The economy, cybersecurity and the military are among the few matters Chinese President Xi Jinping has deemed important enough to create a top-level Communist Party task force. Add soccer to the list.
Achieving Chinese supremacy on the football pitch is the latest mission Xi has assigned to a “leading small group,” the Guangzhou-based Soccer News reported Thursday. The panel will be led by Vice Premier Liu Yandong, the first time a Politburo member has been put in charge of developing a sport.
The appointment is the latest move by Xi to reverse the poor performance of the men’s national team and improve the reputation of its domestic league. It’s a goal that dates back to at least 2011, when the presidential heir-apparent told a South Korean delegation he wanted China to qualify, host and win the World Cup, the party-run People’s Daily reported.
“This is the highest-level leadership panel ever set up for any sport, which shows the enormous importance attached to soccer,” said Ren Hai, a professor of sports culture at Beijing Sport University.
Chinese soccer-related stocks rallied. Jiangsu Sainty Corp., whose parent owns a Super League club, rose 10 percent to close at 16.49 yuan in Shanghai. Evergrande Real Estate Group increased 19 percent and China Sports Industry Group jumped 10 percent.
The State Council on March 16 issued a soccer reform plan including more funding for the national team, two new training camps and the establishment of 50,000 soccer schools by 2025. The stated aims included hosting the World Cup and raising the Chinese Super League to an “advanced world level,” alongside the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.
Small groups such as the one Xi created to oversee soccer are usually composed of the most senior party leaders. They meet irregularly, often behind closed doors, and rarely publish their full membership. Xi has set up at least three small groups since taking power in November 2012, focused on economic reform, regulating the Internet and improving the combat readiness of the People’s Liberation Army.
The men’s national team didn’t qualify for the last three World Cups, and sat at 82nd on the FIFA rankings released April 9. The Chinese Super League has been plagued with bribery and match-fixing.
The benefits of honing the country’s soccer prowess goes beyond trophies, said Ren, the sports culture professor.
“It’s a bit embarrassing that a major power and big country like China cannot even make it to the top tier in Asia,” he said. “A winning national team, like the German men’s team, is priceless when it comes to building national pride.”