Chinese football is a largely neglected research object in social science research on China, although Chinese president Xi Jinping himself stated that „[f]ootball is the most popular sport in the world and there are over 100 million football fans in China alone“. Recently, however, theJournal of Current Chinese Affairs published an article by Ilker Gündogan and Albrecht Sonntag called “Chinese Football in the Era of Xi Jinping: What do Supporters Think?”. The study aims to illustrate how the Chinese football community perceived the newly launched national football reform programmes in the People’s Republic of China.
The article starts by giving the reader a brief introduction to Chinese football history, explaining that, despite being very successful in other sports (especially individual sports), China has failed to reach the same level of competitiveness and success in football. The men‘s national football team has only once qualified for a FIFA World Cup and is struggling to catch up with the women‘s national team. Furthermore, corruption and fraud caused detrimental effects on the reputation and prominence of the Chinese football leagues. Even before Xi Jinping came to office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, he has expressed a strong desire to change the poor state and lousy image of Chinese football. For instance, in 2011, he revealed his “three wishes for Chinese football”: to qualify for a World Cup, to host a World Cup, and finally to win a World Cup. And, after having taken office as president in 2013, the Chinese political leadership released a “comprehensive” national football development strategy in order to “improve physical health, enrich cultural life, promote the spirit of patriotism and collectivism, develop the sports industry” as well as to meet “the new popular expectations by realising the dream of becoming a powerful sporting nation”. To achieve these goals, a centralisation of national football governance structures was enforced by state authorities, meaning that “the political leadership of the PRC has shifted decision-making powers in Chinese football […] to an even higher level of authority; this, in turn, stresses the degree of importance attributed to football by China’s contemporary political leaders”.
The implications of football play an essential role in China‘s political efforts to develop “the people’s game”. Football today serves as a consolidator of national identity not only in China but also in many other countries. Historically, this facet has been especially highlighted in the context of European and Latin American communities, which means that the game’s propensity to serve as a stabiliser of national identity can be applied to many different “varieties of nationalism” around the globe. As Gündogan and Sonntag put it: Football was considered historically “as a mock confrontation of nations”, focusing on “territorial layout and battlefield terminology (‘attack,’ ‘defence,’ ‘wings,’ ‘shots,’ ‘captain,’ and the like) [that’s why different political] regimes were tempted to instrumentalise the game as a way of consolidating national identities”. It is therefore not too surprising that in particular national football teams “are heavily charged with symbolic value” and consequently “trigger profoundly nationalistic identification patterns based on feelings of belonging, perceived singularity, and national pride”.
A notable feature of this study is that, in comparison to some other studies on Chinese football, the results are not merely based on hypotheses, but provide original data. The authors created an online survey with 40 questions in order to examine the attitudes of Chinese football supporters, with particular emphasis laid on issues of nationalism and governance. The survey was disseminated via Chinese social media channels such as WeChat and Sina Weibo, and the responses of 2,499 survey participants from all over mainland China were taken into consideration. Some 1885 respondents completed all 40 questions.
The results suggest that “[g]iven the place that football tends to occupy in the lives of those who consider themselves ‘supporters,’ it is coherent that the survey participants felt concerned by a reform programme that is directly targeted at their passion and is thus likely to have an impact on their everyday lives”.
Although the survey confirms that most survey participants identify with the Chinese national team and emotionally react to certain symbolic elements and behaviours, only very few respondents are satisfied with the performance of the Chinese men’s national football team (1.6 per cent). Moreover, a significant 80 per cent of respondents expect that the Chinese men’s national team will not be able to overtake those of Japan and South Korea in the FIFA World Ranking over the next ten years.
Both in several media reports and the official documents, the personal preference and fondness of President Xi Jinping for “the beautiful game” were repeatedly emphasised. The survey participants were asked what, in their opinion, were the main motivations behind the reform and development efforts vis-à-vis Chinese football. The responses reveal that a large majority of respondents perceives the reforms as a response to a public demand (80 per cent) and an attempt to raise China’s soft power on the international level (59 per cent), very much in line with the officially stated goals in the reform programmes.
I am sitting on the train from Dortmund to Paris, on the way to a colloquium in Sciences Po, at the invitation of the historian Paul Dietschy. Diagonally across from me, four elderly ladies and gentlemen who exchanged at first very lively about their grandchildren. By looking at the many photos and videos and the constant jerking in the train, the people were visibly exhausted, which led to a long break in their conversation. They yawned and looked out the window.
Suddenly, one of them held up a newspaper and said with full vigour, ‘You’ve probably already noticed that! When I saw the picture on the cover this morning, I was so angry about it! It just cannot be true! How stupid are they?!’. On the title page, I saw my brother Ilkay and Mesut Özil, handing over the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a jersey of their club teams Manchester City and Arsenal London. After the last matches of the English Premier League and before the announcement of the German national team squad for the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the two German internationals met with the Turkish President in London. This photo triggered a heated debate in Germany. The players were accused of being instrumentalised for election campaign purposes – one month before the presidential elections in Turkey on June 24. The political relations between the two countries are currently tense and Turkish election campaigns in Germany are prohibited.
It is interesting what effect a photo of a footballer with one (or more) foreign presidents can have on the perception of so many people. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom included a reception by this year’s Premier League winner Manchester City. Back then, the Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero took a selfie with President Xi Jinping and then British Prime Minister David Cameron. This photo also received a lot of attention. However, what differed fundamentally from the current polemics about Gündogan and Özil was the perception, reception and reaction of the media and the population. Many jokes were made about the British Prime Minister because he was accused of ‘photo-bombing’ the selfie. As for President Xi Jinping, there was a discussion about why he agreed to this selfie, as it is speculated that he is a fan of the local rival Manchester United. Sergio Aguero had not received any significant criticism. He was not accused of consolidating the legitimacy of an autocratic system or leader through this photo. He was not accused of acting morally wrong since the Leninist party dictatorship in China does not adequately represent liberal-democratic values. He was also not attacked for failing to live up to his responsibility as a role model for millions of children and adolescents, etc.
Even if both situations contain the same action – footballers take photos with an autocratic leader – both scenarios are perceived very differently. Why?
The reason for this is that in the current case profound national identification patterns and forms of representation are affected, which are based on feelings of belonging, perceived singularity and national pride, and not in the other case.
The context is crucial. The topic of identification and representation ignites strong emotional desires and aversions. The formation of identities or the question of political representation played no role in the Aguero example. He never had to consider whether he plays for the Argentine or the Chinese national team, nor does he have Chinese citizenship or any other family relationship with the country.
It is completely different with the Gündogan and Özil example. Both were born in Germany, went to school there and became professional footballers there. Their parents and grandparents emigrated from Turkey to Germany. The two had to choose between the two national teams, and they have decided to play for the German national team. The two footballers have become typical examples of a successful ‘integration’ into German society through their sporting achievements, attracting much attention. Interestingly, Turkish international Cenk Tosun, who also participated in the meeting with Erdogan, was mentioned in media reports only marginally. He also grew up in Germany and played for German national youth teams, but he eventually chose the Turkish national team. But there was hardly anyone who was angry about him.
The meeting of the two German national team players with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not so sensitive and controversial because footballers have been photographed with an authoritarian political leader who does not respect a number of liberal-democratic values and beliefs, but because the players are being accused of ‘high treason’. The two players have decided to play for the German national team, so how come they still identify with Turkey? How can it be that someone who is considered a model citizen for successful integration in Germany, hands over the Turkish President a jersey with the personal signature: ‘For MY President’?
In the People’s Republic of China, it would probably have come to similar emotional reactions, if the former basketball star Yao Ming would hand over Tsai Ing-Wen, the President of Taiwan, a basketball shirt with the words ‘For MY President’ (or maybe not, because Chinese regulators would probably censor this photo).
The fact is that people have many identities and loyalties to different groups. Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote in his book ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’ that we humans understand us as members of a variety of groups that we all belong to (e.g. nationality, place of residence, geographical origin, gender, sexual orientation, class, political views, occupation, work, eating habits, sporting interests, tastes in music, social engagement, etc.). Each of these collectives gives a person a specific identity. It is therefore wrong to reduce a person to a singular affiliation. The statement of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, ‘Home also exists in the plural’ is therefore accurate.
In addition, identities and identification patterns are not static, but contextual and in relation to the situation very flexible and adaptable. It therefore possible that the two German national players felt more attached to Turkey at the meeting with the Turkish President. This may also be evident in the outward appearance of Gündogan (‘Turkish moustache’). This phenomenon is called ‘self-Turkified’ by the German ethnologist Nina Szogs. In turn, it is possible that the players in the dress of the German national team (or in the jersey of their club team) feel more connected with Germany. The one does not exclude the other.
The ethnologist Nina Szogs, just mentioned above, has in recent years been investigating the practices and narratives of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe fans in Vienna, the group often referred to as citizens ‘with Turkish migration background’. Many results of this study can also be applied to the German context. She found out that being a fan of a Turkish football club is for these people a strategy to maintain ‘kinship’ and belonging to a constructed Turkish community, which implies a cross-generational continuity. Her research suggests that the abolition of dual citizenship would probably not result in people ‘with Turkish migration background’ identifying exclusively with Germany.
Still, wasn’t the decision of the two German internationals to meet with Erdogan before the Turkish presidential elections, not a ‘stupid’ idea? Some media reports called the footballers ‘stupid’ and ‘out of touch with reality’.
First of all, there is no universal definition of intelligence (or stupidity). But let’s suppose stupidity implies a lack of understanding of the consequences of an action: in that sense, this meeting was indeed ‘stupid’. The cliché of the not so bright footballer should still not be served – although some media representatives have reflexively done this (‘legs instead of a brain’). At the beginning of my brother’s football career, I lived with him in Nuremberg and witnessed how he has done his Abitur (A-levels), beside the daily professional football business. Had he taken an academic career path, he would probably also have been very successful.
The question of responsibility for this ‘stupidity’ should be further differentiated. The players were not aware of the consequences of this meeting because they are not particularly interested in politics. Why then meet with Erdogan? In fact, the organisers and initiators of this meeting were not Ilkay Gündogan or Mesut Özil, but a team of agents and consultants who should have been aware of the consequences of this meeting. If not, they are simply not good advisors. Preemptive unreflected obedience is always harmful. Too often the agents’ ideational and financial interests are overriding those of the players, but as long as the footballers are fooled to focus ONLY on football, we might see such unfortunate situations even more often.
As the current incident shows, national team players with a migration background are evidently perceived as ‘ambassadors’ who are credited with responsibility beyond their performance on the pitch. On the one hand, this may be disproportionate and difficult for the individual, but on the other hand, it also makes a not inconsiderable contribution to the positive connotation of diversity and plural identities. The results of an international research project called FREE (Football Research in Enlarged Europe) show, a vast majority of people in Germany, France, or the UK (between 75 and 80%) consider that these footballers ‘make an important contribution to social integration’ in their countries. These are significant results, far more reliable than occasionally high-boiling emotions in the social networks or comment columns of the daily newspapers.
Footballers benefit in many ways from the incredible media reach. Accordingly, they should also be aware that they have a social and political responsibility, which they have not sought, but they cannot escape.
Botschafter wider Willen? Fußballer im Kontakt mit Politikern
Ich sitze im Zug von Dortmund nach Paris, auf dem Weg zu einem Kolloquium in Sciences Po, auf Einladung des Historikers Paul Dietschy. Schräg gegenüber von mir vier ältere Damen und Herren, die sich zunächst sehr rege über ihre Enkel austauschten. Durch das Anschauen der vielen Fotos und Videos und das gleichzeitig ständige Ruckeln im Zug waren die Personen sichtlich erschöpft, was zu einer längeren Unterbrechung ihrer Konversation führte. Es wurde laut gegähnt und aus dem Fenster geschaut.
Plötzlich hielt eine der Personen eine Zeitung hoch und sagte voller Erregung: „Das habt ihr bestimmt schon mitbekommen! Als ich das Bild heute Morgen in der Zeitung gesehen habe, habe ich mich total darüber aufgeregt! Das kann doch nicht wahr sein! Wie dumm sind die eigentlich?!“. Auf dem Titelblatt sah ich meinen Bruder Ilkay und Mesut Özil, die dem türkischen Staatspräsidenten Recep Tayyip Erdogan ein Trikot ihrer Vereinsmannschaften Manchester City und Arsenal überreichten. Nach dem letzten Spieltag der englischen Premier League und kurz vor der Bekanntgabe des Kaders der deutschen Fußballnationalmannschaft für die FIFA Weltmeisterschaft in Russland trafen sich die beiden deutschen Nationalspieler mit dem türkischen Staatspräsidenten in London. Dieses Foto löste eine heftige Debatte in Deutschland aus. Den Spielern wurde vorgeworfen, sie hätten sich für Wahlkampfzwecke instrumentalisieren lassen – einen Monat vor den vorgezogenen Präsidentschaftswahlen in der Türkei am 24. Juni. Zumal die politischen Beziehungen der beiden Länder derzeit angespannt sind und türkische Wahlkampagnen in Deutschland untersagt.
Es ist erstaunlich welche Wirkung ein Foto von einem Fußballer mit einem (oder mehreren) ausländischen Staatspräsidenten haben kann. Im Jahr 2015 gab es im Rahmen des Staatsbesuchs des chinesischen Präsidenten Xi Jinping in Großbritannien einen Termin bei Manchester City. Der argentinische Stürmer Sergio Aguero machte damals ein Selfie gemeinsam mit Xi und dem damaligen britischen Premierminister David Cameron. Auch dieses Foto erhielt sehr viel Aufmerksamkeit. Was sich allerdings grundsätzlich von der aktuellen Polemik um Gündogan und Özil unterschied, war die Wahrnehmung, Rezeption und Reaktion der Medien und der Bevölkerung. Es wurden viele Witze über den britischen Premierminister gemacht, da er der Ausübung einer „Photo-Bomb“ bezichtigt wurde. Was Xi Jinping betrifft, gab es eine Diskussion darüber, warum er diesem Selfie zugestimmt habe, da spekuliert wurde, er sei eigentlich ein Fan des lokalen Erzrivalen Manchester United. Sergio Aguero wurde dagegen kaum kritisiert. Er wurde nicht dafür beschuldigt, dass er durch dieses gemeinsame Foto die Legitimation eines autokratischen Systems bzw. Führers konsolidiere. Er wurde nicht dafür angeklagt, dass er moralisch falsch gehandelt habe, da die freiheitlich-demokratischen Werte durch die leninistische Parteidiktatur in China nicht hinreichend repräsentiert würden. Er wurde auch nicht dafür angegriffen, dass er seiner Verantwortung als Vorbild für Millionen von Kindern und Jugendlichen nicht nachgekommen sei, etc.
Auch wenn beide Situationen die gleiche Aktion enthalten – Fußballer macht Foto mit einem autokratischen Führer –, werden beide Szenarien sehr unterschiedlich wahrgenommen. Warum?
Der Grund dafür ist, dass in dem aktuellen Fall tiefsitzende nationale Identifikationsmuster und Formen der Repräsentation betroffen sind, welche auf Zugehörigkeitsgefühlen, wahrgenommener Singularität und Nationalstolz beruhen, und in dem anderen Fall eben nicht.
Der Kontext ist ausschlaggebend. Das Thema Identifikation und Repräsentation entfacht starke emotionale Zu- und Abneigungen. Die Formation von Identitäten oder die Frage nach der politischen Repräsentation spielte bei dem Aguero Beispiel keine Rolle. Er musste nie in Erwägung ziehen, ob er für die argentinische oder chinesische Nationalmannschaft spielt, noch hat er die chinesische Staatsbürgerschaft oder eine andere familiäre Beziehung zu dem Land.
Ganz anders bei Gündogan und Özil. Beide sind in Deutschland geboren, dort zur Schule gegangen, und dort zu professionellen Fußballspielern gereift. Ihre Eltern und Großeltern sind aus der Türkei nach Deutschland ausgewandert. Die beiden mussten sich für eine der beiden Nationalmannschaften entscheiden und sie haben sich für die deutsche Auswahl entschieden. Beide sind durch ihre sportlichen Leistungen und ihren hohen Bekanntheitsgrad zu Vorzeigebeispielen für eine gelungene „Integration“ in die deutsche Gesellschaft geworden. Interessanterweise wurde der türkische Nationalspieler Cenk Tosun, der auch an dem Treffen mit Erdogan teilnahm, nur am Rande erwähnt. Er ist zwar auch in Deutschland aufgewachsen und spielte für deutsche Jugendnationalmannschaften, entschied sich aber letztendlich für die türkische Nationalmannschaft. Es gab aber kaum jemanden, der sich über ihn aufgeregt hat.
Das Treffen der beiden deutschen Nationalspieler mit dem türkischen Staatspräsidenten ist also nicht so brisant und umstritten, weil sich Fußballer mit einem autoritären politischen Führer haben ablichten lassen, der eine Reihe von freiheitlich-demokratischen Werten und Überzeugungen nicht respektiert. Es ist brisant, weil den Spielern „Hochverrat“ vorgeworfen wird. Sie haben sich für die deutsche Nationalmannschaft entschieden, wie kann es daher sein, dass sie sich dennoch mit der Türkei identifizieren? Wie kann es sein, dass jemand der als Vorzeigeobjekt für gelungene Integration in Deutschland gilt, dem türkischen Staatspräsident ein Trikot mit der persönlichen Widmung: „Für MEINEN Präsidenten“ überreicht?
In der Volksrepublik China wäre es vermutlich zu ähnlich emotionalen Reaktionen gekommen, wenn der frühere Basketball Star Yao Ming der amtierenden Staatspräsidentin von Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen ein Basketballshirt mit der Aufschrift „Für MEINE Präsidentin“ geschenkt hätte (vielleicht aber auch nicht, weil dieses Foto in Volksrepublik China vermutlich zensiert worden wäre).
Fakt ist, dass Menschen viele Identitäten und Loyalitäten zu verschiedenen Gruppen haben. Der indische Nobelpreisträger Amartya Sen schrieb in seinem Buch „Die Identitätsfalle – Warum es keinen Krieg der Kulturen gibt“, dass wir Menschen uns als Mitglied einer Vielzahl von Gruppen verstehen, denen wir allen angehören (z. B. Staatsangehörigkeit, Wohnort, geographische Herkunft, Geschlecht, sexuelle Orientierung, Klassenzugehörigkeit, politische Ansichten, Beruf, Arbeit, Essgewohnheiten, sportliche Interessen, Musikgeschmack, soziale Engagements, usw.). Jedes dieser Kollektive verleiht einer Person eine bestimmte Identität. Es ist daher falsch eine Person auf eine singuläre Zugehörigkeit zu reduzieren. Die Aussage von Frank-Walter Steinmeier, dem Bundespräsidenten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: „Heimat gibt es auch im Plural“ ist daher zutreffend.
Darüber hinaus sind Identitäten und Identifikationsmuster nicht statisch, sondern kontextbezogen und situativ sehr flexibel und wandlungsfähig. Es kann daher durchaus sein, dass die beiden deutschen Nationalspieler sich bei dem Treffen mit dem türkischen Staatspräsidenten eher mit der Türkei verbunden fühlten. Dies ist möglicherweise auch in der äußerlichen Erscheinung von Gündogan erkennbar („türkischer Schnauzer“). Dieses Phänomen wird von der deutschen Ethnologin Nina Szogs auch „Self-Turkified“ genannt. Es ist wiederum durchaus wahrscheinlich, dass die Spieler sich im Trikot der deutschen Nationalmannschaft (oder auch im täglichen Leben) mehr mit Deutschland verbunden fühlen. Das eine schließt das andere nicht aus.
Die oben erwähnte Ethnologin Nina Szogs untersuchte in den letzten Jahren die Praktiken und Narrative von Galatasaray- und Fenerbahçe-Fans in Wien, also jener Gruppe, die in der Regel als Bürger „mit türkischem Migrationshintergrund“ bezeichnet werden. Viele Ergebnisse dieser Studie können auch auf den deutschen Kontext übertragen werden. Sie fand heraus, dass das Fandasein für diese Menschen zu einem türkischen Fußballklub eine Strategie ist, um Heimat und Zugehörigkeit zu einer konstruierten türkischen Gemeinschaft aufrechtzuerhalten und eine generationsübergreifende Kontinuität zu suggerieren. Ihre Forschung legt nahe, dass eine Abschaffung der doppelten Staatsbürgerschaft vermutlich nicht dazu führen würde, dass Menschen „mit türkischem Migrationshintergrund“ sich ausschließlich mit Deutschland identifizieren.
War die Entscheidung der beiden Nationalspieler, sich mit Erdogan vor den türkischen Präsidentschaftswahlen zu treffen nicht dennoch eine „dumme“ Aktion? Es gab in der Tat einige Medienkommentare, welche die Fußballer als „dumm“ und „realitätsfern“ bezeichneten.
Zunächst einmal gibt es keine allgemeingültige Definition von Intelligenz (oder Dummheit). Aber nehmen wir an, dass mit Dummheit ein fehlendes Verständnis für die entstehenden Konsequenzen einer Handlung gemeint ist: unter diesem Aspekt war dieses Treffen in der Tat „dumm“. Das Klischee von dem nicht so hellen Fußballer sollte dennoch nicht bedient werden – gleichwohl es einige Medienvertreter reflexartig getan haben („Beine statt Hirn“). Am Anfang der Fußballerkarriere meines Bruders habe ich mit ihm in Nürnberg gelebt und durfte miterleben, wie er neben dem täglichen Bundesligageschäft sein Abitur (in Bayern!) absolviert hat. Hätte er einen akademischen Karriereweg eingeschlagen, wäre er vermutlich auch sehr erfolgreich gewesen.
Die Frage nach der Verantwortung für diese „Dummheit“ sollte jedoch noch weiter differenziert werden. Den Spielern waren die Konsequenzen dieses Treffens in der Tat nicht bewusst, da sie sich nicht sonderlich für Politik interessieren. Wieso treffen sie sich dann mit Erdogan? Tatsächlich waren die Organisatoren und Initiatoren dieses Treffens nicht Ilkay Gündogan oder Mesut Özil, sondern ein Beraterteam, dem die Konsequenzen dieses Treffens hätte bewusst sein müssen. Falls nicht, sind es schlichtweg keine guten Berater. Vorrauseilender unreflektierter Gehorsam ist immer schädlich. Zu häufig kommt es vor, dass die ideellen und finanziellen Interessen der Berater denen der Spieler übergeordnet werden, aber solange den Fußballern vorgegaukelt wird, dass sie sich NUR auf den Fußball konzentrieren sollen, werden wir derart unglückliche Erscheinungen wahrscheinlich noch öfter sehen.
Wie der aktuelle Vorfall zeigt, werden Fußballer mit Migrationshintergrund in der Nationalmannschaft eines Einwanderungslandes offensichtlich als „Botschafter“ wahrgenommen, denen über das Spielfeld hinaus eine echte Verantwortung zugeschrieben wird. Das mag einerseits disproportioniert und für den Einzelnen schwer zu tragen sein, leistet aber andererseits auch einen nicht zu unterschätzenden Beitrag zur positiven Konnotation von Vielfalt und pluraler Identitäten. Wie Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojekts FREE zeigen, erachtet eine große Mehrheit der Menschen – zwischen 75 und 80%! – in Deutschland, Frankreich, oder Großbritannien, dass diese Fußballer „einen wichtigen Beitrag zur sozialen Integration“ in ihren Ländern leisten. Das sind beachtliche Werte, weit verlässlicher als punktuell hochkochende Emotionen in den sozialen Netzwerken oder Kommentarspalten der Tageszeitungen.
Fußballer profitieren in vielerlei Hinsicht von der unglaublichen Strahlkraft ihres Spiels. Entsprechend sollten sie sich auch dessen bewusst sein, dass ihnen in unserer Epoche eine soziale und politische Verantwortung zugewachsen ist, die sie zwar nicht gesucht haben, der sie sich aber nicht entziehen können.
The market entry and retreat of Dalian Wanda Group in world football
On 14th February 2018, Atlético de Madrid announced that its Chinese investor Dalian Wanda Group (DWG) has reached an agreement to sell 17 percent of its 20 percent stake in the Spanish football club for about US$ 50 million. According to the official statement, ‘The decision to divest is part of the global strategy of Dalian Wanda Group’. This strategic reorientation of the Chinese corporation marks a turning point in the international football business.
Chinese economic impact on world football
A few years ago, political reform policies in China to develop national football were followed by increased commercial activities and a high level of capital influx into world football. Several star players under contract at top European clubs were transferred to China for breathtaking amounts. Moreover, Chinese companies started to invest heavily in shares of top-tier European clubs like Manchester City (City Football Group) or acquired them all together, such as the emblematic pair of Internazionale Milan and AC Milan, as well as football-related service companies.
Regarding the spectacular player transfers to China, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp made an interesting comparison. He said in an interview that footballers might go to China for the money, but people in (continental) Europe think the same logic applies to a move to England. Other well-known names of European football, such as Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte, have not only voiced their concerns about these developments but have portrayed China as a ‘danger’ to European football. The ‘China Threat’ categorisation recalls the statements of the Donald Trump administration in the US, where China is considered not only a ‘whole-of-government threat, but as a whole-of-society threat’.
Wanda’s foray into the international football market
In 2015, DWG acquired a 20 percent stake in Atlético de Madrid, the third most successful club in Spanish football, behind Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, for US$ 52 million. A few weeks later the Chinese company purchased Infront Sports & Media AG, one of the leading sports marketing companies, for about US$ 1.2 billion.
According to Infront’s website, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has appointed the company as the ‘exclusive sales representative for the distribution of Asian broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups™ and all other FIFA Events 2015-2022 following an international tender process. The agreement covers 26 countries, including China, Hong Kong India, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.’
The president and chief executive officer of Infront Sports & Media AG is Philippe Blatter, the nephew of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter. In May 2015, Wang Jianlin, the founder of DWG and, according to the ‘Hurun Rich List’ of 2017, one of the wealthiest person in China, and Phillipe Blatter attended the 65th FIFA Congress, where Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA president.
A few days after Blatter’s electoral victory, federal prosecutors in the United States disclosed corruption cases of FIFA officials and persons associated with FIFA. Sepp Blatter was banned for six years by the FIFA ethics committee accordingly since he allegedly approved a payment of about US$ 2 million to Michel Platini, former president of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Subsequently, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino was elected as the new FIFA president in 2016.
The corruption allegations had the consequence that some FIFA-affiliated companies such Continental, Castrol, and Johnson & Johnson did not renew their sponsorship contracts. At the same time, DWG became the first Chinese top-level sponsor of FIFA. This agreement was the first commercial deal of Gianni Infantino in his function as FIFA president. On DWG’s website, it is indicated that with the strategic partnership between DWG and FIFA the Chinese company ‘will be better placed to play a role in the bidding process to host major football events such as the World Cup’. The hosting of the FIFA World Cup is one of the dreams of China’s President Xi Jinping.
In an open lecture at Harvard Business School, Wang Jianlin explained the reasons for investing in international football: ‘Our dream is to improve China’s sports industry by adapting to the development of the mainland’s economy and society… If Chinese companies don’t go through the globalisation phase, it’s hard for us to make China powerful or realise the Chinese Dream’. Beyond positioning sport, and football, as drivers of globalisation, this quote also demonstrates that the investment decisions of the corporation are justified by the policy expectations in the era of President Xi Jinping.
Nevertheless, the calculation of DWG did not work out, and the ‘dream’ became a nightmare for the Chinese company.
Wanda under investigation of China’s regulatory bodies
In December 2016, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Commerce, the People’s Bank of China and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) issued in a press release that regulatory bodies ‘pay close attention to the recent tendency of some irrational outward investment in the fields of real estate, hotels, cinemas, entertainment industry, and sports clubs.’ DWG has invested in all of these fields.
In March 2017, Pan Gongsheng, deputy governor of China’s central bank and director of SAFE, compared overseas mergers and acquisitions with ‘barbed roses’. He added that many investments in foreign football clubs were ‘irrational‘ since Chinese companies ‘borrowed large sums of money’ and had ‘already a high debt ratio’. In the same month, an American company announced that a proposed acquisition by DWG was cancelled. A few weeks later, Wang Jianlin explained that he was turning his attention back to domestic investments.
A few month later, the China Banking Regulatory Commission launched an investigation into the ‘systematic risk’ presented by some large corporations involved in overseas acquisitions, including DWG and other companies that invested in European football. As a result, shares in Wanda Film Holdings, a subsidiary of DWG, fell by 9.9 percent.
Prior to this, China’s central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan remarked that ‘The experience of the global financial crisis tells us that the first priority is to keep financial institutions healthy so that financial crises could be prevented. We cannot tolerate phenomena such as heavy leverage, low capital and non-performing loans.’ These political interventions may also be connected to the issue that capital outflows via overseas investments have a depreciating pressure on the Chinese currency and might reduce China’s foreign exchange reserves.
According to data released by China’s Ministry of Commerce, from January to June 2017, Chinese overseas investment in culture, sports and entertainment industry dropped by 82.5 percent, accounting for 1 percent of the total overseas investment.
In January 2018, Wang Jianlin promised that DWG will gradually repay all its overseas debt and will not ‘have any credit default anywhere in the world’. The sale of the shares in Atlético de Madrid is, therefore, part of a strategic reorientation of the Chinese company.
Earlier this month (December 2017), the team of China Football 8 was invited to participate in the ‘Seminar on Sport Diplomacy’ in Brussels. The seminar was organised by the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission, as a follow-up to the High-Level Group on sports diplomacy set up in 2015 by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics in order to elaborate political initiatives and recommendations in this field. The group included active and former athletes, academics, think-tank and media representatives. In an interview with the think-tank ‘Sport et Citoyenneté‘, Mr Navracsics indicated that the High-Level Group’s work might lead to more coordinated efforts by the EU Member States to harness the potential of sport for diplomacy and ‘make the EU a stronger global actor.’
On November 2016, the General Secretariat of the Council issued its conclusions on sports diplomacy. Sport is considered ‘a possible tool in supporting intercultural, economic and political cooperation and understanding between nations and cultures’. Moreover, sport is assigned the ability to ‘shape perceptions in order to support reaching broader foreign policy goals’ and promoting values such as ‘fair play, equality, respect for diversity, integrity, discipline, excellence, friendship, tolerance and mutual understanding which bring different people and countries together.’ Projects related to sports diplomacy should be realised through the EU funding programmes in the area of EU External Relations as well as through the Erasmus+ programme.
Against the background of these developments, the big question is of course: what are the target countries? And within the framework of this blog, the obvious question is whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could be a target country or even a partner of EU sports diplomacy.
According to Professor Thierry Zintz, the Dean of the Faculty of Sports Sciences of the Université Catholique de Louvain and rapporteur of the High-Level Group, sport is a source of cultural soft power. This definition fits very well with the official statements of Mr Xi Jinping, President of the PRC. On October 2017, Mr Xi Jinping delivered a report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) where he revealed that China’s political leadership will ‘speed up efforts to build China into a powerful sports nation’. To achieve this goal, the CPC ‘will strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges with other countries, giving prominence to Chinese culture while also drawing on other cultures, […] improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.’
The concept of soft power has been used and abused in studies about China in recent years. The major problems are the imprecise contextualisation, wording, quantifying and application of this concept. Some argue it is no longer relevant in the context of sport mega-events. Nonetheless, the very vague derivation and interpretation of the concept is also used in the context of the developmental aspirations in Chinese football and the hosting of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.
However, the question remains whether China is a target of European sports diplomacy, or whether it is perhaps the other way round! The fact is that there are various cooperation opportunities associated with sports, such as in fields of health, governance, economics, education, etc. Sport in general, and football, in particular, have a multi-dimensional impact on human beings: they attract a lot of attention, trigger emotions and create a strong sense of belonging or rejection, have increasing economic weight, and immediate implications on public health. Sport is indeed a promising avenue for engaging in People-to-People dialogue not only on ‘high level’, but also between sportspeople and citizens.
It remains to be seen whether the diplomatic relations between the EU and China in this specific field will lead to mutual influence and exchange, beyond ‘soft-power’ posturing.
Academic debates about China’s “soft power” are controversial. Internationally renowned scientists such as Joseph Nye and David Shambaugh believe that many efforts of China’s central government aimed at accumulating cultural soft power had only a very limited return on its investments. But this may change now, thanks to the coverage of some influential non-Chinese media outlets.
Today, the Financial Times published an article titled “Beijing’s endgame: football with Chinese characteristics”. The article is mainly about the overdose of Chinese investments in English football clubs. It is argued that these investments are a response to President Xi Jinping’s football reforms, which are a means to boost China’s international influence.
But is this conclusion coherent? Are not the Chinese national team and the domestic league the key to increasing soft power? I’ve heard relatively little about German investors in foreign football clubs – even though the money is there. Nevertheless, football is a very important element of German soft power. The reason for this is obvious: the national team has been sustainably successful for decades and even more appreciated globally since the 2006 World Cup and the Klinsmann/Löw revolution.
In recent years, there has been an inflation of studies about Chinese soft power. Just because there are repeated scientific claims that China possesses (more or less) soft power, it does not mean that this is necessarily the case. From a scientific point of view, one major difficulty is already to quantify soft power. How exactly do you measure it?
What’s even more important (and not discussed in the FT article) is that the term “soft power” is interpreted differently by different scholars, especially in China. While the traditional understanding framed by Nye (1990) considers soft power mainly in the context of international relations, Chinese scholars and policy analysts also apply the concept to the context of domestic politics (Wang/Lu 2008: 445). That’s why we might miss the point in the soft power debates.
However, what I noticed recently is that the constant reporting of non-Chinese media – especially about Chinese football – has resulted in an increased awareness and interest in contemporary China’s popular culture.
What I mean by this is that the issue of Chinese soft power has shifted from a purely academic debate to a widely discussed topic in other fields like European football for example, which may have paradoxically led to China having actually more international influence and, consequently, more soft power.
Even now that you have spent your energy and time reading this text, it may be that I have influenced your perception of the capacity of Chinese soft power. Talking, writing, blogging about Chinese soft power may well turn out to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Football in China: New hub for new technologies in the service of new politics
Recently, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has announced that it wants to “learn” from the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and other developed football countries to launch new technologies such as the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and a professional referee system in 2018. The VARs communicate with the main referee on the pitch and review their decisions to avoid “clear errors”.
The official motto of the CFA is: “Go out, and please come back” (Zǒu chūqù, qǐng jìnlái). This means that the CFA is promoting international exchanges and encourages Chinese referees to learn from foreign partners. In addition, the CFA is investing in new technologies in order to improve the quality of Chinese referees. This simply means – no more and no less – to transfer know-how to China.
This matter could give the impression that Chinese football is technologically lagging behind in many aspects. This is, however, not correct.
A good example of how advanced the technologies in Chinese football are is demonstrated by a company called Whaley Technology. The company is using the internet and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies to broadcast sports competitions. VR is a computer technology that creates a realistic perception of images, sounds and other sensations by using headsets or other technical devices. The technology simulates the user a physical presence in an imaginary environment. In May 2017, the Chinese Super League (CSL) match between Chongqing Lifan and Henan Jianye was the first football match in China that was broadcasted live with VR technology.
Whaley Technology was founded by Li Ruigang, the chairman of China Media Capital (CMC), in April 2015. According to Bloomberg, CMC is a private equity and venture capital firm that “prefers to invest in the cultural, technology, media, entertainment, consumer, medical treatment, telecommunication, internet, mobile, and middle-class lifestyle sectors” in China and abroad.
In August 2015, CMC partnered with Alibaba Group and Tencent, to invest RMB 2 billion (US$ 304 million) into Whaley Technology, only a few months after the company was founded.
In December 2015, a consortium led by CMC agreed to pay US$ 400 million for a 13 percent minority stake in City Football Group, the owners of Manchester City, among other football clubs. It is therefore not surprising that Manchester City announced in May 2016 that Whaley Technology will become the official TV partner of the club in China.
In April 2016, Ti’ao Dongli, another subsidiary of CMC that acquired the CSL broadcasting rights for five consecutive seasons (2016-2020) for a record of RMB 8 billion (about US$ 1.19 billion), and Whaley Technology announced that they will introduce VR technologies to their football broadcasting business.
In the same month as Whaley Technology has announced that it will introduce VR technologies to their football broadcasting business, the National Development and Reform Commission, a macroeconomic management agency under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, issued a new reform programme called The Medium and Long-Term Development Plan of Chinese Football (2016-2050). In this reform programme, it is required to promote the deep integration of the internet technology with the football industry and to focus on the introduction of the mobile internet, e-commerce, Big Data and other new technologies and formats. All this is only the beginning of a scientific and technological revolution that will dramatically change football, and not only football, it will change our lives.
25 years ago, in September 1992, football changed. Not only through the launch of the Premier League and the Champions League, but also through the publication of a small autobiographical novel by an unknown author, which in a strange, certainly unintentional simultaneity, became the swan song of all these decades of traditional football that were now to be replaced by the Brave New World of postmodern football in all its splendour.
Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch did not invent anything: the entire vocabulary and set of behaviour patterns it relates were already well-known. But it introduced a different way of talking about the football addiction, a new narrative.
Fever Pitch is the monument to the ‘unknown supporter’. Many football lovers, of whatever level of education, recognised themselves in the bittersweet nostalgia of this both hilarious and sad account of what it means to be diagnosed football-virus-positive. There it was, all laid out before them in a funny, touching story: this helpless feeling of being emotionally imprisoned in the attachment to a football club, the stupid urge to keep on suffering weekend after weekend on windy and drenched terraces, the self-mocking despair about this stupid game’s totally disproportional impact on your daily life.
Hornby brought supporters comfort and relief, by activating and reformulating something they had never really lacked, but had been mostly unaware of: ironic distance.
Irony is based on a deep, shared understanding of an object, dissimulated behind apparent ignorance. It is an implicit agreement with one’s audience about the inadequacy of what is explicitly said. But irony is not cheap mockery of something that deserves contempt: it only works if the object of its derision is taken seriously in the first place.
Football is a case in point. Football-bashing is boring. But football irony can be truly funny. Football’s most-quoted definition – Bill Shankly’s ultimate sentence about it being much more than just a matter of life and death – is a wonderful illustration. The effect of humour in this ironic statement is mainly drawn from the fact that behind the obvious absurdity of the claim, there is a shared understanding that – ‘well, I hate to admit it, but let’s face it’ – it holds a kernel of truth. The life of a football lover is rife with moments that can, for fear of utter ridicule, only be openly referred to behind a veil of irony.
In a large social group, irony can only function if there is a shared (aesthetic) experience to which it can refer. This post, being published on a blog that is dedicated to football in China, therefore almost automatically raises the question to what extent it is possible to create, as intended by President Xi Jinping, a football nation from scratch, without the decades of accumulated understanding of the game and what it does to people.
In 1994, only two years after the release of Fever Pitch, Chinese football went professional. And as in so many other fields, China is taking the shortcut and jumping directly into postmodernity. Football has never been the country’s ‘national sport’, there seems to be no widely shared tradition of supportership, it does not seem to have played any role in processes of self-perception or identity formation.
Today, the government expresses the political will and mobilises the economic means to implement the immensely ambitious reform programmes and achieve, in record time, what must well be termed a ‘football revolution’ across the nation. Looking at China’s track record of performance over the last quarter century, there is hardly any doubt the market will continue to explode and, at one point, the massive effort in detection and training of talent will bear fruit.
In other words: Where is China’s Nick Hornby? A simple question that entails that academic research about the contemporary Chinese football revolution should be accompanied by studies in literature and, ideally, some ethnographic field work among Chinese football fans. What does their collective memory look like? How strong can the roots of fandom be without a whole century punctuated by the reassuring rhythm of successive seasons and a shared canon of unforgettable highlights?
It’s not complicated to be a customer of today’s football industry. But as an individual socialised in Europe, I doubt I would be have any interest for it if I did not have that bittersweet Fever Pitch nostalgia for a time that is no more, will not come back, but generated a touching, sometimes ironic, lasting narrative.
What the Neymar transfer tells us about Football in China
Paris Saint-Germain signed Brazilian forward Neymar for a world record fee of 222 million euros from FC Barcelona. The football public went crazy and some people accused Neymar on social media of being immoral. Most people, however, forget that the greatest value of football is not money; it is attention.
Imagine if football would not receive worldwide attention, as it is nowadays. Do you believe that so many entrepreneurs would be willing to invest their money in football, where a large number of clubs generate no or very low financial returns compared to other industries? Probably there would be some benefactors who voluntarily sponsor their home teams. But would these enormous sums of money be spent on sponsorship and TV rights if football would not receive the attention of so many people? I don’t think so.
The irony of the Neymar transfer is that most people who are now terribly upset and angry about it will most likely turn on the TV when Neymar plays against his former colleagues in the Champion League.
Many people are unaware that football is, in fact, a made-up game that is invested with so much meaning that it becomes reality. It involves elaborate rituals, and the results of the competitions have substantial impact on the social, economic and political standing of both players and spectators. Without the global attention, the social, commercial and political impact of football would probably not be worth mentioning. In fact, football would have no effect at all if we did not believe it had an effect. But it has an enormous impact! This is the reason why football is “more than a game”.
Football is a “religion” that people usually join very early in life. Of course, there are people who convert only at advanced age from other sports to football, but according to a study of FREE (Football Research in Enlarged Europe) about 89 per cent of respondents (over 8,000 European football fans) stated in a survey that they started to be interested in playing and watching football before they were 12 years old. This means that football socialisation takes place at a very young age.
In 2015, China’s Ministry of Education included football on the physical education syllabus in all primary and secondary schools and made football a compulsory part of the national school curriculum. In contrast to many European countries, youth football should be developed mainly in schools and not in clubs. The basic idea behind these efforts is to popularise football in the Chinese public. Thus, a special programme called Campus Football should “develop excellent grassroots to provide a growth path from social football to professional football”.
But it’s not the party, it’s the people who really matter. The Chinese population plays a decisive role in the development of national football. A comprehensive development of national football in China cannot be performed without the voluntary decision of the Chinese public to pay attention to and participate in football-related activities. This is the power of attention. It is all the more surprising that the role of football communities are often underestimated in the public debates not only on Chinese football.
A lot of prominent European football clubs are currently in China. It’s summer break. The competitions in the European leagues have not yet started and the teams are preparing intensively for the coming season.
The weather is usually at this time of the year very hot and sticky in areas like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin and the time difference is an extra burden, especially for professional players. There is also the fact that European teams mainly play friendlies against each other, since the Chinese teams are in the middle of the season.
The question arises: Why are so many teams taking on the hardships to travel to China during their pre-season preparation?
China is the second largest economy in the world, it has now more than 100 cities of over 1 million residents, and after President Xi Jinping came into office in November 2012, three comprehensive reform programmes to develop football and sports in general in China have been issued. It is therefore only logical that actors of European football consider China first and foremost one of the most promising markets for their own business expansion.
Since 2015, the International Champions Cup (ICC) has been organising friendlies between European football clubs in China. LeTV, one of China’s largest online video companies, teamed up with RSE Ventures, Relevent Sports and Catalyst Media Group to bring ICC to China. According to ICC website, the corporation “is dedicated to full-dimensional premium European football experience for Chinese fans. As a world’s leading pre-season football tournament, ICC China brings along the top European football culture and football lifestyle in China”.
Is it really about bringing European football culture and football lifestyle to China? There is subsequently a more important question: what do they mean with “European football culture” and “football lifestyle”? And: can we even speak of European football clubs when three of the six participating teams are partly (Olympique Lyonnais, Inter Milan) or completely (AC Milan) owned by Chinese investors?
In the field of social sciences it is widely accepted that sport is a powerful facilitator, provider and resource for an array of identities. However, this does not mean that sport should be understood as some kind of self-sufficient social institutions or subsystem, but rather as a constitutive element of everyday life and popular culture, within particular social and historical settings. Football, as one of the most popular mass sports in the world, has a great social, cultural and political impact in (re-)producing collective identities on all levels. The ritualised sporting events became an expression of their imagined communities.
In June 2016, the Suning Holdings Group, one of China’s largest retail business enterprises with more than 1,600 stores, spend €270 million (US$ 307 million) to buy a majority stake of 68.55 percent in European football club Inter Milan. The Suning Holdings Group is based in Nanjing, where the next ICC game will take place on Monday: Inter Milan vs Olympique Lyonnais. For this reason it will probably be a “home game” for Inter.