China’s Soccer Experiment Flopped. Now It May Be Over.

It takes only a glance at the news coverage from those days less than a decade ago, when China’s soccer success seemed only a matter of determination and money, to remember how quickly and how deeply the country embraced the world’s most popular sport as a national project.

At home and abroad, China’s president, Xi Jinping, was pictured kicking soccer balls and watching youth matches. State media detailed his lifelong love of the game. Schools were ordered to introduce soccer into their curriculums, and billions of dollars were earmarked for the construction of tens of thousands of fields. Major companies rushed to invest in professional teams, both at home and abroad, then stocked them with imported players — whatever the cost.

There was talk of bringing the World Cup to China. In Beijing, there was audacious talk of winning it.

Now, though, China’s great soccer dream appears to be over.

The expensive recruits have gone. Top teams have disappeared with alarming regularity. The national team shows little sign of improvement. And in perhaps the most direct sign of a failed policy, some of the top officials charged with leading China’s soccer revolution have been detained amid allegations of corruption.

“The hopes were really high,” said Liu Dongfeng, a professor at the school of economics and management at the Shanghai University of Sport. “And that is also why the disappointment is so big.”

What derailed China’s soccer plan, when earlier state-backed bids to dominate Olympic sports had delivered regular glory and piles of medals? A global pandemic and an economic downturn didn’t help. Nor did the lack of truly world-class talents. Then there were the bad deals, the whispers of corruption and the nagging national inability to succeed in team sports. Whatever the reasons, the current malaise infecting Chinese soccer is a major reversal from the momentum that accompanied the release in 2015 of China’s 50-point plan for the sport.

That program was packed with concrete targets and lofty goals. Perhaps the most eye-catching was a directive to include soccer in the national school curriculum — introducing it to tens of millions of children in a single stroke — and to set up 50,000 soccer schools in the country by 2025. Eager to support Xi’s ambitions, or perhaps just as eager to take advantage of a loosening of restrictions on the purchase of foreign assets, Chinese investors quickly opened a fire hose of money on the game.

Billions of dollars went to acquiring whole or partial stakes in European soccer teams. Chinese companies signed up as FIFA sponsors and put their names on the message boards and shirts of well-known clubs. At home, some of China’s richest people and companies invested in teams with an abandon that transformed the country’s top division, the Super League, into a major player in the global transfer market. Players who once would never have considered a career in China were suddenly racing there, lured by eye-popping salaries or eight-figure transfer fees that their European and South American clubs simply couldn’t afford to pass up.

That sudden burst of spending spooked Chinese regulators, who belatedly imposed restraints on the industry to try to stop it from overheating. Yet even those moves failed to tame the worst excesses, and by the time the coronavirus pandemic descended in early 2020, and China retreated inside its borders, spectacular failures were common.

Jiangsu Suning F.C., a team owned by one of China’s richest men, disappeared in early 2021, only months after winning the Super League title. Other teams followed suit; Guangzhou F.C. suffered the indignity of relegation after its big-spending owner, the property developer Evergrande, tumbled into its own financial crisis. Top players, complaining of unpaid salaries and broken promises, packed their bags, ended their contracts and headed home.

“From the perspective of each team, if you look at cost and revenue, it was not sustainable at all,” Liu said.

But China was in retreat on the international stage, too.

If there were a single indicator of the high hopes, and supreme disappointment, of China’s soccer dream it might be its perpetually underachieving men’s national team, which currently sits below the likes of Oman, Uzbekistan and Gabon in FIFA’s global rankings, firmly entrenched among the mediocre and the afterthoughts.

The team’s current ranking is almost exactly the same position it held when the panel chaired by Xi passed China’s heralded soccer reform plan eight years ago, and its most recent World Cup qualifying campaign was merely another humbling failure. China finished fifth out of six teams in its qualifying pool for last year’s tournament in Qatar, a defeat to Vietnam on Chinese New Year the nadir to a journey marked by repeated humiliations.

Traditionally, China has enjoyed far more success in women’s soccer. It was an early pioneer in the women’s game, hosted FIFA’s first women’s world championship in 1991 and reached the final eight years later. But while China will make its third straight trip to the Women’s World Cup this year, it has not advanced past the quarterfinals since 1999 and will not be a pick of most experts to contend for the trophy.

The men’s team’s future looks even less bright. “If anything, they’re only going to get worse the way things are right now,” said Mark Dreyer, the author of a book on China’s efforts to become a sporting superpower.

The news is no better off the field. FIFA was forced to abandon its plan to hold the inaugural edition of an expanded World Cup for clubs in China after the country imposed some of the world’s strictest coronavirus restrictions. That event, unveiled at a triumphant news conference in Shanghai, will now be held in 2025, but it is unlikely to take place in China.

Last year, the Asian soccer federation scrapped a multibillion-dollar television contract with a Chinese media company after it failed to fulfill its agreements. The Premier League did the same in 2020, tearing up a deal that was its most lucrative overseas contract, and has now signed one worth considerably less.

The money that flowed from Chinese companies to foreign entities in the early years of the boom, and which quickly made China a major source of sponsorship income for teams, leagues and federations around the world, has been replaced by money from the Gulf, and particularly from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which now have the profile that China once sought.

At a recent meeting of Asian soccer’s governing body, the Chinese candidate running for a seat on FIFA’s governing council finished last in the voting.

Among the many successes China once promised are some claims that cannot be verified. The official in charge of the schools project, for example, once claimed that 30,000 such academies had been opened, and that more than 55 million students were now playing soccer.

“While most of the world celebrates a project once it is completed, in China they like to celebrate the announcement, throw out crazy numbers and then people accept that as given,” said Dreyer, who has spent more than a decade following the Chinese soccer industry.

It is unclear how many of the schools are actually functioning, and getting an answer may be all but impossible: The education ministry official who made the claims, Wang Dengfeng, was arrested in February.

His detention was not the first, or the last. Li Tie, a former player who coached the national team during part of its failed World Cup campaign, was arrested over unspecified “serious violations of law” while attending a coaching seminar in November. Then, in February, the Communist Party’s antigraft watchdog issued a curt statement in which it said Chen Xuyuan, the president of the national soccer federation, was facing similar accusations.

After Chen’s arrest, Hu Xijin, a nationalist and retired chief editor of The Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid, lamented the sorry state of the country’s soccer program on Chinese social media. Chinese soccer had burned copious amounts of cash and “completely humiliated the Chinese people” with its scandals, Hu said.

Even before a series of government announcements noting that even more high-ranking soccer officials were under investigation, Hu suggested that Chinese men’s soccer was “rotten to the core.”

His post went viral, with many commenters calling desperately for a complete overhaul of Chinese soccer. Whether the country, and particularly Xi and the rest of China’s leadership, will rally so publicly behind another effort is unclear.

A previous anticorruption drive that included the jailing of soccer administrators and officials presaged the start of the latest efforts to grow the sport. The latest arrests and detentions, Liu said, might be a sign of the government’s willingness to persevere.

The director of China’s national sports agency, Gao Zhidan, appeared to suggest just that recently. At a press event after China’s annual legislative session on March 12, when soccer was conspicuous by its absence at a meeting on sports, Gao said he had been “deeply reflecting on the serious problems in the soccer industry” and declared that his agency would redouble its efforts at building competitive leagues and promoting young talent.

What that will look like remains unclear. There is still no official start date for the new season, which is expected to be in April with a reduced number of teams. Among the casualties was Hebei, which not so long ago had lured Argentine stars like Javier Mascherano and Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Zibo Cuju, a team based in a city once recognized by FIFA as “the cradle of the earliest forms of football.”

A downsized league will signal yet another rollback of Chinese grand ambitions, whenever it eventually begins. When will that be? No one is certain. An official announcement of the league format has yet to be made.

Chang Che and John Liu contributed reporting.