one important feature is streamlining the widely criticized and counterproductive management system.
The reform will sever the ties between the semi-administrative CFA from the GAS, which is now managing the association with its own officials, and make the former a full-fledged nongovernmental organization with the power to independently determine its manpower and financial requirements.
The association will carry no administrative rank, and will be made up of professional football players and representatives from the sports authorities under the State Council to ensure the body's professionalism.
Meanwhile, the CFA will hand its decision-making power to a reshuffled league council to be formed by shareholders from domestic league clubs and one CFA representative. Professional leagues will raise their management standards and be open to market-economy practices.
Tan Jianxiang, a professor of sports sociology at Guangzhou-based South China Normal University, said that the new measures will help club owners gain some crucial rights, while making the CFA work only as a supervisor and supporter.
Wang, the Beijing-based sports commentator, believes the move may signal the beginning of an overall reform of China's sport management that will reduce administrative interference and allow more room for the sector's professional development.
"There has been heavy government intervention in the sector and professionals have little say in the sport's development. The new plan will allow professionals to build and direct the system used in the future," noted Wang.
Popularizing the sport
Once regarded as unattainable dreams, hosting and eventually winning the football World Cup have become serious goals for China under the newly-released plan.
"Along with our long-term plan to improve the environment for football and popularize the sport, China should aim to host the World Cup," said Cai Zhenhua, President of the CFA, at a press conference on March 16.
Meanwhile, Cai commented that the significance of the plan is not only in striving for glory but also to further popularize the sport in China. "By hosting the biggest football event in the world, we can bring football culture to more people, and introduce more and more people to the world's most popular sport," added Cai.
In fact, a big emphasis in the plan is to get the country's youth involved by expanding football education and playing at schools and universities.