China wants to be a “world football superpower” by 2050 and aims to develop a national team capable of winning the World Cup.
So who are the people shaping that government-led vision? And how are they setting about making a bold declaration become a reality? BBC Sport travelled the country to meet them.
After managing the likes of England, Manchester City and Roma, Sven-Goran Eriksson moved to China in 2013 to coach Chinese Super League (CSL) side Guangzhou R&F. He joined Shanghai SIPG a year later.
Sitting down in a central Shanghai hotel the night before a CSL match against his old club, he reflects on how the sport has radically grown during his time in the country.
“Three years ago it was not like this. The football was OK. But this season it’s gone crazy, totally crazy,” he says.
“One of the reasons for that is the government. The president of the country is pushing for football.
“So I guess he’s very happy to see the league is getting better and better but he wants China, as a national team, to be big, to be better in football.”
Eriksson is enjoying living and working on football’s new frontier. He’s also excited by the steady flow of big-name players heading eastwards.
Five of the top six global transfers so far this year have involved Chinese sides and the Swede believes more “huge” names will follow their lead in the months ahead.
“Even bigger names will come. I think that and the rumours say that,” he adds.
But can leading footballers, used to living in Europe, be attracted to China solely by the vast financial rewards on offer?
Eriksson believes the standard of Chinese football is getting better, with players drawn to play in the CSL for sporting reasons too.
“It’s absolutely the right time to be in China for football,” he says.
|Big names in China|
|Alex Teixeira, Jiangsu Suning, £38.4m|
|Jackson Martinez, Guangzhou Evergrande, £31m|
|Ramires, Jiangsu Suning, £25m|
|Gervinho, Hebei China Fortune, £11m|
|Demba Ba, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, £11m|
|Asamoah Gyan, Shanghai SIPG, Undisclosed|
|Paulinho, Guangzhou Evergrande, £10m|
|Tim Cahill, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, Free|
“I think everybody is happy today who works with football in China.
“Three, four or five years ago the big foreign names were not really interested in China – only when they were getting older, on the way down. But now? Even when they are at their peak they are interested in China.
“It’s an exciting place to be and football is getting bigger and bigger every day.”
The boom in Chinese football is part of a wider aim to develop a thriving sports industry.
In downtown Shanghai, the city’s upwardly mobile residents are busy shopping at designer boutiques and meeting friends at the artisan coffee shops that populate the area.
Nestled in an office above one such establishment is China’s leading football agent, Romain Woo.
With his designer suit, sharp haircut and minimalist office furniture he represents many aspects of modern China: confident, outward facing and ambitious.
After a stint working in Europe with the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, he now represents 50 of China’s leading footballers and coaches through his company Van Hao Sports.
And he is convinced the boom in transfer spending by China’s top clubs has only just started.
“It’s going crazy right now, it’s really going crazy. We have a saying that the only two players who are not coming to China right now are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi,” he says.
“The other names? It’s all highly possible. I know most of the big agents in Europe and they are all trying to push their clients to China right now if they’re not having a good time in Europe.”
During the January window China’s transfer record was broken three times in 10 days.
It culminated in Liverpool being beaten to the signature of Alex Teixeira when he moved from Shakhtar Dontesk to CSL side Jiangsu Suning for a fee of £38.4m.
It is not one-way traffic, though, and Chinese players are in demand in Europe.
But with the country set on rising to the top of the world game – and with many clubs backed by huge corporations keen to help the government deliver its aims – opportunities for the best domestic players to go abroad are being blocked.
“Three of my players got chances to go to FC Copenhagen, to Real Madrid and Chelsea in the past three transfer windows,” he says. “The problem is that they are way too important to their clubs here and they don’t care about how big the transfer fee is.
“Maybe when the contract has expired or at another stage of Chinese football they can go. But now it’s a different stage of Chinese football and we want to keep all our best players in the league, together with the foreigners.”
Foreign players are helping to drive interest in football and across China the game is a new fascination.
In Nanjing, two hours by high-speed train from Shanghai, sits the home of Jiangsu Suning FC. They are the biggest-spending club in China this year and their fans are anticipating future success as a result.
The atmosphere in their stadium on the night of a CSL match against rivals Shanghai Shenhua is intense.
More than 50,000 supporters are in full voice, with many waving giant flags or shouting into megaphones. Collectively they form a kaleidoscope of Jiangsu’s blue and white colours and the noise doesn’t stop for the entire 90 minutes.
Watching on is Cameron Wilson. Originally from Dunfermline in Scotland, he moved to China more than a decade ago and has settled in Shanghai with his family.
As the founder of the Wild East Football website, which charts the Chinese leagues, he thinks football provides a valuable insight into the changing nature of the country’s society.
“The best thing about Chinese football is the fan culture – it’s magical,” he says.
“In the past, Chinese football was corrupt and the stadiums were empty. It has been played with these problems but you had fans that love football so much they still wanted to go.
“These are people who are on the edge of society and they’re not afraid to stick their neck out a bit and be a bit different.
“And in that respect you can get a look into the future of China and what kind of country it’s going to turn into.
“You get to meet the people who are daring to be a bit different and they’re taking part in a sub-culture. For me, it’s been a huge privilege to see that and be part of it.”
The league boss
Increased fan participation is welcome news to the boss of China’s Super League.
China’s government wants to create a £550bn sports industry in an attempt to diversify its economy. Football is the focal point of that effort.
He is eager for clubs to invest in facilities, to have better pitches and to improve their media facilities.
But Ma Chengquan has other matters on his mind too.
China’s President, Xi Jinping, wants the national team to rise from its lowly Fifa world ranking of 81st.
And it is mainly through the CSL that China’s World Cup dream will be delivered.
Ma rarely speaks to the media but, sitting in the boardroom of the CSL headquarters in Beijing, he discusses his recent journey to the UK: “I travelled to London last year to visit the Premier League and [executive chairman] Richard Scudamore told me that England and China have much in common.
“We both have a great league, with great clubs. But our national teams do not perform as well as the country would like.”
One difference between England and China, however, is that there is a collective will amongst CSL owners to deliver the president’s demands. This is very much a nation united with one common purpose.
Qualifying for a World Cup is the first target. Hosting the tournament, with 2030 in its sights, and then winning football’s ultimate prize remain long-term ambitions.
To do that, China must build a football culture. There is an appreciation from Ma that China cannot just buy one and that the emphasis must be on producing homegrown talent.
“Five years ago I couldn’t imagine what’s happening right now but we’ll definitely see a huge development in the Chinese Super League because we have so much attention from government, private sector and investors,” he adds.
“Football education and going into schools will be key. We have public support too and that will help build a firm foundation for the future of Chinese football.”
The youth guru
The small, rural town of Pinggu may be about to enter China’s football folklore.
Two hours east of Beijing, in the shadow of the Great Wall, sits Jinhai Hu elementary school
Its pupils are pioneers.
They attend one of China’s first designated football schools – providing a first glimpse of their president’s vision of a footballing future.
The unlikely figure forging a new path for the People’s Republic is American Tom Byer.
Having achieved cult status in Japan after contributing to their football development, he was headhunted by their neighbours to deliver similar results.
Byer is working with China’s Ministry of Education. He will soon visit 64 cities to promote a series of coaching videos which will be played daily within every classroom in the country.
“It was taken from my success of doing TV in Japan,” says Byer. “The purpose is to empower children to practise on their own the most meaningful skills and basic techniques of stopping, starting and changing direction.”
There’s also a book, “Football Starts At Home”, which emphasises the need for parents to encourage their children to develop control of the football from an early age.
“One of the big things I recommend is focusing on very young kids – below the age of six,” he adds. “There are 209 member associations in Fifa. Only eight have won a World Cup. Why are there only a handful of countries that dominate worldwide?
“If you study football and understand how development takes place, it’s not so much about the coaching as it is the culture. So we need to do a much better job of educating Chinese families and young children. How can they start conditioning them from a very young age on how to manipulate a football?”
Byer acknowledges that progress will take time and patience will be needed.
“One of the big indicators is not if China qualifies for the World Cup but is it qualifying regularly for the Under 17 Fifa World Cup? Are they qualifying for regional under-16 tournaments?
“We need to make sure the culture is set up so it’s conducive to football development and also to educate families that kids involved in physical activity do better academically.
“You can always hire and fire the best coaches in the world. You can’t hire and fire parents. You’re stuck with them. So if you understand how important the role that they play is then they are the ones you should be focussing on.
“There’s no shortcut for producing a strong footballing country or culture. It all starts with the kids. Unless we get it right with the foundation level then it’s going to be a very long road for China.
“But think on this. There are 100 million children under the age of six in this country. Even if you kind of get it right you have to imagine you’ll create some world-class footballers.
The youth coach
In the end, China’s football ambitions will come down to the personal determination of its players to succeed.
On the outskirts of Shanghai sits an elite government-owned training complex which houses some of the country’s best young talent in swimming, rowing and badminton.
It is also the training base for CSL side Shanghai SIPG.
On the training pitch a practice game is under way between members of SIPG’s youth team, overseen by their Danish coach Mads Davidsen.
He moved to China five years ago and also works alongside head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson with the first team.
The young players have a focus and intensity to their game, something Davidsen attributes in part to the society they are growing up in.
“In Denmark, we have a very nice society. If you don’t make it as a pro player you can walk straight into university. In Denmark we often say ‘how can we create hunger in paradise?’
“I have the exact opposite with Chinese players. There is no paradise. This is their chance in life. I have a group of very hungry players who want to train hard and work hard.
“They are here with a mission. They are here because they have to create a career and not only for themselves.
“In Chinese culture when you grow up you have to take care of your parents. It’s a big responsibility to have. It’s up to you. You’re the son – you have to take care of your parents.”
Davidsen doesn’t see his time in Chinese football as a stepping stone to a job in Europe.
He believes he is well placed to take advantage of football’s new frontier given his belief that interest in football will not fade.
“As long as the political will is there it’s going to stay, 100%,” he adds.
“The only thing that can change, as I see it, is if the political way changes.
“If they suddenly change president or they change direction then of course you never know what will happen. But as long as Xi Jinping has put his name into football then it will continue.”