Xi Jinping’s ‘Soccer Diplomacy’ Dead-Ending as Wave of Disbandments Hit the Industry

May 13, 2021 Updated: May 13, 2021

Chinese professional soccer is in deep trouble now that a wave of disbandments has hit the clubs. Meanwhile, China’s authoritarian leader Xi Jinping’s ambition to use the big-money game as “soccer diplomacy” to promote China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has bankrupted.

At the end of March this year, the Chinese Football Association officially announced the new season’s three level leagues entry list. Jiangsu team, the defending champion of the Chinese Super League,  and three Chinese A-league teams were not listed because they disbanded due to financial issues.

According to mainland media, in the Chinese Second League, a wave of club foldings has spread since last year, with a total of nearly 20 teams no longer viable. The high cost of running a soccer team is hurting the development of the sport in China.

Chen Xuyuan, the Chairman of the Chinese Football Association, said on Dec. 14, 2020: “Chinese clubs invest three times as much as the J-League (Japanese professional league) and ten times as much as the K-League (Korea professional league). The first-line players’ wages are 5.8 times that of the J-League, and 11.6 times higher than the South Korea players.” However, the Chinese men’s soccer team at all levels has not made it to the World Series for 15 to 20 years.

Soccer, as the world’s most popular sport and “global language,” has been a field coveted by the Chinese communist regime and its leader Xi Jinping as a means to exert their influence on the world stage.

Xi started using “soccer diplomacy” in 2014 when he visited Europe. He frequently talked about soccer with the heads of state and the media in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and other countries, revealing that he was a super fan of the game. He was dubbed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece media as “Mr. Soccer on the diplomatic stage.”

From 2014 to 2016, China quickly expanded its overseas reach by spending huge amounts on the world’s most prestigious professional soccer leagues. Big Chinese financial groups acquired stock shares of at least 15 top soccer clubs in Europe, including Italian Serie A team Inter Milan, Spanish team Atletico Madrid, and UK’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, according to Chinese official media.

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SPAIN: Inter Milan’s Argentinian forward Diego Milito celebrates with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League final football match Inter Milan against Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid (Pierre-Phillips Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Infiltrating FIFA

Moreover, the Chinese regime started to infiltrate Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—the soccer world governing body—to expand its influence on the international stage through sports.

In June 2017, Xi met with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Beijing. In 2018, even though the Chinese men’s soccer team failed to pass the qualification match to play at the World Cup in Russia, China became the country that had the most sponsors contributing to the game, alongside the U.S..

A 2019 New York Times article pointed out that FIFA “only talks about football and avoids mentioning human rights” to China.

Chinese communist officials have high-level positions in FIFA and are involved in the organization’s decision making. Zhang Jian, then vice-chairman of the Chinese Football Association, was added as a FIFA council member for a term in 2017-2019.

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino delivers a speech during the 68th FIFA Congress in Moscow, Russia June 13, 2018. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

In April 2019, Du Zhaocai, Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Committee of the Chinese Football Association, was elected as a council member of FIFA for a term of 2019-2023.

Push for BRI

At the same time, Chinese companies have also been using soccer to assist the Chinese Communist government to advance Xi’s BRI global expansion strategy.

Zhang Jindong, the Chairman of Suning Group, which bought Inter Milan, proposed a bill at the CCP two sessions annual high-level national political meetings in March 2017, calling on Chinese companies to support the CCP’s BRI strategy for global expansion.

In 2017 and 2018, Suning Group held the “Belt and Road” Suning Cup International Youth Football Tournament.

The Chinese regime even added FIFA’s endorsement to the BRI-themed promotional soccer tournaments it held. For instance, the “Belt and Road Cup” International Beach Football Tournament held in Haikou, China “has become an international A-level event approved by FIFA,” according to official Chinese media.

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The sign and logo of Wanda Group, a Chinese multinational conglomerate corporation and FIFA partner, is seen at the world football’s governing body headquarters in Zurich on Oct. 13, 2016.
(Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

However, China’s big-money game in soccer was crashed by Xi’s own policies. In 2018, Xi put restrictions on capital outflow and started cracking down on “irrational investment” in the sports fields, especially targeting soccer clubs. The regime also started to charge a 100 percent tax on soccer players’ international transfer fees, which further worsened the situation for the Chinese companies that own soccer clubs.

In 2018, China’s Wanda Group sold 17 percent of its stock share of Atletico Madrid.

In 2019, it was reported that Fosun International would sell 20 percent of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ shares.

The Suning Group, which spent a huge amount of money to buy Inter Milan in 2016, not only disbanded its Chinese champion team the Jiangsu Soccer Club in February 2021, but is now selling Inter Milan.

Meanwhile, China’s BRI has been accused of setting debt traps for participating countries and encroachment on sovereignty, and has encountered strong pushback. For example, Australia recently terminated its BRI deal with China.

Li Linyi, a U.S.-based Chinese current affairs commentator, said, “Along with the BRI becoming more and more notorious in the world, Xi’s soccer diplomacy is also hitting the dead end.” He added that the recent policy reforms of the regime is one reason the Chinese soccer industry has been crushed, along with Xi’s soccer dream.

Long Tengyun contributed to this report.