Aside from table tennis, football is probably the most popular
sport in China, fittingly, given that some claim that the country
is the sport's original birthplace. China is home to some 26
million football fans, ranking first in the world. However, time
and time again, the spirits of Chinese football enthusiasts have
been dampened by the lackluster performances of the country's
national team in international competition.
Football is actually the first sport in China to have introduced
professional reform. With reforms in the early 1990s, the sport
underwent a renaissance. National leagues thrived and China even
qualified for the 2002 World Cup finals. However, as the fledgling
national football management system was underdeveloped and, as a
result, exploitable, many cases involving bribery of referees and
match fixing came to light in 2009. From a national perspective, it
appeared as if China's football had scored an own goal.
Thereafter, the sport's fortunes continued to dwindle with the
lowest moment coming on June 15, 2013, when China suffered a
humiliating 5-1 against Thailand's under-23 team on home turf,
sparking massive public outrage and calls for drastic reform. The
writing was on the wall: Things had to change.
Sports have received increased attention from the Central
Government in recent years. Promoting the development of football
has been recognized as an important step toward developing sports
overall and building the country into a sporting force to be
Himself an avid football fan, President Xi Jinping chaired a
top-level government meeting in February to discuss and approve a
national reform plan for football.
According to the plan, developing football will be incorporated
into China's overall scheme for economic and social development.
The short-term goals focus on improving and innovating the
country's football management system. Medium-term goals include
bolstering the number of teenage players and raising the
organizational and competitive standards of professional leagues.
For the long term, the goals are even more ambitious, including
partaking in, and even hosting, future World Cups.
Specific measures laid out in the plan include separating the
semi-administrative Chinese Football Association (CFA) from the
General Administration of Sport and making the former a
full-fledged NGO. Governments at all levels will be directed to
increase spending on football. An independent league council
consisting of club owners and CFA representatives will be
established to operate and manage the country's professional
leagues. Moreover, schools will be required to devote more class
hours and portions of physical education lessons to football.