Since its birth in the middle of the 19th century, football has become the most popular sport in the world with 4 billion fans spreaded across all continents. Although either European or South American teams have won all the FIFA World Cups, the sport has followed the patterns of globalization after the fourth industrial revolution: television before, then YouTube and streaming services have expanded the possibility of live enjoying matches like the UCL final like never before. There are Real Madrid fan clubs – the most supported team of all – from Mumbai to Los Angeles, from Jakarta to Casablanca.
This fact is testified by the hosts of some of the most recent FIFA World Cups, outside the UEFA’s and CONMEBOL’s monopoly: examples are USA 1994, South Korea and Japan 2002 (sadly remembered by Italians and Spanish due to the outrageous refereeing in favor of South Korea), South Africa 2010 and Russia 2018. Approximately half of the global population watched the last one and the incoming Qatar 2022 – the first FIFA World Cup played in winter, during the regular season – is going to be even more followed.
In Spain 1982 the teams were 24, in France 1998 the number was expanded by 32 and in 2026 the first tournament with 48 finalists will take place, in order to ensure more places to less developed federations – CAF, CONCACAF and AFC.
Football’s gotha still has Europe indisputably on the throne as in the case with the American NBA for basket, but the times are slowly a-changin’ in the hierarchies. Signs of hope are the second places in the FIFA Club World Cup of teams like the Congolese TP Mazembe in 2010, the Japanese Kashima Antlers in 2016 and the Emiratis Al-Ain in 2018.
The English homonimy between football and American football is not a coincidence: indeed, modern football was born from rugby, despite the myth of William Webb Ellis, according to which this English student invented rugby by breaking the rules of football in 1823.
This story began in ancient Greece: there are testimonies of games with the ball since the meeting between Ulysses and Nausicaa in the book VI of Odyssey. They were likely influenced by ancient Egyptians, whose temples record ball games.
In particular, Spartan warriors used to play a quite violent sport called episkyros (“common ball”), which is considered a tactically sophisticated ancestor of rugby and hence football. Although it was not included in the Olympic Games since it was a team sport, a popular city festival tournament was organized every year in Sparta.
Probably, Romans imported it in 5th century BC, along with a similar game called phaininda. Later, they created their own version called harpastum, like the name of the small feather ball that was employed in this activity. Both had teams of 12-14 players that faced each other in a field divided with lines. The main difference was that in episkyros the points were scored with ante litteram touchdowns, whereas in harpastum the aim was keeping the ball inside the team area.
It was very popular, especially as an activity for training, among troops and gladiators: the legend tells that Julius Caesar in person used to practice it. It was particularly widespread in border legiones and we have evidence of matches between soldiers and inhabitants, in particular a game in 276 BC won 1-0 by the British against the Romans.
This trans-border diffusion was the key for the development of the successive Medieval Mob Football, the common name given to different sports played with balls across Europe such as la soule in France, Welsh cnapan, and Irish caid. All the parts of the body were allowed to touch the ball and, despite the matches being very violent and leading to property damage, hard injuries and even death. There was also a female version, usually played by married versus unmarried women.
The first attestation of “football” is in the 9th century book Historia Britannorum, although the terminology was different at the time. In the 13th century firstly Edward II and then Edward III made laws against a game that stole time to the archery practice and made merchants complain about the noise in the city.
More than a century later, Edward IV kept on banning football along with dice and other activities, but it continued to spread regardless of the charge of having played “unlawful games of football”. It was a prohibitionist pattern that reflected other similar situations in Europe, for example the laws of the kings of Scotland and France, where a bishop in 1440 threatened souleurs with excommunication.
The teams had from 300 to 500 people each and Mixed Martial Arts were allowed, like in the Italian calcio fiorentino. Even if it was spreading since the Middle Age, it was in this period that it reached a peak of popularity in the streets of Florence. It became such a social phenomenon that, when the river Arno froze in 1490, the inhabitants organized a match on the ice.
In 1529, during the siege by Charles V, Florentine played their sport also in order to mock up their besiegers. In 1584 40,000 people attended a calcio fiorentino match – followed by a corrida – organized on the occasion of the marriage between Eleonora de’ Medici and Francesco Gonzaga. For the marriage of Ferdinando de’ Medici and Violante Beatrice of Baviera, in 1689, we have the first proof of an international match between an European and an Asian team.
Anyway, later it became clear that inhibitions were ineffective and that this sport was widely useful for training. This change of mentality led to the indisputable birth of modern football in the middle 19th century England, in particular in Cambridge University, where students set the first sets of rules, summed up in the FA’s 13 rules of football of 1863.
They were the expression of a rudimental football, still tied to rugby (for example there was no crossbar and it was forbidden to pass the ball behind), but they also introduced the prohibition of carrying the ball. The invention of trains strongly helped this process because people were enabled to move across the country for tournaments, taking advantage of the links in the developed English education system.
In 2004 FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter recognized that the invention of football is hitherto traced back to the IV Century BC China, in particular to a city called Zibo, in the Shandong province: back to the Zhou dynasty, this was the capital of the powerful Qin state.
There, a sport named Cuju, whose meaning is literally “kicking a ball”, was played. Two teams of 12-16 people whose aim was to kick a ball – initially made of leather, then it became air filled – in a hole between two posts with a stretched net, located in the middle of the field. There was also a version with two goals, one for the side, but it was soon abandoned. The first traces of this sport are in the military manuals of Han dynasty (III-II century BC), which recommended this sport as an useful exercise for soldiers.
Later it spreaded across Korea, Vietnam and especially Japan, where samurai also played another game called kemari: it was a non-competitive game in which people had to collaborate in order not to make the ball touch the floor with the feet.
Coming back to China, in the Tang dynasty (618-907) a new game called baida was created. 2-10 individual players had to get the highest possible score from judges, who evaluated their skills in scoring. It was during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) that the game experienced a boom in popularity, becoming a national pastime for both the male and female population.
Those years were far ahead in terms of professionalism: players and teachers were paid and amateurs gave money to their local club to bear these costs. Unfortunately, the game slowly faded away in historical fog during the Ming dynasty (1368-1664 AD) due to mismanagement and loss of interest.
Chinese contemporary football
In the 1920s the Chinese football team – dragged mostly by players from South China, not by chance a Hong Kong team– had been undefeated for 13 years until the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, thanks to the performances of the legendary “king of football” Lee Wai Tong.
After this golden age, China isolated itself from the International Olympic Committee due to the Taiwan Issue until 1979, when Deng Xiaoping opened up to capitalism. Since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the country has been collecting 541 medals, 80% of which in individual sports.
On the other hand, the highest achievement of the national football team has been the 2nd place in the 1984 and 2004 AFC Asian Cup and the presence in the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals, helped by the fact that Japan and South Korea were already qualified as hosts. The team was eliminated at the group stage, scoring 0 and conceding 9 goals, whereas the female football team is way ahead: it was runner-up in the 1999 US FIFA Women’s World Cup and it won 8 times the AFC Women’s Asian Cup – 7 times in a row between 1986 and 1999. The difference is shown in the respective FIFA ranking: men’s category is 74th, women’s is 19th.
This huge imbalance in favor of individual rather than team sports may appear as a paradox in a de iure socialist republic, but many cultural factors need to be analysed. The Chinese education system, influenced much by Confucianism, focuses on developing mnemonic skills and hard competition, with an individual sphere promoted by the One-child policy.
Creativity, emotional intelligence and team working are often neglected. This is one of the reasons why, for example, diving, a mechanic and individual sport, is more successful than football, a situational and team-based sport.
Furthermore, there is not a eradicated football culture and parents see this sport as a distraction that can affect their children’s grades and career. This is also one of the consequences of not having hosted a FIFA World Cup, that have had a great influence in the development of football in Japan and South Korea: two examples are the famous comics “Captain Tsubasa” and the videogame “Inazuma Eleven”.
China also lacks a football international star, an inspirational idol for children like Yao Ming in NBA: this implies a disproportion in the fields available, with basketball that outnumber the success than football. Wu Lei, the second all-time top scorer of Chinese Super League, plays in Espanyol but has never really made a qualitative leap.
Moreover, several match-fixing and bribing scandals have taken place since the late 90s, mining the credibility of the Chinese Super League. Since the beginning of his mandate, president Xi Jinping started a war against corruption in football, similarly to what happened around the Calciopoli scandal in Italy. Regaining the trust of football fans is not immediate though.
The Medium and Long-Term Development Plan of Chinese Football (2016-2050)
CCP considers football as a powerful tool of soft power and economic growth, along with the New Silk and Belt Road. This is why, in 2015, Xi Jinping presented the Medium and Long-Term Development Plan of Chinese Football (2016-2050), using the Olympic strategy that brought China to the victory of Beijing 2008 as a model to become a top Asian team by 2030 and to win the 2050 FIFA World Cup.
The country is already the most valuable football market and it is going to reach a value of US $ 813 billion within 2025. Many European top clubs have been doing pre-season tours in China and have popular accounts on Chinese social media like Weibo (Twitter), Tencent (Facebook) and Douyin (TikTok), which was a key sponsor of Euro 2020 like Wanda Group in Russia 2018.
In the opposite direction, Suning acquired in 2016 Internazionale FC and brought from Shakhtar Donetsk to Jiangsu Alex Teixeira, who followed the same path of Hulk and Oscar, former teammates at Shanghai SIPG. This team also hired Sven-Goran Erikkson and Andre Villas-Boas as managers, like the Chinese Football Association (CFA) did with Marcello Lippi. Moreover, Evergrande and Ali Baba are majority shareholders of Guangzhou FC and their wealth enabled the club to buy coach Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino, Jackson Martinez and Paulinho.
The plan also implies huge investments for football infrastructures: 18 “football cities”, 70,000 football pitches and 20,000 football training centers for scouting new talents in partnership with European top clubs. Furthermore, football courses will be introduced in schools, aiming to involve 30 million children.
Will it be enough? Unfortunately I don’t have a glass ball but quoting Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, an Inter legend and former CEO of Bayern Münich:
“When the government of China starts such an ambitious development plan, you do not have to be a prophet to foresee that football will be the dominant sport in China for the foreseeable future”.
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