China wants to crash the global soccer party.
This week, Chinese officials announced a 14-page plan to propel Team Dragon to the elite of the soccer world. The goal: winning the men's World Cup, soccer’s most prestigious jewel, by mid-century. Beijing also wants its women's team to be world class by 2030.
But can Beijing invest its way to soccer dominance?
“You can’t do this with soccer or basketball, all these other team sports," said Andrei Markovits, a professor at the University of Michigan who's written about the intersection of sports and politics. "Playing and following are two different things. It’s the following that really creates the culture that, in fact, propels a team sport into the upper echelons, millions of Chinese kids following Lionel Messi on their iPhone.”
They may not have a soccer culture yet, but Chinese officials plan to have at least 20,000 training centers and 70,000 fields by 2020. They want 50 million children and adults playing the game within five years.
Markovits said facilities help, but only so much.
"The great hegemonic sports are never constructed. The great Brazilian players all learned it on the street.”
Or even the beach.
The Chinese women are already pretty good — they made the quarterfinals at last year’s World Cup before losing to the United States, 1-0.
In 1999, they made the World Cup final, losing to the US.
Markovits said the women should have an easier path to world dominance. “Much easier, it’s a much smaller pool against whom they compete.”
The men’s Chinese soccer squad is considerably farther behind, currently ranked 81st in the world by FIFA, the world's soccer governing body.
The Chinese trail far smaller nations like Cyprus, Haiti and Burkina Faso.
Markovitz isn't convinced the Chinese men can vault to the top in a generation.
His prediction for when the Chinese men will hoist the World Cup trophy?
"The men will not win it before 2050, if then."