After decades of economic growth fuelled by exports, China is now concentrating on building domestic markets to sustain its economic growth. Sport has been identified as a particular area of potential, with $850m being invested in a programme of “Development of Sports Industry and Promoting Sports Consumption”.
Football is pivotal to this development programme. The Chinese Football Association has set targets for China to become a world football superpower by 2050 and President Xi Jinping has declared his ambition for the national team to win the World Cup.
The Prime Minister of India has also highlighted football as part of the National Vision. Just how far and fast can the development of football in India and China go, and how is it being achieved?
“What I perceive of those two countries is that there is clearly a much stronger interest in football. There is more dedication from the government,” Alexander Koch, Head of Corporate Communications at FIFA told delegates at World Football Forum.
“There is a much better focus from the FIFA side and we are working on interesting programmes on developing football.”
The growth of football in Asia is already bringing commercial rewards, with revenues from broadcasting international football in Asia on course to equal those from Europe.
“FIFA’s TV income for the 2018 World Cup will, for the first time, have more from outside Europe than in Europe,” he says. “Maybe in the long term we could think of getting one third from Europe and Africa, one third from Asia and one third from the two Americas.”
China and India may be geographical neighbours, but the world’s two most populous countries show contrasting approaches to development.
“It’s very dangerous to generalise,” says Mike Pfister, Senior Development Manager at FIFA. “An emerging market does not equal an emerging football market.
“India is vastly different to China, both in terms of development of football, the way it is structured as well as the opportunities and challenges for development.”
Way back in 1950, India was a regionally successful footballing nation that qualified for the World Cup, although they were unable to participate due to a lack of resources. But the 60s and 70s saw a marked decline in football development and it was not until 2005 that a permanent headquarters for India’s national football federation was established.
“There were no professional structures to develop football,” Mike Pfister says. “The first General Secretary came into FIFA in 2011. So in a way that’s a federation that’s just five years old!”
Peter Hutton, CEO of Eurosport was working for IMG when he moved to India in 1994 and found very little football on television. “I finally found an Indian football match on TV – the national cup final. It went to extra time, and the moment it went to penalties it cut off for the news and it didn’t come back! At that point you’ve got to think there’s an opportunity there.”
IMG launched the India’s first national league a year and a half later. “It didn’t follow all the dreams we had for it, but you tapped into the undeniable enthusiasm for football in India and you knew there was something there that could really grow, and it’s fantastic to see how it has grown in the last 20 years.”
The scale of India’s investment into football is incomparable to China’s. “We are behind in terms of investment; there is no comparison,” says Kushal Das, General Secretary at the All India Football Federation.
“But then that’s still the case for every industry – the investment levels in China have been significantly higher in every aspect. We don’t have that kind of money, that’s for sure – but we also don’t have a bubble.”
Outbound investment in sports
Chinese companies are rapidly investing in overseas sports and entertainment brands. Dalian Wanda alone has recently bought the Ironman triathlon, Infront Sports & Media, a 20 per cent stake in Atletico Madrid, worldwide sponsorship and licensing rights for FIBA events, US film studio Legendary Entertainment and North America's second-largest cinema chain, AMC Entertainment.
Wanda became the first Chinese FIFA Partner in March 2016. In July it announced the launch of the “China Cup” international football tournament with the Chinese Football Association, the first edition of which will take place in Nanning in January 2017 between China and three major teams from Europe and the Americas.
Alisports – launched in 2015 by ecommerce giant Alibaba – has gained online broadcasting rights from World Rugby in exchange for investments in the development of rugby in China. China Everbright and Beijing Baofeng have bought a 65 per cent stake in Italian TV rights distributor MP & Silva. A Chinese consortium now owns 13 per cent of City Football Group, the owner of Manchester City and New York City football clubs.
India is not investing its way into the global sports market in the same way. “Indian corporates are not looking at investing in foreign clubs at the moment; it’s more about improving the standards of Indian football within India,” Sunando Dhar, CEO of I-League tells Host City.
“China’s paying huge amounts of money to bring foreign talent into China; I don’t think at the moment we can afford that kind of money in Indian football. We are trying to put a system in order first. Once that’s done, once the market becomes a little more advanced, maybe we can think of going global. At the moment we are trying to have a national feel to it.”
India’s sport industry is not outbound in the same way as its other more acquisitive industries, such as steel and automotive.
“The reason for that is that they are already developed in those industries. Football is still at a very nascent stage in India. We need to develop ourselves; that’s what we are trying to do now. Once we have done that – it may take five, ten, 15 or 20 years – once we do that we’ll think of the next plan.”
European football fever
Football is undoubtedly growing in popularity all over Asia. However, there is a concern that enthusiasm is focused on European rather than local teams.
“Growing markets are good for development if you can connect that with the passion that football can generate. However, what you also see quite often in these emerging football powers is a dichotomy of passion in football,” says Mike Pfister.
“You will find in South East Asia for example a great deal of football fans who are passionate about football – they will stay up until four in the morning to watch the Champions League final. But that is in stark contrast to their interest in local and national football teams.”
Peter Hutton says: “One of the sad things about South East Asia is that the Premier League is so prevalent and the local clubs struggle so much by comparison. I think India and China have the chance to do it a different way and really establish the strong basis for local clubs.
“The international leagues that broadcast into India and China have a fan base, a dedicated audience, but they don’t have that potential to engage so deeply with Chinese and Indian audiences. So the potential for local leagues is huge.”
However, the growing popularity of football in India is still mostly directed towards European football clubs, Sunando Dhar tells Host City.
“Football here is very popular. It’s maybe more popular than cricket in urban youth. But the thing is, football for most urban youth is the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A – so that’s what we are competing against.
“The European leagues to an extent are cannibalising Indian football – eating into it. That’s a tough battle to fight.
“So that’s why we are trying to put systems in place, trying to glamorise our sports, trying to bring big brand ambassadors into football – from cricket, from Bollywood – these are the two biggest industries people follow.
“And we have seen in season one and season two, bringing in players like Del Piero and Zico who not only bring their expertise on the field but also act as a brand ambassador for the game. That’s having an impact; people are coming to the stadiums, attendance is rising which is fantastic. We now need to create Indian stars.”
Hosting touring European clubs
The number of European football teams touring Asia continues to rise. There are many benefits for the hosts of these tours, says Paul Kam, Chairman of ProEvents Group, which promotes tours to Asia for European football clubs.
“There a number of benefits of overseas clubs coming to Asia,” he tells Host City. “Firstly for the local economy, it brings out all the benefits of job creation, it makes sure the city has better infrastructure – they have to maintain the stadium well to be able to host international events. These really put the country and the city on the football map.
“It also helps to improve football players’ conditions, their know-how and knowledge of looking after themselves as athletes. It also increases the popularity of the sport.”
The benefits for European clubs are clear. “They are able to secure more fans, so they may sell more shirts and they come here to get more fan base, which nowadays everybody is talking about – Manchester United is saying they have 600m fans all over the world. Where has that come from? It’s come from them reaching out to be face to face with the spectators.”
In the 25 years ProEvents has been in business, Kam has seen the growing trend of European clubs coming to Asia to compete against one another, instead of against local teams.
“There are many more matches coming up which are just purely foreign team versus foreign team. The trend is going to be there because people love football, from China’s point of view and from Asia’s point of view.
“The Premier League is by far the best league, in front of other leagues like La Liga and Serie A. So people love to see their players; they watch them on the TV every week – and now they can see it in front of them, so of course they will buy tickets.
“People come to watch an international event. If they buy a ticket to watch Barcelona versus Arsenal for example, they have expectations, they will see Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Giroud, Sanchez– they are the reason why they buy tickets to go and see the football match.”
The concern is that there is a missed opportunity for developing football in Asia if local players don’t have the chance to play alongside these big names.
“We always try to strike a balance. My theory is that they should play against local teams, which has much more meat in it because the locals will benefit, foreign teams will benefit – it’s a win-win thing. And then the local boys can improve.
“And what about Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore for example? They are much lower down than China for example, but how do they improve if they don’t get a chance to play? In 2017 there will be a host of teams coming over to Asia to play against Asian teams, against other foreign teams.”
All-European matches also pose organisational challenges for their overseas hosts. “As a promoter, you have double costs. That means twice the security; twice the transportation, twice the food, flights and everything.
“If I can make the mathematics right it’s a good investment, but if the cost is too high then I personally would prefer to have a foreign team play against a local team.”
Grass roots development
The success of China and India’s football development programmes will depend on their ability to tap into talent all over the country. FIFA is working closely with the Chinese Football Association to build competence nationwide.
“It’s not a problem of spreading the support or making it more popular – the popularity is there. But if you look at where the big football hubs are in China, they are in coastal hubs around the economic powerhouses – Guangzhou and Shanghai,” says Mike Pfister.
“China needs to spread westward. The government’s ‘go west’ strategy still applies to football – going into the provinces again, tap into the 1.6bn people that you have. There is a lot of potential that is untapped there.
“Creativity is home-grown. Yes, you can bring in foreign coaches but you have to have your own physiognomy and philosophy. Money is important but passion is more so and this is needed to develop locally.”
Without major corporate outbound investment in sports brands and European clubs, India’s success will rely on building talent domestically.
“You can’t compare the Indian and the Chinese model. In India what we are doing at the moment is looking inward,” says Sunando Dhar.
“We are trying to improve our house, keep things simple, invest in grass roots development and hope clubs run their teams in a professional manner.”
Hosting and winning the World Cup
The ultimate aims for any footballing nation are to host and win the World Cup. At 152 in the FIFA world ranking, India has a long way to go, but the country is taking a major step forward by hosting the under 17 (U17) World Cup in 2017.
“One aspect of the U17 World Cup is to deliver FIFA-standard infrastructure,” says Kushal Das. “The challenge will be to have a very competitive Indian team, because we don’t have a system where it is developed from an early age.”
Whether India could one day host the men’s World Cup is a different question. “What India is doing next year with the U17 World Cup is an important step on that road. You certainly see the potential of the World Cup to change the perception of football in a country,” says Peter Hutton.
“I think that when you’ve got economies as big as India or China it’s got to be worth, from a FIFA perspective, considering that option.
“I think the sensible first move for India is to do the U17s. Let’s see how that works, let’s build an infrastructure that can support football – and then let’s keep an eye on what we can do in those sorts of markets. Because if we can genuinely make those markets football obsessed, football hungry and aware of their position in the world, then I think the potential is enormous.”
China, with a team ranked 81 in the world, is keen to host the World Cup within a generation. “They don’t have the patience to wait another 50 years,” says Ma Guoli, Deputy Chairman of LeSport – the sports arm of internet company LeEco, which owns the global broadcast rights to the Chinese Super League.
“There is definitely a bubble now; the question is how we can control this kind of investment to find the best team to work in Chinese football. I hope that there will be more and more professional people who really love football and know how to develop it in China. So 2030 is the right time for the World Cup in China.”
Whether China can reach its goal of winning the World Cup is another question. “It’s unrealistic. You can’t say from where they are now to say within the next ten or fifteen years they are going to win a World Cup – it’s not going to happen,” says former England footballer Mark Wright.
“That’s not being disrespectful, that’s just a fact. If you talk about 30 years when you start to educate children and then get the right people, coaches and education, certainly it’s possible to host a World Cup. But to actually go on and win one – this is a big ask and it will take a hell of a lot of hard work between now and 30 years’ time.”
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Host City magazine. It was based on exclusive interviews by Host City and panel discussions at World Football Forum 2016