China’s Failed Soccer Ambitions Are an Own Goal for Xi

China’s Failed Soccer Ambitions Are an Own Goal for Xi
A player from China’s men’s national soccer team walks off as Qatar’s players celebrate their victory at the end of the two sides’ Asian Cup soccer match, in Doha, Qatar, Jan. 22, 2024 (AP photo by Thanassis Stavrakis).

Chinese soccer was in the news again this past month due to scandals involving the beleaguered men’s national team and an outburst of nationalistic anger toward Lionel Messi, after the soccer icon sat out an Inter-Miami game in Hong Kong due to injury but was back on the pitch for a match in Japan just three days later. Both dramas drew attention to the malaise and frustration in China regarding the state of a sport that has attracted hundreds of millions of passionate Chinese fans, including “soccer-mad” President Xi Jinping. But the travails of Chinese soccer during this first decade of Xi’s “New Era” are also helpful as a prism for understanding how Xi’s leadership style helps spawn corruption-fueled boom-bust cycles in the economy and the crackdowns that inevitably follow.

The Messi controversy has received more media attention because it involves a global superstar and entrenched ill-will between China and Japan. It has now led to cancellations of appearances by the Argentine national soccer team next month in both Hangzhou and Beijing. But the thin-skinned petulance exhibited by Chinese fans and Chinese soccer officials is perhaps also due to the domestic firestorm over the state of the men’s national team. In the recently concluded Asian Cup, the team failed to score any goals, losing to host Qatar and tying 0-0 against Lebanon and Tajikistan. China now ranks 88th in FIFA’s global rankings, just behind Zambia and ahead of Syria. That is its lowest ranking since 2013, though the team has been on a downward trajectory since 2017.

The performance of China’s national team this past decade is particularly troubling given how much emphasis Xi personally placed on his ambitious plans for China to become a global soccer superpower on his watch. In 2015, he launched a three-staged plan from 2016-2050 to realize China’s “three dreams”: to qualify for the World Cup, host the World Cup and win the World Cup. Xi championed China’s soccer ambitions personally, often commenting on the team’s performance and watching matches alongside other world leaders.

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