China wants to be the world leader of a lot of things: advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and, yes, football.
Of those three, it’s football that may be the most difficult. Chinese people love football and desperately want its team to compete on the world stage. But the Chinese men’s football team has only made it into the World Cup once, back in 2002, and it failed to score a single goal during the entire tournament. The team’s perennial failure has made it the target of harsh online criticism, and not just against the team. The government also has been heavily criticized and there have been street protests and even riots.
President Xi Jinping, a self-proclaimed football fanatic, wants to change that. In 2013, he said that he wants China to one day qualify for, host and win a World Cup.
Since then, his government has implemented an unprecedented plan that will span three decades. It involves tremendous political capital, billions of dollars, and—most importantly—an entire generation of Chinese children.
This project is about much more than success on the field. Reviving football is both a metaphor and a big part of the “Chinese Dream”—the party’s vision for what it wants for the country’s future: a strong economy, respect from the world as it projects its power, and a strong, shared national identity.
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