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17 July 2024

Football in China - an ambitious project awaiting fruition


Over the past years, China has taken several measures towards building a national football team capable of competing strongly in continental and international tournaments, especially the World Cup, with the aim of making China a footballing superpower.

During the past few decades, the ambitious Chinese project began to support professionalism in football clubs and establish a professional league, while allowing companies to own clubs to support and manage them.

The tournament witnessed several transformations and developments in its system over the course of these decades until it reached its current form, the Chinese Super League, which includes 16 teams competing with each other in a two-round “home and away” league system, as is the case in the major leagues in Europe, after the championship system witnessed the division of its teams into two groups in previous seasons.

During the last two decades, and within the framework of the keenness of the General Administration of Sport of China to develop the level of the game and increase its popularity further, clubs tended to attract players and coaches of international fame, especially with the launch of the Super League activities in 2004.

The clubs have already succeeded in attracting a number of prominent stars, led by Argentine Carlos Tevez, former star of Manchester City, Manchester United and Italian Juventus, who moved to Shanghai Shenhua F.C. in late 2016. According to this contract, Tevez received an annual salary amounting to US$41 million, becoming the highest-paid player at that time, until he left the team in 2018, returning to his former team, Boca Juniors, to end his football career.

The list of international stars who moved to the Chinese Super League includes the Brazilian Hulk and his compatriot Oscar, the former Chelsea star; the Ivorian Didier Drogba; Spain's Javier Mascherano and Andres Iniesta; France's Nicolas Anelka; Belgium's Marouane Fellaini; Italy's Stefan El Shaarawy; Slovakia's Marek Hamšík; Venezuela's Salomón Rondón; and Nigeria's Odion Ighalo.

The Chinese league also attracted a number of prominent coaches, including the former coach of the Italian national team Marcello Lippi, who won the 2006 World Cup, and the Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led the Brazilian national team to win the 2002 World Cup and the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Lippi and Scolari coached Guangzhou Evergrande, and each led the team to win the Chinese Super League title 3 times during what was known as the golden era for the club, in which it won the championship title from 2011 to 2017.

The list of coaches also includes the Italian Fabio Cannavaro, the Portuguese Vitor Pereira and the Romanian Cosmin Ol─âroiu.

Through this continuous effort to elevate the Chinese Super League in the past decades, especially in the last two decades, Chinese clubs left their mark on the continental scene, and Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League title in 2013 and 2015, bringing the number of Chinese titles in the history of the tournament to 3 titles, as Liaoning F.C. previously won the title in the 1989-1990 season.

The China national football team also maintained its continuous presence in the Asian Cup tournaments, which it has not missed since its first appearance in the 1976 edition. Despite the strong competition in the tournament, the team reached the quarter-finals in each of the past two editions, in 2015 in Australia and 2019 in the UAE. It also qualified for the finals of the next edition, which will be hosted by Qatar early next year.

However, China's ambition is to compete for the World Cup title in the coming decades, which represents a major goal for this project to develop football in this populous country.

Two years ago, the General Administration of Sport of China had revealed the direction to establish between 16 and 18 sports cities in a number of regions, one of whose primary objectives would be to contribute to the development of football and provide a suitable infrastructure in order to expand the base of practice and provide many distinctive elements capable of supporting teams.

In recent years, it has also been decided to reduce the number of foreigners in the league teams to provide the country's youth with an opportunity to better participate in competitions.