S ergio Agüero may be one of the greatest strikers of his generation, but he won an even rarer accolade in 2015, when he became the first – and last – Premier League footballer to take a selfie with Xi Jinping, China’s football-loving leader.
The photo, taken at Manchester City’s stadium – with then prime minister David Cameron – comes from an era when Xi was fostering warm relations with the UK and pushing China to become a world football superpower by 2050, both ambitions that seem distant possibilities today.
In 2016, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) unveiled a plan to build 70,000 football pitches and get 50 million people playing the game by 2020. Xi also said he wanted China to host the World Cup. But by 2021 just shy of 27,000 pitches had been built, and the government’s enthusiasm for the sport seemed to be waning. Now a corruption scandal threatens to derail China’s beautiful game even further, just as stadiums start to reopen after the pandemic lockdowns.
It started in November, when Li Tie, one of China’s most famous football figures, disappeared. Li, a former Everton player, had coached the men’s national team. The Chinese authorities said he was being investigated for suspected “serious violations of the law”.