Reviving the Beautiful Game
An ambitious plan is unveiled to revamp the sport of football in China
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UPDATED: April 13, 2015 NO. 16 APRIL 16, 2015
Home Advantage

Aside from table tennis, football is probably the most popular sport in China, fittingly, given that some claim that the country is the sport's original birthplace. China is home to some 26 million football fans, ranking first in the world. However, time and time again, the spirits of Chinese football enthusiasts have been dampened by the lackluster performances of the country's national team in international competition.

Football is actually the first sport in China to have introduced professional reform. With reforms in the early 1990s, the sport underwent a renaissance. National leagues thrived and China even qualified for the 2002 World Cup finals. However, as the fledgling national football management system was underdeveloped and, as a result, exploitable, many cases involving bribery of referees and match fixing came to light in 2009. From a national perspective, it appeared as if China's football had scored an own goal.

Thereafter, the sport's fortunes continued to dwindle with the lowest moment coming on June 15, 2013, when China suffered a humiliating 5-1 against Thailand's under-23 team on home turf, sparking massive public outrage and calls for drastic reform. The writing was on the wall: Things had to change.

Sports have received increased attention from the Central Government in recent years. Promoting the development of football has been recognized as an important step toward developing sports overall and building the country into a sporting force to be reckoned with.

Himself an avid football fan, President Xi Jinping chaired a top-level government meeting in February to discuss and approve a national reform plan for football.

According to the plan, developing football will be incorporated into China's overall scheme for economic and social development. The short-term goals focus on improving and innovating the country's football management system. Medium-term goals include bolstering the number of teenage players and raising the organizational and competitive standards of professional leagues. For the long term, the goals are even more ambitious, including partaking in, and even hosting, future World Cups.

Specific measures laid out in the plan include separating the semi-administrative Chinese Football Association (CFA) from the General Administration of Sport and making the former a full-fledged NGO. Governments at all levels will be directed to increase spending on football. An independent league council consisting of club owners and CFA representatives will be established to operate and manage the country's professional leagues. Moreover, schools will be required to devote more class hours and portions of physical education lessons to football.

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