Before coming to China I expected Kung Fu (功夫 gōngfu) to be omnipresent. It just seemed so obvious to me, having learned everything I know about China from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle. In retrospect that was probably not the best way to get to know the true Chinese culture. However, upon arriving at my host family my host brother immediately asked me if I played football (足球 zúqiú). I soon realised that football is in fact the most popular sport in China (real football, not the American kind). Nonetheless, I was undeterred and I tried to find a place to do Kung Fu. However, my road to success was made even more difficult by the fact that every time I asked someone where I could find a Kung Fu gym they said just go to one of the football courts and play some football. In the end I found a Kong Fu gym, but I was intrigued by the enormous popularity of football, despite the lack of international success at this sport.
So I researched and what I found surprised me. Not only does FC Barcelona have a training facility in Qingdao, the city I was placed in by InternChina, but a football academy has been set up in a Shaolin temple with the intent of incorporating football into Kung Fu. Yes, you read that correctly Shaolin Soccer is now a real thing. On one hand, the school is trying to increase the reputation of Shaolin Kung Fu on and increase the football skill of the citizens. On the other hand, they are combining the physical prowess the monks gain through rigorous training with the precision required to be a good footballer.
In fact this is all part of an effort to raise the standard of the national sport, because although it is the most popular sport in China, the national team is spectacularly bad. I was forced to witness this when watching international friendlies with my host family at dinner. The women’s national team is comparably good on the other hand, reaching the quarterfinals in the last world cup albeit receiving much less public attention. This success is probably a result of football being introduced into the curriculum from a very young age. Previously, talents did not receive the attention they needed in order to prosper into the potent footballers they could have been due to being occupied with school all day all week up to the age of 16. When this problem became apparent though, football was incorporated into daily school life and many schools now have football grounds.
This national initiative to become better at football, promoted by the eager football fan and president of China Xi Jinping, also consists of an increase in transfer funds in order to secure top players in the Chinese Super League, the top tier football league in China. Much of the money probably comes from wealthy businessmen trying to amass political power and general reputation – corruption is a big problem in Chinese football, too. In the 2016 winter transfer window the Chinese Super League spent more than the Premier League. This is more than the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1 leagues combined on transfers last year, to record sum of £194 million.
Not all of the money was spent domestically but big clubs also tried to secure international top players. The striker, Alex Teireira, Liverpool’s top target for this winter’s transfer season, was indeed snatched by Jiangsu for the Asian record fee of £38 million. Among the pantheon of world class players recruited this year are names such as Jackson Martinez (£31 million), Ramires (£21 million) and Brazilian striker Elkeson (£13.9 million). Each of these transfers successively broke the record for the highest transfer fees. Cahill, Demba Ba and Gervinho already call the Middle Kingdom home. Oscar was offered £75 million to join Ramires’ Jiangsu, but decided to stay at Chelsea (with Jiangsu he would at least have a chance of winning a trophy this year). The high salaries also add to the lure of the Chinese Super League. Asamoah Gyah earns £243,000 a week, which made him the 8th highest player at this point in time.
At the moment most top players are South-American mainly due to the millions they are offered in China. As they are chiefly from poor families they do not care much for the prestige of the European league. This is very different in Europe where football players are not only chasing the next pay check but also the glory that is so deeply embedded in the football culture. For this reason European players only tend to leave Europe when they are approaching retirement whereas many South-American talents are going to China early on. South-American players near retirement are more likely to go to China, whereas European ones prefer destinations such as the USA. This is likely change, as Xi Jinping has announced that China would be a major footballing nation by 2025 and Rooney, Fernando Torres and Yaya Touré have all been linked with China.
The interest is bilateral though and top clubs such as FC Barcelona have opened academies in China, trying to turn quantity into quality. Some of the biggest European clubs, such as Atletico Madrid are now partially owned by Chinese billionaires who have gained interest in the European football hype and want to secure some of that footballing glory for themselves. Xi Jinping is reportedly a huge ManU-fan (god knows why).
The biggest competition to the Chinese Super League in terms of emerging football markets is the Major League Soccer in the USA. Both Leagues are relying on and prosper by snatching talent from European top clubs. In order to be more attractive for foreign players there is no wage cap on foreign players, whereas in the US only three designated players are allowed to earn more than the maximum cap. Legislation in China is also ever-changing in order to accommodate foreign players. 10 years ago there could only be 3 foreign players per team, now 5 players are allowed.
Considering all these different factors China has the potential to become a major player in international football. This is not limited to the clubs though, but it also includes the national team that is ever-improving. I guess only time will tell, but definitely look out for China in the next few years! You might have to buy plane tickets to China in the next few years as Xi Jinping has voiced interest in hosting (and winning) a World Cup.
Before we start talking about this subject, let us give you some facts about football in China. Football (or soccer) is called Zúqiú and written as 足球.China has always had a great interest in football and invested a lot of money in stimulating the youth in playing football. All across China you can find new grass fields that were specially made for football, some of them even have fake grass, advanced sprinkler systems and even heated fields during the winter. China’s Men’s National Team is currently ranked 99th in the world and Women’s National Team is ranked 14th.
Football is one of the most well supported sports in China, since it was introduced in the early 1900s. The national governing body is the Chinese Football Association (CFA). Hong Kong and Macau have separate leagues that sometimes compete with each other during special events.
Chinese football fans often associate themselves most with teams from other, more successful football countries. The Premier League, The Italian Serie A, The German Bundesliga and the Spanish La Liga. Chinese players that get the unique chance in playing in these exclusive leagues attract massive media attention in China. Some examples include Sun Jihai – Manchester United, Zheng Zhi – Celtic, Yang Chen – Eintracht Frankfurt.
Football is and will always inspire the youth all over the world in pursuing a career in football. Some do succeed while the vast majority holds on to studying, working and living the normal life their parents, family and friends told them to have as it has more security.
China certainly has the will and money to improve. International top players and coaches are flown in from the west for millions of dollars to inspire the local players and youth. A couple of questions do continue to linger in our minds when it comes to the future of football in China. Can you really copy the art of football? What is really holding back the Chinese from performing better? How come we don’t see kids playing on the streets? Only time will tell…
Shaolin Soccer (2001) is a movie about a guy called Sing, who is a former Shaolin Kung Fu Master. One day he meets Fung, who was a famous soccer star, but was betrayed by his friend Hung who also broke Fungs knee, thus ending his career.
The ex-soccer player helps Sing reconcile with his five brothers, who also became Kung Fu Masters, and teaches them soccer, adding Shaolin Kung Fu. Sing’s specialty is the “Leg of Steel” and the whole team is using their martial arts skills to their advantage.
Together they enter a big soccer competition and appear to be unbeatable, until they meet Fung’s arch-enemy and his team: Team Evil…
Why watch this movie:
As I write this, I have watched Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer for the amount of times relative to my age (Editor’s note: Xavier is 22). And I still enjoy every single minute of it. Also after you watch this film you will know the funny side of Chinese. Also, this film was the first movie which used the Chinese Kung Fu & Western sports mixed together. There’s something about this movie that attracts me to watch it every single time it is playing on TV, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it is. In my opinion, what makes Shaolin Soccer the best film ever made in the history of films, is simply the cast and the variety of characters. No one else is able to step into the role of “Golden Steel Leg” so effortlessly like how Stephen Chow did. Put in “Golden Hammer Head”, a guy who breakdances while juggling a ball, a flying fat man…and you will get the best movie there ever was. So basically, why you should watch it is because it is a great way to learn something about Chinese humor, the movie is a genre-mix and making fun of all the old Wuxia movies (that’s the old martial arts movies) and it is about one of the world’s most favorite sports!
Picture taken from: