According to some non-historical sources football was created in China under the government of the legendary emperor Sheng Di in 2500 B.C., and this sport was then called cuju (tsu-ju), which literally means “game of the ball”. According to the same sources it was then used by the emperor himself not to delight the court, but to make soldiers stronger and prepare them for combat.
It is interesting to see how Mao Zedong himself, in the 20th century, saw football – and sport in general – as an instrument through which the population could strengthen itself to be better prepared to face the enemy.
In some writings of 1917 attributed to Mao and collected in the book “A study of physical education”, the Great Helmsman complained of a lack of strength in the Chinese population and stated that it could be regained only through physical education.
Some other sources state that Mao himself played football as a goalkeeper when he was 20 and it is said that for an entire season he managed to always keep a clean sheet.
Subsequently the sport then spread to Japan with the name of Kemari, to Greece with the name of Episkyros and to Rome with the name of Harpastum. In this regard, it is thought that football was imported into England during the Roman invasions of the island which has been considered the home of modern football since 1863 when the Football Association was founded, the first real football federation in the world. And it is since that year that modern football started to spread in Europe and the rest of the world.
As for China, in reality, throughout the 20th century it did not see major development of the game owing to the sudden changes which the country suffered in those years, first with the civil war between the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the communists of Mao Zedong, then with the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The first steps of Chinese football towards a more modern system were then taken from the 1980s onwards, with the launch of the new Reforms and Opening Up plan promoted by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, who from 1992 (the year in which he undertook his famous Journey to the South to relaunch China’s development programme) brought the first reforms also to football.
Since then, Chinese football was no longer tied to the old economy model based on state control and government financing, so the first autonomous clubs started to grow and above all the first football championship was established on a western model in 1994 thanks to the Chinese Football Association, the Jia A League – which ten years later was renamed to Chinese Super League.
The new club system initially had some problems, mainly due to the shift from a planned economy to a market economy, and linked to the fact that familiarity with the old economic system was not effective as preparation to working in a completely different system. Therefore, economic problems of every kind started, from the inability to set salaries in line with the real income of clubs, to the inability to maintain long-lasting relationships with sponsors. In addition, the bonuses which were guaranteed to the clubs depending on their performance in the championship led to growing corruption, which erupted in one of the worst scandals in football in the 21st century (something which caused an even greater flight by sponsors).
In more recent times China has been taking forward a new football development programme, with the launch of the Chinese Soccer Dream of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping as part of the much broader economic development programme called the Chinese Dream.
Xi’s Chinese Soccer Dream aims to succeed, in coming years, in developing Chinese football to the point of ensuring that China manages to win at least one FIFA World Cup and is able to stand as a power in football too, after being such from an economic viewpoint in recent years.