China Plans to Dominate the World; But This Time Through Football

(An exclusive ISSF investigation report)

In December 2016, the global soccer community was abuzz with the rumor that London-based Chelsea football club’s star player Oscar was on his way to China to play for Shanghai SIPG. China? Really? This “rumor” was quickly dismissed by prominent football pundits. How could it be? Oscar was a generational talent, who was in his physical prime, and slated to be the next Kaka, he was too young to make such a move. However, defying all odds and breaking some football financial records on his way, the Brazilian wonder kid, aged 25, landed at Shanghai airport amidst the frantic cheers of the club’s fans. 

Brazilian star Oscar arriving in Shanghai (Source:
Brazilian star Oscar arriving in Shanghai (Source:

Till the late 2000s, China was seen as a destination where mostly footballing rejects used to go for one big payday before they hung up their boots but not anymore. Oscar was now in the company of top players like Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez, Hulk, and coaching giants like Andres Vilas Boas and Manuel Pellegrini. 

Chinese owner of Italian club Inter Milan (Mirror UK)
Chinese owner of Italian club Inter Milan (Mirror UK)

The ambition of the Chinese tycoons did not end here. They went on to splurge money on top talents from European and South American leagues, offering them eye-watering contracts, and some of the teams even placed audacious bids, running into hundreds of millions of dollars, for footballing legends like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. 

Meanwhile, 1000s of kilometers away in Europe, Chinese companies and their billionaire owners were out shopping for football clubs to call their own. Top-tier clubs including Italian giants Inter Milan, English top division teams including Southampton, Wolverhampton, and even a minority stake in recent champions Manchester city, were brought in by these newly minted Chinese billionaires.

However, behind all this glitz and glamour lies an ambitious plan envisioned by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping himself, to dominate the world; but this time through football.

A brief history of football in China:

Historically, football in China was never a critical or commercial success. Chinese audiences were always focused on more traditional homegrown sports partly due to censorship and partly due to poverty. So, when the Chinese economy boomed and catapulted the spending power of an average Chinese to previously unseen levels, they finally showed an appetite for sports with global appeal. 

To accommodate this appetite, the ailing Chinese football league, the Jia-A league, which was marred by multiple scandals which included allegations of match-fixing and bribery was replaced by the Chinese super league in 2004. 

Many businessmen who rode China’s economic success story and became billionaires overnight bought teams in this new super league. What followed was a decade worth of pure decadence and a naked display of wealth that came close to the point of threatening the supremacy of traditional European clubs that had dominated the world of football for over a century.

Xi’s vision and the golden days:

When Xi Jinping ascended the throne of Communist China, he dreamt of an absolute Chinese monopoly in all spheres of human life which included sports. A 2015 strategy document for the development of sports in China published by the CCP which outlined the football crazy general secretary’s vision, wanted China to be the largest sports market by 2025, the number one footballing team in Asia by 2030, and, a FIFA world cup winner by 2050. 

To achieve this dream, billions of dollars were poured into the development of Footballing infrastructure. Thousands of training grounds were erected overnight and exclusive soccer cities were planned to make millions of Chinese Maradonas and Messis.

The Chinese oligarchs who had sworn their loyalty to the CCP and Xi saw this as a cue to expand their investment into football in China and elsewhere. If a top European team was offering a talented player an attractive contract, the Chinese were ready to double it. If a popular coach was looking for a new challenge after being sacked, the Chinese were the first to hand him an offer.

Between 2012-2018 if you would have stumbled upon a large money trail in the footballing world, it probably led to Beijing or Shanghai, such was the terror of the Chinese billionaires and their deep pockets.

Slowly and gradually this investment started to bore fruit as the average attendance in a Chinese league match grew from 14,000 in 2011 to 25,000 in 2019. Chinese kids were hooked on the adrenaline rush provided by the beautiful game. Whether Real Madrid or Manchester United were to win this year’s Champions league became the talk of Chinese playgrounds.

Football as a weapon to influence geopolitics:

While one reason for the Chinese investment in football was to make China a contender for major trophies but the other more subtle, less prominent reason was to capture the attention of the global football audience, create goodwill among the local population and help advance Beijing’s geopolitical agenda. One strange link between Chinese footballing investment was that it always came at a strategically relevant location. 

Take, for example, the Czech republic’s capital Prague, the Chinese conglomerate which brought the capital’s club Slavia Prague also owns the country’s top beer manufacturer the Lobkowicz group, and a low-cost airline Smartwings. 

This grip on Czech businesses and finances helped Beijing successfully pressure the Czech government into apologizing for the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2016. In a similar fashion, China also invested in clubs across central and Eastern Europe, both as an owner and sponsor. It was again not a coincidence that these countries lay strategically on the proposed Chinese Belt and Road initiative and have been resisting Beijing’s attempt to grant them infrastructural projects due to US and NATO pressure.

The proposed Belt and Road initiative route (Source: The Telegraph)
The proposed Belt and Road initiative route (Source: The Telegraph)

The Chinese purchase of English clubs Wolverhampton and West Bromwich Albion was also not a coincidence. Both clubs lay on either end of the proposed billions of pounds worth of British government-sponsored HS2 high-speed railway project. The owners of the club Wolverhampton Wanderers are the Shanghai-based Fosun International which, surprise ! surprise ! operates China’s first privately-owned high-speed railway. 

Hence, this purchase was not done to satisfy the owner’s casual sporting interest but rather his larger financial interest. It was done to create a presence, a sort of goodwill among the British natives, who take their weekend football a bit too seriously so that it can be used to counter any kind of future “Sinophobic propaganda” which might hamper its chances of a lucrative contract. It is estimated that the Chinese have pumped in close to $ 3 Billion into Europe in a bid to control its ever-so-popular football leagues.

However, the Chinese love for European football is not one-sided and the European football community loves them back with the same intensity, the reason being China’s 1.6 billion strong population which commands a good appetite for foreign entertainment and goods including sports among other entertainment. Due to the drop in fertility rate in mainland Europe, the European clubs found their market and audience base to be saturated with time. So, the ideal way for them to stay relevant was to expand into new markets, where was this new market: Asia. And who was leading the Asian resurgence: China.

Chinese fans of German club Bayern Munich welcoming the players in Shanghai (Source: SCMP)
Chinese fans of German club Bayern Munich welcoming the players in Shanghai (Source: SCMP)

So the European giants came calling, vying for their share of the proverbial Chinese melon. Major clubs opened their youth academies, started their pre-season tours from Chinese cities, and opened big fan stores to encash the ever-growing Chinese consumer spending power. The Chinese politburo benefitted greatly from this investment, China as a brand got a lot of publicity and they were able to whitewash their human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Players or football figures who dared to speak against Chinese hegemony were quickly shown their place.

One such player was Turkish origin-German national Mesut Özil, who plied his trade in England for London club Arsenal. Özil, in one of his social media posts, dared to criticize Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs. What happened next shook the very foundation of the footballing world and set the precedent for how states dealt with criticism from foreign citizens.

Turkish-German player Mesut Özil (Mirror UK)
Turkish-German player Mesut Özil (Mirror UK)

Matches of Arsenal, the team for which Özil played, were banned by Beijing to be aired by Chinese broadcasters, his account with over 6 million followers on Weibo (a Chinese social media site) was suspended, and his name returned no results on the Chinese web search engines. Özil’s team went into serious damage control mode and relegated the world cup winner to the bench. Mesut Özil would only play twice for Arsenal after this episode, with Arsenal sending their best-paid player packing to the lesser-known Turkish league. The message was loud and clear, don’t mess with China or be prepared to face heavy consequences.

Subsidence and then fall

Like any other fairytale, the romance between China and football also came crashing down. The Chinese super league’s effort to position itself as an emerging alternative to European football did not materialize as it failed to generate global interest in its teams. These “upstart” teams were competing against teams that had centuries of history and a loyal support base and hence there was no competition.

The years of opulent spending also caught up with the Chinese clubs with many clubs reporting bankruptcy and their inability to pay the astronomical wages they had promised to their players. The COVID-induced lockdown and the subsequent economic slowdown also did not help the condition of the teams. One other major issue that the players faced in China were the massive cultural shock. Many top European and South American players left for home after only one season in China due to their inability to adjust to the culture and society.

Xi’s plan to upgrade the Chinese national men’s team in order to compete in a major FIFA tournament also failed to materialize. The last time China competed in a FIFA tournament was back in the 2002 World cup. Since then it has failed to qualify for a single world cup despite the billions of dollars of investment and regularly loses to lower-ranked teams.

The Chinese football association’s cap on salary and quota for foreign players has also contributed to the loss of shine and appeal of the league to a global audience.

However, it needs to be said that we are too early in Xi’s dream to pass any solid judgments and it needs to be seen how China will recover from this blow and whether can it really lift a FIFA world cup by 2050 or not.

Source: SCMP
Source: SCMP


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