The appointment of a high-ranking Communist Party officer to a soccer reform task force shows just how serious Chinese leader Xi Jinping is about raising China’s soccer playing standards.
Liu Yandong, the Chinese vice premier and Politburo member, will head a newly set up “Soccer Reform Small Leading Group,” Guangzhou-based Soccer News reported on April 30.
This is only the second time in history that a top Communist Party leader is taking charge of sports—nearly sixty years ago, Marshal He Long was appointed director of the National Sports Commission, and was purged in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution.
Liu is expected to oversee the comprehensive soccer reform plan—better funding for the national team, the establishment of 50,000 soccer schools by 2025, and hosting the World Cup—outlined by China’s State Council on March 16. The reforms are intended to see China’s professional soccer league eventually rivaling its English and Spanish counterparts, and becoming the top team in Asia.
China’s national team is currently ranked 82nd by FIFA, the international soccer governing body. China last qualified for the World Cup in 2002, and finished 31st out of the 32 finalists.
To date, Xi Jinping several “small leading groups”—focused committees comprised of veteran Party leaders—in economic reform, Internet regulation, and the military. They have names like: “Comprehensive Deepening Reform,” “State Security Committee,” “Internet Security & Informatization,” and “Propaganda & Ideology.”
But the soccer-mad Xi has long desired soccer supremacy for the nation. In 2011, Xi reportedly told a South Korean delegation that he wanted China to qualify, host, and win the World Cup—the sport’s top prize—according to state mouthpiece Xinhua. Shortly after Xi assumed power in 2012, the Beijing Commission of Education announced plans to improve soccer education in Beijing, China’s capital.
“I am a fan of soccer,” said Xi during a visit to Mexico in 2013, according to Xinhua. “The Chinese national team has been working very hard.”
Some Chinese netizens have expressed ambivalence over Xi’s mission for Chinese soccer glory.
A netizen using the handle “passingnorthwind” wrote on Sina Weibo that school students should be allowed to pick up “whatever sport they wish to learn” and not just soccer. “Everyone shouldn’t just learn soccer because the authorities think it’s good.”
“Zhang Dave” wrote: “The authorities should save taxpayers’ money and build 50,000 schools that promote different sports; it’s people’s interest and not policy that drives sports development.”
“The State Council has no program for fixing China’s severely polluted rivers and air, yet it has a soccer reform plan,” wrote an anonymous netizen. “This so-called State Council would better be termed a madhouse!”