Soccer’s Coming Home

November 9, 2017

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

…to China. Yes, really. It turns out the modern game traces its origins back to the Han Dynasty in the third century BC. Nowadays the flourishing sport is all part of China’s cultural soft power, as Joe Boyle discovers.

The curators of the Linzi Football Museum in China’s Shandong province will disagree but, as certificates go, it’s not much to look at. Pale blue, a black double border. There’s the FIFA logo and Sepp Blatter’s signature. There’s some text, too, in English and Chinese. “In honour of China…” it reads. Fair enough. “….Cradle of the earliest forms of football.” Whoa! Not so fast!

This is a statement that’s sure to cause members of Sheffield Football Club, across the other side of the world in England, to splutter into their pint glasses of warm beer. Everyone knows the real cradle of soccer is Sheffield – an industrial city in Yorkshire. After all, it was here in 1857 that the rules of the game we know and love were first codified.

FIFA’s eyes are cast back several centuries earlier, however. “The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence,” they state on their website, “was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China.” It was called ‘cuju’, best translated as ‘kickball’.

“The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China.”


There’s no doubt that, until a lull during the Ming Dynasty, kicking a ball within a competitive context was popular in China. It was popular in most other emerging societies, too. That hasn’t stopped some arguing that the game spread along the silk road trade routes, and that China gave the game to the world.

Such claims are hard to sustain, but the narrative matters as President Xi launches China on a great soccer leap forward. The effort to claim the sport’s origins is not simply a matter of pride but a cog in what is being called China’s new silk road.

The modern version of this great trading route is being refashioned through an economic project called the Belt and Road Initiative, launched by President Xi in 2013. With nearly a trillion dollars of investment, it aims to connect Asia with Europe and Africa, through a network of roads, bridges, ports and pipelines, delivered in a series of massive regional infrastructure projects.

It is about much more than just trade, though. It is also about pulling the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity eastwards, exerting not just commercial hard power but also cultural soft power. What epitomises cultural soft power better than soccer?

In this context, the growing influence of China in global soccer makes sense. The billions that will be spent on Belt and Road infrastructure are reflected in the sums being invested by the Chinese in soccer. The attempt to bolster the profile and quality of the Chinese Super League has resulted in huge transfer fees and salaries to attract big names. The blueprint for success also includes 50,000 soccer academies by 2025, generating 50 million competent players, playing on 70,000 new pitches – all of which will bring the World Cup trophy home to the so-claimed cradle of soccer by 2050.

As significant as the internal spend is the way Chinese investment funds and corporations now own stakes in clubs as powerful as Manchester City FC, Olympique Lyonnais, Atletico Madrid and both AC and Inter Milan. The logic of these purchases was captured by the chairman of Oympique Lyonnais, Jean-Michel Aulas, when he welcomed the acquisition of 20 per cent of his club by Chinese investment fund IDG Capital. The new partnership symbolised “a major location on the silk road, an ambitious and friendly cooperation between China and France”.

Of course it wasn’t just goods that the original silk road transmitted. Culture moved too, particularly Buddhism from the east and Christianity from the west. No surprise that the new silk road should be transmitting the modern religion that is soccer.



An imposing 26-year-old goalkeeper whose one-club career at Shanghai SIPG has seen him edge into the national squad in recent seasons.


ZHANG LINPENG (Guangzhou Evergrande)

“The best Chinese player in the Chinese league,” according to Italian manager Marcello Lippi. High praise indeed for this goal-scoring defender.


WU LEI (Shanghai SIPG FC)

This winger is notable for making his professional debut aged 14 and scoring at a rate of almost one goal every other game for his current club.


ZHANG YUNING (SV Werder Bremen)

This 20-year-old striker, on loan at SV Werder Bremen from West Bomwich Albion FC, is one of the few Chinese players seeking a career outside his home country.


Populous is working with several Chinese soccer clubs on the design of their stadia and training facilities.


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