Soccer is about to score in China, bigtime

I see that Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent recently claimed that his client was offered a hefty €100 million per year contract to play soccer in China, a sign of the financial muscle being exerted by the Far East.
Soccer is about to score in China, bigtime

Things move fast. Even as I type these words news emerged that Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel was going to lose the chips of timber from his rear end by signing for Chinese Super League side Tianjin TEDA.

The midfielder said he was looking for a new challenge. The challenge of carrying home his pay packet, possibly.

Where has this come from, though, this sudden surge of interest in the Middle Kingdom in the game of soccer?

Apparently it can be traced to the passion for the beautiful game that beats in the breast of the President of China, Xi Jinping.

He’s keen to see China improve at both the local and international levels, even though that’s a tall order in both arenas.

For instance, the national side was ranked 83rd by FIFA recently, while the domestic scene has been, well, ‘beset by problems’ is the appropriate term. Back in November 2008, the state broadcaster announced a total ban on covering the indigenous professional league matches, accusing the players of ‘lacking professional ethics’. Corruption is an ongoing issue.

This clearly had an effect on participation levels: back in 2011, the Chinese Football Association had 7,000 registered young players aged between 13 and 18 years in a population of over 1.3 billion (in the same age bracket, by contrast, France had 1.46 million participants).

Change coming

Well, Xi Jinping is going to change all of that. According to media reports, there is now a huge emphasis on growing the game in the country — the aim in China is to have 50,000 schools focusing strongly on soccer by 2025, up from 5,000 schools only two years ago.

The number of soccer pitches across the country is expected to grow to over 70,000 by the end of 2020, from the current figure of 11,000.

By then, according to government plans, 50 million Chinese, including 30 million students, will regularly play soccer. What kind of professional league will await those at the top of that playing pyramid, though?

The league which can afford to offer Cristiano Ronaldo a contract worth €100m is also growing in terms of its commercial reach.

According to Forbes magazine, in 2015 Chinese broadcasters paid only €12m to show local league games, but 12 months later Li Ruigang’s China Media Capital purchased broadcasting rights to the Chinese Super League over the next five seasons for considerably more — approximately €1.2 billion.

Alright, I hear you say, but what does that mean for us?

Simple. In casting around for some background on this matter, I encountered some hard evidence of the Chinese President’s passion for soccer, a report from a Chinese outlet.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. That is the President of China trying to solo an O’Neill’s Gaelic football in Croke Park.

What does this mean? Are we next?

All geared up for a trip to town

The other day in Cork city two guys strolled into the coffee shop and sat down near me, deep in conversation. The dress code? Basketball-court-worthy runners; those tracksuit pants with the zipper coming up over the ankle; Chelsea jerseys; base layer appropriate for a midwinter stroll around Reykjavik; bobble hats (one Seahawks, one Patriots).

Over three decades I’ve seen clothing deemed fit for “heading to town” on a Saturday morph from Doc Martens, jeans and a chunky jumper to branded sportswear all over, toes to tonsure.

Where will it end? When you put on your hurling helmet to do the shopping? When you slip in a gum shield for a trip to the barber? Ridiculous, you say. But there was a time when rubber dollies and tracksuit pants were for the Parochial Hall, not Patrick Street. And look how that changed.

Strike-ing a blow

When the Paralympics rolls around everyone chips in with their support, don’t they? How great the athletes are, how fantastic it is they can overcome all those obstacles, aren’t they marvellous...

That made it all the more interesting — though depressing would be a more accurate term — to read about a British Paralympian’s travails during the week.

Anne Wafula Strike is a wheelchair athlete with no use of her legs and is also a board member of UK Athletics, the sport’s governing body.

Wafula Strike ended up urinating on herself when a train she took in the UK recently couldn’t provide an accessible toilet on her three-hour journey.

She said later: “I decided to go public despite the personal humiliation of doing so in the hope that it will bring about change for other people with disabilities who want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so.

“Too many people with disabilities suffer in silence when this kind of thing happens, because they feel too embarrassed to talk about it.”

You have to salute Wafula Strike’s courage in speaking out. It goes without saying that it’s shameful that she had to do so.

It would be interesting to hear what Irish Paralympians have to say about this, and whether they have had similar experiences when the patronising praise and brief moment in the spotlight is over.

Searching for the perfect podcast?

The other day a pal of mine asked what I was ploughing through in terms of other media, and for once I had a ready-made response.

I heartily recommend the magnificent Crimetown podcast, made by Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling, about crime in Providence, Rhode Island. It features a casual acquaintance of this column, the great Dan Barry of the New York Times, and a cast of unforgettable real-life characters including Buddy Cianci and Chucky Flynn. And more.

As for print media, a mate who was in California picked up IQ by Joe Ide for me, a book which lives up to the considerable hype. When I tweeted about it my praise was echoed by Francis Fukuyama, of all people. He mightn’t have been right about the end of history (a line I’m sure he never hears) but he’s correct about the quality of this book, written by his cousin.

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