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To date, China has qualified for this global soccer tournament just once, in 2002, and it has never scored a goal in the World Cup.


Can China go from soccer dud to soccer superpower? My guess is probably not – at least not in Xi’s lifetime.


Not a winner


Xi can also ensure that his countrymen see and play more soccer. China’s 2016 plan for Chinese soccer greatness proposes to build 70,000 new stadiums and develop 20,000 new specialized schools, with the aim of having 30 to 50 million Chinese children playing soccer by 2020.


China’s ferocious academic culture


So Chinese soccer may well improve dramatically over the next two decades. But I believe China lacks the culture and institutions to achieve Xi’s third goal: winning the World Cup.


For one, history shows that investment from China’s soccer plan will inevitably be directed mostly to coastal megacities and capitals because of the country’s administrative hierarchy. That hierarchy systematically benefits provincial capitals and large municipalities. My experience is that the trickle-down to rural areas, where about half of the population still lives, is slow and minimal.


I see no evidence that China is currently training the next generation of global soccer stars.


Not enough space


Even China’s economic boom does not work entirely in soccer’s favor.
The bulk of China’s 1.38 billion people live in central and eastern China, where cities are among the most densely populated in the world. Urban real estate prices there are sky high, so recreational space in cities – like soccer fields that can be used for pickup games and local leagues – are few and far between.


Japan has 200 sports fields for every 10,000 people. China has seven, and most of them are owned by schools or the military. Your average American has access to 19 times more sports space than the average China resident.


China is massive – bigger than Germany, Brazil and South Africa combined. But that doesn’t mean there is a lot of free space. Land in rural China is still dominated by small-scale agriculture.


Basketball courts are far more common in China, which may explain why more Chinese people play basketball. Some 33 million Chinese follow the NBA’s account on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.


Culture gap


The central government’s 2016 soccer plan addresses China’s deficit in youth talent development and infrastructure by proposing more childhood soccer training and building more soccer stadiums.


The culture gap may prove harder to overcome, though. China just isn’t a soccer country. I rarely saw kids playing informal games in the streets of China with a soda can or a half-deflated ball as one does across Latin America and Africa.


That’s because many traditional soccer powers have marginalized women’s participation in the sport. If Xi wants China to make its mark as a soccer upstart, the women’s team may be his best investment.


Mary Gallagher
Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan

Mary Gallagher