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Schlagwort: Football

The influence of media on China’s “Soft Power”

The influence of media on China’s “Soft Power”


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.

Where is China’s Nick Hornby?

Where is China’s Nick Hornby?

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.

What is strangely absent from all this ‘hyper-loop’ football, is the supporters themselves. What do we actually know about them, besides their level of brand recognition for Premier League clubs and readiness to purchase Bayern Munich jerseys? Do they love the game for having played it themselves or are they simply being educated into becoming the perfect consumers of global entertainment football? What do we know about the legends and myths of Chinese football, the stories that are handed on between generations, besides the claim – officially acknowledged by FIFA – to have invented the game around 4,500 years ago?

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

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.

European Football Clubs Tour China

European Football Clubs Tour China


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.