HONG KONG–British writer Nick Hornby’s 1992 autobiographical best-seller “Fever Pitch” recounts his fond memories as a die-hard British soccer fan. But the exhaustive interest in soccer that Hornby describes isn’t confined to the UK. As a matter of fact, among China’s five top leaders since 1949, two can be described as passionate soccer fans.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and British Prime Minister David Cameron President Xi Jinping posed for a selfie with Manchester City player Sergio Aguero at the team's training ground
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) pose for a selfie with a Manchester City player during Xi’s UK visit  in 2015

It’s no state secret that late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was crazy about soccer. A website run by the official communist party detailed his zealous passion for the sport back in 1924, when 20-year-old Deng spent 5 francs, an entire day’s wages, to purchase a ticket for an Olympic Games soccer match. He went hungry for a day because of the expenditure.

Similarly, incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping’s enthusiasm towards soccer is well known among all Chinese. During the period from the late 1950s to early 1960s, when Xi was studying at Beijing 101 Middle School (the Chinese version of Harrow) he belonged to a soccer team called Huiwen.

Xi told a South Korean politician in July 2011 that he harbored three wishes related to soccer — China making it into the World Cup finals, hosting the soccer’s pinnacle tournament and winning the trophy. Last October, on the eve of a vital visit to the UK, Xi told British media that by 2007, some 20,000 schools would have received new football pitches and training facilities, which he hoped would create 100,000 new players.

Dalian Wanda teams with FIFA

Perhaps the above helps to explain, though only partially, why China’s richest man Wang Jianlin is so keen to invest in soccer. Wang, whose fortunes account to $30.5 billion and who is ranked 19th among the world’s richest, announced on Monday that his company would team up with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in the latest engagement with soccer.

Wang’s Dalian Wanda Group Company struck a 15-year deal with the global soccer governing body, cementing a top-tier sponsorship up to 2030. Coincidentally, 2030 is also the earliest year when China can host the World Cup Finals, according to FIFA regulations. Many speculate that China will definitely bid for this spectacular event.

Wang hinted another Chinese firm, whose name he refused to give, is in the pipeline to enter the same highest-level sponsorship agreement with FIFA. When asked whether the development, if it comes true, would further bolster China’s chance to host World Cup for the first time in the future, Wang’s response was, “That’s for sure.”

Wanda’s global sports spending spree in recent years is jaw-dropping. This overseas takeover binge includes the acquisition of Swiss-based Infront Sports & Media, the world’s most renowned international sports marketing company, at a price-tag of $1.2 billion in February 2015.  That was followed by the acquiring of a 20% stake in Spanish football team Atletico Madrid, worth $48.38 million, in April 2015. Last August for $650 million, Wanda bought the Florida-based World Triathlon Corporation, the world’s largest sports operating firm. Wanda’s sports overseeing arm, Wanda Sports Holding, is headed by Philippe Blatter, a nephew of Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who was ousted as FIFA president amid a spate of corruption allegations.

Wanda is not the only Chinese conglomerate that pursues sports in such a fervent fashion. This January, Suning Appliance Company Limited, a retail chain, spent $35 million to hire Brazilian midfielder Ramires to play for their eponymous soccer team, Jiangsu Suning. This record was broken in just seven days when Jack Ma of Alibaba recruited Spanish player Jackson Martinez for his Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao for $45 million. Jiangsu Suning then bettered that by hiring another Brazilian player Alex Teixeira for $53 million.

When China’s two-month winter transfer-window closed on February 26, the Middle Kingdom’s premier Chinese Super League (CSL) recorded a net spending of some $300 million (net spending means the number is arrived after deducting the payment received for selling their own players). The same figure for English Premier League clubs was about $220 million; even China’s second division has generously shelled out $55 million. Many CSL clubs have retained a flock of ex-managers from English and Brazilian national teams.

Analysts believe China’s latest round of soccer fever carries both commercial and political significance.

Commercially, sports is set to become a thriving business in the years to come. In October 2014, the State Council issued “Document No. 46”, stipulating a policy to build sports into a 5-trillion-yuan ($771 billion) industry by 2025. The private sector, on the other hand, is expected to bill a further 7 trillion yuan ($1.078 trillion) in the sports sector. This policy is seen as part of a structural reform to change China’s export-led economy to a consumption-led one.

Despite the Chinese national soccer team’s terrible performance, soccer is definitely the most popular sport in the country. Lucrative business opportunities are everywhere. In Guangfu Lu, Shanghai, the Manchester United Restaurant & Bar is always packed with soccer pilgrims from across the country. In Fuzhou Lu, another restaurant became very crowded after former Manchester United and England sensation David Beckham made a visit to the place. These examples are just the tip of an iceberg illustrating how Chinese people are willing to ante up a great deal of money for soccer.

Soccer as soft power

In addition, under the ostensible reason of courting consumers, Chinese tycoons are echoing the government’s call for investments in sports. Hence, sport is not only a politically correct move but also a very safe bet that could please the top leaders and cultivate connections with the government in one way or another. In the long run, their premium would definitely be very rewarding.

Politically, many speculate that China is trying to elevate its soft power through soccer. An article in the official China Daily, the flagship English-language propaganda paper, connected Xi’s interest and participation in sports with his concerns about public image. The paper cited Beijing Sport University associate professor Li Shengxin as saying that “a high-profile leader’s passion for sports does more than most PR campaigns.” Professor Li also reportedly liaised Xi’s affection for sports to China’s diplomacy, that he said, “showing personal interest in sports, especially on big stages such as world diplomacy, is a great way to project a vibrant and healthy image.”

Nonetheless, perhaps not all westerners would concur with Professor Li. The UK-based Daily Mail, for instance, was appalled by Xi’s 2014 Spartan-style attempt to make soccer a compulsory part of national curriculum. “Soccer-mad president decrees that ALL children have to play the sport,” the paper’s headline read.

Fong Tak Ho is a long-time Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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