A Chinese boy leaps up to head the ball during training at the Evergrande International Football School in Guangdong Province. Driven by the dreams of the country’s president, officials have scrambled to fix the dismal state of the sport in China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

For years, soccer in China has been a source of national embarrassment. It is the sport Chinese often care about most but also one that infuriates them most. For years, the most impressive ability of the men’s team has been its knack of finding new ways to disappoint.

Then came President Xi Jinping.

Before he even took office, Xi made clear his love of the game. Explaining his personal ambitions for China in 2011, he listed three, all soccer-related: To qualify for soccer’s World Cup, to host the event and, finally, one day to win it.

Since then, Xi has quickly become China’s most powerful and feared leader in decades. And now, officials from the central government to the lowliest provinces are falling over themselves to demonstrate their own love for soccer and to find ways of improving their country’s play.

In just the past few months, a high-level government working group has been set up to tackle the problem. Officials have declared soccer a compulsory part of the national curriculum. About 20,000 soccer-themed schools are to open by 2017, with the goal of producing more than 100,000 players. Study-abroad programs have been rolled out, as well as initiatives to lure 35 international stars to China in the next year.

Rumors have even circulated of a secret plan for soccer reform from the State Council, China’s equivalent of a presidential cabinet.

All the attention and angst, of course, is about something bigger than soccer. To many here, the sorry state of Chinese soccer embodies all the problems and insoluble paradoxes China and its leader face.

To compete globally, China needs innovation and creativity, and yet the Communist Party insists on top-down obedience and conformity by edict.

Its government is hopelessly riddled with graft (a problem to which Xi has responded with the most ruthless anti-corruption campaigns in modern history).

Runaway growth has afforded China resources, including money to plow into soccer development, foreign coaches and trainers, but the country has yet to figure out how to sustain that growth without creating more problems.

Soccer, in other words, taps into deep Chinese insecurities that — no matter what great leaps the country has made or grudging deference it has earned through economic or military might — China remains an inferior power.

As an editorial in China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper framed it: Dreams have power, and the constant jarring reality of Chinese football threatens nothing less than the Chinese ability to dream of a more powerful nation.

China's Zheng Zhi, right, battles for the ball during the Asia Cup match in Australia. In the past three decades, China’s men’s team has made it into the World Cup tournament only once. (Tertius Pickard/AP)
Perennially losing

Most Chinese believe soccer was invented here, citing records from the 3rd century B.C. of a sport involving a hair-filled leather kickball.

To understand why soccer and its constant defeating sting are so deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche, you have to understand the country’s past, says Xu Guoqi, a Harvard-educated historian at the University of Hong Kong.

First, take into account centuries of feelings of emasculation at the hands of Western powers and the Japanese. (Curiously, the national hand-wringing mainly involves the men’s team; the women’s team often performs well to little fanfare.)

“For decades, Chinese interest in sports as a whole has not been about personal joy or pleasure but about politics,” Xu said. “It’s seen as a path to ruling legitimacy, geopolitical standing, projection of power.”

So just how bad is China’s soccer? Late last year, the men’s team was ranked 97th — a few spots behind the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda (population 90,000) and not far ahead of northern Europe’s Faroe Islands (population 49,500).

In the past three decades, China’s men’s team has made it into the quadrennial World Cup tournament only once (in 2002, when the team quietly exited without scoring a single goal).

Anger over China’s perennial failures has incited riots — notable in a country where protests are illegal and met with brutal force. Fearful of that rage, the national team has at times posted online apologies after particularly bad games.

Its most ignominious was perhaps a 2013 loss to Thailand’s weak and even lower-ranked team. A Chinese mob afterward blocked the team bus from leaving and shouted obscenities at the players. A full-fledged riot soon ensued, in which at least 100 were injured.

Contributing factors

The puzzling thing is that China has all the necessary ingredients for a strong team, including a nationwide love for the sport and a vast population (1.4 billion) from which to draw talent.

Several new policies are intended at widening that pool. The 20,000 existing elementary, middle and high schools chosen nationwide for renovation into soccer-focused institutions will receive soccer fields, coaches and extensive funding and training. Few details have been released about the new curriculum and what may be sacrificed to make room for soccer during the day.

Advanced students will be sent to overseas campuses that China is setting up in Spain and the Netherlands.

In Beijing, soccer will even be added to the mandatory high school entrance exams, and every school will be required to include soccer in its physical education.

There is precedent for government-orchestrated success. When, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, sports mattered politically, China’s Soviet-era methods netted a record haul of gold medals.

As a game, however, soccer works quite differently, many believe. For all the sport’s deep-seated problems, it is still much harder to rig, train or even dope your way to a championship. It is a social sport that requires both teamwork and individual creativity.

Some blame Chinese society, given how few parents in China’s competitive education system will allow their children to spend precious study hours kicking a ball.

Others point to pervasive corruption among Chinese soccer officials.

A few sports analysts blame the political system. Speaking anonymously for fear of being known to have criticized the Communist Party, the analysts point out that few authoritarian or dictatorial countries have ever found success at the World Cup.

Doomed by success?

Xi’s public enthusiasm for soccer feeds into an everyman image that he has cultivated since he took power in late 2012 — a stark departure from China’s traditionally wooden leaders.

It comes with few risks — if Chinese soccer continues to fail, who can blame Xi? The upside, however, is infinite.

“It would mean leadership, legacy,” said Xu, the historian. “Xi is an ambitious man. If he pulls this off, he would be the hero of China.”

There already are glimmers of the pandemonium such success would bring.

Last month at the Asian Cup, China somehow won three games in a row. Although the team made it only to the quarterfinals, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency called it a “fairy-tale run.” The players were hailed as heroes.

Some on Chinese social media said they were moved to tears. One blogger summed up the moment this way: “I can now die with no regrets.”

And party officials, of course, leapt to take credit. The anti-corruption agency Xi has unleashed upon thousands of terrified government officials declared it a direct result of its watchful eye on soccer officials.

When asked about this scramble to bask in Chinese soccer’s newfound glory, Ma Dexing sighed deeply. As deputy editor in chief of the popular sports magazine Titan, Ma has a distinctly different theory about the recent wins.

For years, China’s team has been performing so poorly that officials were reluctant to wreck their careers by becoming involved with it.

That brief respite from constant, misguided top-down management, Ma believes, is what has most helped improve Chinese soccer.

Ironically, he worries, the team’s recent success — combined with the sudden upsurge of government interest — spells only one thing for Chinese soccer: doom.

“The level of Chinese soccer is actually not that bad,” he insists. The problem is everything else that comes with it.

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.