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China's Football Focus Switches to Women

With the 2023 World Cup approaching, China recently unveiled a long-term plan for women's football. A similar plan for the men has yet to bear fruit, but the women's game might have a better opportunity to succeed.
China's football focus switches to women

When China started investing heavily in football in the early 2010s, there was an expectation that the men's team would be at the 2022 World Cup. That plan failed dismally, and the domestic game also has major issues with many professional clubs struggling financially. 

It is not surprising then that the country's women are increasingly becoming the focus of football fans, and now they aren't alone. On October 24, the Chinese Football Association (CFA), the ministries of education and finance as well as the General Administration of Sport of China released details of a plan designed to take the women's game to the very top level. 

The timing of the announcement is also noteworthy, coming just two days after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party during which Xi Jinping, who is known to be a fan of the beautiful game, secured an unprecedented third term as president. 

"The plan, as issued by the central government rather than the sports-governing body only, is important in itself as is the timing," Beijing-based sports consultant Bi Yuan, told DW. 

The plan outlines seven areas of focus that include better youth training, more qualified coaches and an improved national team. Ultimately, the goal is to win the right to host the 2031 World Cup and to raise the trophy as world champions four years later. 

China's plan to make the men's program world class didn't go as well as had been hoped


China's plan to make the men's program world class didn't go as well as had been hoped

Financial woes hamper Super League 

It is reminiscent of a plan put forward for the men in 2016, which had the goal of being one of the best in Asia by 2030 and a global power by 2050. This was made at the height of spending in China. In the  winter transfer window of 2017, Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs spent €392 million ($411 million) on players, more than any other league in the world. 

Since then, however, a number of the companies owning clubs have run into major financial problems. The spending has stopped and the big stars have gone home, with clubs such as Jiangsu FC, owned by retail giant Suning, going out of business in 2021 when they were reigning CSL champions. At the same time, the national team does not seem to have improved, despite investments that were also made at the grassroots level. 

Tom Byer, a renowned Japan-based American youth development coach was involved with that plan and worked as an advisor with the Ministry of Education in China and the State General Administration of Sports in rolling the program out to thousands of schools across the country. He told DW that Beiing's recent pivot to the women's game is a "no-brainer" given the way the men have been "underperforming."  

While the men were struggling in qualifying for the men's 2022 World Cup, the women won the Asian Cup in dramatic fashion in February, coming back from 2-0 down to defeat South Korea 3-2 in the final. 

While the men once again, missed out on the biggest tournament of all, the women are preparing for the 2023 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. 

Tough climb towards 1990s success

That journey to the top is shorter for the women, who reached the 1999 World Cup final, than the men.

"There are many countries between China and the top of the men's world game but that is not the case when it comes to the women," Ivanhoe Li, CEO of Fangze Sports, a Beijing-based sports marketing company, told DW.  

"The CFA is putting more effort into the women's team as there is a better chance to reap rewards. This has been understood since the women's team won titles in the 1990s. In China, women usually win way more medals in sport than men." 

This century however, the women have fallen down the global pecking order and getting back to the top will not be quick or simple. 

"The women's game has become much more competitive and the Europeans are starting to dominate," said Byer, adding that this development was always likely to be a game-changer.  

"They have taken a giant leap forward because they are football cultures and European women are marinated in a football culture surrounded by men constantly talking about football systems, tactics, formations." 

Off the pitch too, it remains to be seen whether the authorities in Beijing will manage to stay the course in supporting the women, something that appears to enjoy much public support. In 2021, a post on social media site Weibo calling for women to receive the same financial backing as the men received 110 million times views. 

Having led China to the Asian Cup, Shui Qingxia's women are in a tough World Cup group


Having led China to the Asian Cup, Shui Qingxia's women are in a tough World Cup group

"Their (the authorities') influence is limited given Chinese football's current situation," said sports consultant Bi. The economic slowdown in the country also won't help.  

"There is still no off ramp from the "zero-COVID" policy, which has led to the relocation of the 2023 Asian Cup and the postponement of the 2022 Asian Games that were supposed to be held in Hangzhou," he noted. And all this was before the mass protests against the lockdown rules, which broke out in China in November.  

Concrete goal for the 2023 World Cup 

However, a good showing at the 2023 World Cup could go some way towards kickstarting China's new plan to make strides in the women's game. It will also be the first marker along the path to the 2035 World Cup China is aiming to win. The stated aim is for the women to make it to the last eight of the 32-team tournament down under.  

China's group includes European champions England, as well as Denmark and the winner of a playoff series between Senegal, Chile and Haiti.  

"The group is not easy," said head coach Shui Qingxia.  

"The playoff winners will be tough and Denmark is strong, while England is the European champion. We will try our best and will do everything we can to prepare well and make the country proud. We know we have a lot of work to do and that starts now." 

Edited by: Chuck Penfold

Courtesy: DW

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