The return of the Bundesliga marked the end to a world without football for more than two months. Usually, the months of May and June are lined up with crucial league clashes between title contenders and the Champions League Finals, but 2020 is destined to be different. As more leagues plan to return, I want to share with you some history about football in China, and maybe even get you interested in watching a game or two of the Chinese Super League.

Ever since President Xi was appointed to lead China indefinitely in 2012, he hasn’t shied away from publicly expressing his fervent support for the beautiful game. Showing up at Etihad Stadium and claiming his love for Beckham during state visits to the UK, Xi had not only reshaped the structure of Chinese football but also helped China climb up the ranks on the world football stage.

CFA Wei
Wei, one of China’s best talents from the Class of 95, seen here having to cover up his tattoos during international games, a strict rule enforced by the Chinese Football Association (CFA).

Not many leaders openly discussed their love for sports since the genesis of Communist China in 1949. In fact, they weren’t even comfortable introducing their wives to the world. However, is Xi the “special one”, only the second president ever to openly state his support of a specific sport. Before him, President Mao spread swimming’s popularity by circulating pictures of him taking a dip in the Yangtze River on the front-pages of state newspapers. Articles reported how Mao swam an eight-minute mile in the river, as a part of a propaganda campaign to end rumors of his poor health.

In that case, it's easy to see that President Mao was controlling public perception by beating the world record by more than seven minutes, but what is Xi trying to prove? It seems that Xi is doing two things, domestically, by endorsing a sport he is inviting a scary comparison to Mao, but internationally he is projecting a progressive image by introducing his wife to the world.

Aguero and Xi selfie
Aguero's selfie with Xi.

China’s soccer ecosystem is very hard to decode. Unlike similar clubs that were first state-owned, but are now independent, the Chinese Super League has too many stakeholders and benefactors to see who really controls the organization. While all teams in the Chinese Super League are officially registered as backed by private sector businesses, the majority of owners have backgrounds in either real estate or manufacturing - two sectors of the private economy that are very close-knit with the local government in China.

When Xi first shared his selfie with Agüero several years ago and later promised that China will try to host one of the next three World Cups, it shocked Chinese fans just as much as it did investors. Suddenly they were spending big money to sign famous players worldwide and paying ridiculous amounts of money for mediocre domestic transfers. They were trying to get quick results while, but they also were echoing the President’s personal hobbies.

CFA New Players
Three of Team China’s newest additions, naturalized players from the left, Li Ke (previously Nico Yennaris, Brentford City side, and Arsenal youth), Luo Guofu (previously Aloísio, Brazilian side Grêmio youth), Ai Kesen (previously Elkeson, Brazilian side Botafogo). An incentive program by the CFA to boost team performance in the short term, the program was recently shut down indefinitely

Xi had everything to do with the football trend from the beginning. In 2012 he claimed power atop China, and in an attempt to consolidate power early on in his career, Xi launched the haunting “anti-corruption” campaign. The true meaning of such a campaign remains mysteriously unclear, but one can easily connect the dots between the anti-corruption lawsuits in football and later a complete revamp within the Communist Party. Xi wanted to show his grasp of power from every single facet of the society, sports included.

Classic boots and ball.

After the internal cleanup within the Chinese Football Association, the top-tier leagues took steps to become more professional by breaking off from the previous state-organized sports system. However, football in China still hit a bottleneck, the Super League teams pay frequent visits to the final stages of the Asian Champions League, yet the national team remains an absolute joke. We’ve seen Asian countries that have gone through similar stages, cash-burning in the late 80s and early 90s was a big part of how Japanese football came to develop one of the best football ecosystems in the world. And the same happened in South Korea over the years as well, now you have Son-aldo.

Chinese football investors need to realize that signing big checks may get you results quickly, but missing out on a healthy youth system is going to cost them in the long run. There is a lot more work to be done in Chinese football, and I hope they don’t shy away from it.

Words: Tommy Wan works at Adsum and hails from Beijing, China.