Beijing, 1978

Deng Xiaoping has a decision to make. Since the death of Mao Zedong two years ago, Deng has been busy outmanoeuvring his political rivals, finally emerging as the de facto leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and by virtue of that, China as a whole. With his own position now secure, he has more pressing issues to deal with: China is in crisis. Still reeling from a generation of Mao's capricious rule, the country is starving. The chaos unleashed by the Cultural Revolution, a mass purge of Mao's enemies — real and perceived — has not been forgotten. How could it be, when barely a man or woman in all of China was left unaffected by the brutality?

But Deng has a dangerously simple idea to cure his country's woes. Almost 60 years earlier, while still a teenager, he travelled to France to work and study. Living in France, Deng joined the local Communist Party, but began to reach different conclusions when it came to his homeland and what would make China great. If China were to catch up with the West, Deng supposed, first it needed to learn from the West. And where better to start than the West's two greatest exports: capitalism and football?

So, more than half a century later, Deng is finally in a position to implement what he learnt in Europe all those years ago. He proposes a series of reforms: decollectivise farming, giving individuals the power to sell their excess produce for profit. Begin to denationalise some industry to increase production. Encourage foreign investment in the country as a way of stimulating trade. And for only the second time —the other being for the 1958 World Cup — enter a Chinese national football team into World Cup qualifying.

China don't qualify for Spain 82, losing 2-1 to New Zealand in a play-off in Singapore after the two countries finish level on points and goal difference in their group. But Deng's great 'opening up' of China produces more immediate, economic successes. Within a few years, China no longer needs to import food to feed its population.

As wealth increases throughout the eighties, more and more people move to the cities. Beijing grows into an unwieldy metropolis. Televisions become commonplace in households and with it a new generation of Chinese grows up watching football. Many support Liverpool, a team with appeal beyond their success — like China, they play in red.

Their new fans cheer enthusiastically — with a new found confidence, even — for their adopted team. China survived its century of humiliation at the hands of the colonial powers. It survived Mao too. Now with an economy growing at an unprecedented rate, dragging millions out of poverty, people across the country are daring to dream of a future in which China takes its place alongside the world's great powers, both on and off the football pitch.

Beijing, 2008

Something's wrong, but no-one's quite sure exactly what. The 90,000 strong crowd in Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium are hushed in a confused silence. Liu Xiang's long march to a second 110m hurdles gold began the moment he crossed the finish line four years ago in Athens, instantly becoming a national hero, the national hero. Victory in front of his adoring fans will be the defining moment of the Beijing Olympics. So why the hell is he walking off the track?

It must be some mistake. A false start isn't unexpected in a sprint heat, all you need to do is return to your blocks for the restart. But Liu is heading out of the stadium clutching his leg. The defence of his gold medal hasn't even reached the first hurdle.

The crowd begins to stir. Some jeer, others burst into tears. Within minutes the recriminations begin not just in the stadium but across China. "We cannot accept that Liu Xiang quits! Liu Xiang dispels the passion of Chinese people," reads a government blog posted minutes after his withdrawal. Others propose conspiracy theories: Liu's sponsors were demanding too much of his time, he wasn't focused on preparations.

Liu himself appears publicly the next day. His coach is in tears next to him. "So many people have been worried and caring about me. I feel sorry," says Liu. "I could do nothing but pull out of the race."

Why should any of this matter? China aren't struggling for gold medals elsewhere. By the end of the Games, the country will top the medal table with 51 golds. And it's not even as though these Olympic Games are about medals anyway. That China has put on the most visually stunning, perfectly choreographed Olympic Games in history has made the main point: China is back at the world's top table.

Yet as the days after Liu's withdrawal turn into weeks and the Olympic flame is extinguished, something still nags. China didn't win a single medal in men's track and field; even the Japanese managed one. The women fared little better with two bronzes. And the football team! Well, the less said about that the better.

Sure, China topped the medal table, but most of its medals came in fringe events: shooting, diving, weightlifting. Just as those critics were arguing that China's economic growth was without true foundation, a product of artificial exchange rates and government interference, so some dissenters began to question China's sporting achievements, in spite of the hefty medal haul.

Six weeks before the Beijing Olympics, China recorded an impressive 1-0 win against Australia in Sydney in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. The only problem? The game was a dead rubber, China already eliminated.

Could China really claim to be a sporting superpower while crashing out of the World Cup two years before the main event, at the same stage as Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Syria? It couldn't say it didn't care; China was home to hundreds of millions of football fans. And anyway, that other world superpower that 'didn't care' about football still managed at least to qualify on a regular basis.

So as the world departed from Beijing, amid the fanfare lingered a sense that there was still something left to prove. National pride — the importance of which might only be appreciated by those who have experienced a recent history as tumultuous as China's — had not been restored quite yet, but maybe football was the place to start trying to put that right.

First some questions needed answering: why could China win 51 gold medals at an Olympic Games but not get anywhere near the World Cup? How hard could it be to find 11 decent footballers among a population of 1.3 billion? And could it be that China's new-found wealth was actually hindering the development of football in the country?

This is the story of Deng Xiaoping's China; how one man's vision transformed a country from failed state to global superpower, but — despite all his efforts — left it trailing behind on the football pitch.

It seems strange that the man who laid the foundations for the most remarkable transformation in modern economic history was unable to fix Chinese football. Perhaps building economies is easier than building football teams. 

Deng fell in love with the sport while living in Paris. He moved to the city as a teenager in search of adventure. When it hosted the 1924 Olympic Games, Deng was an impoverished student, but scraped together any money he could find to attend the football tournament. It was won by a magnificent Uruguay team that would go on to lift the inaugural World Cup six years later. Although Deng never specified the games he attended, he could very well have been part of the 45,000 crowd packed into the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir to watch Uruguay dismantle the hosts 5-1 in the quarter-finals. It was the type of display to spark a lifelong passion.

China did not participate in the 1924 Games — from the fall of the Qing Dynasty 12 years earlier to the establishment of the People's Republic under the Communists in 1949, invasions and civil wars all but precluded international participation of any note. It wasn't until 1957, under Mao, that China first entered a team into World Cup qualifying, going out to Indonesia on goal average after a play-off in Burma finished 0-0. By then Deng was one of China's most senior leaders, a confidante of Mao and the man in charge of the country's sports policy.

Deng was devastated by the defeat. It had been his idea to enter the World Cup, a way of reaching out to the international community. He personally visited the national team on several occasions during the 1950s. With the civil war behind them, he not only believed this was the moment for Chinese resurgence, but that football was a way to show off China's newfound independence to the world.

On one visit to the national team in 1952, just three years after the revolution, he commented that he hoped China would soon become an excellent side. But by the end of the decade optimism had been replaced by frustration. "Football is my favourite game," Deng said, "but when I watch China play, I feel like I'm suffocating."

It was an apt simile. Deng wasn't the only person in China who felt like he was suffocating. As the fifties gave way to the sixties, so the optimism of the revolution turned into the choking reality of life under Mao's cult of personality.

After a series of failed attempts to kick-start China's faltering economy, Mao1fearing for his own position, launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He mobilised China's rural youth against anyone or anything that might be considered a threat. Teachers were murdered, property seized from those deemed to own too much, religious and historical sites pillaged. Millions were killed.

Deng, ever the pragmatist, suggested an alternative to the chaos: reform China's economy to encourage growth. But Mao had chosen his path and, even as a long-time ally, Deng was not immune from the persecution. He was condemned as a capitalist sympathiser and, in 1969, purged and sent to work as an ordinary labourer at a tractor factory in the remote countryside of Jiangxi. His family was also targeted, the Maoist Red Guards torturing and defenestrating his son, who is still confined to a wheelchair.

Yet Deng's fall from favour was matched only by the speed of his unexpected return. By the mid-seventies, with the true horror of the Cultural Revolution only beginning to become clear, a politically-weakened Mao allowed Deng back into a senior position. When Mao died in 1976 and voices within the Party began calling for reform, Deng's objections to collectivism — the same objections that had got him purged and crippled his son just a few years earlier — now played in his favour.

Among the confusion and power-wrangling post-Mao, it took a football match to secure his place as leader of China. In the summer of 1977, Deng made his first public appearance since being exiled seven years earlier at Beijing's Workers' Stadium during a match between a Chinese youth team and Hong Kong. As the loudspeaker announced his arrival, the crowd burst into a spontaneous standing ovation.

The significance of the crowd's reaction cannot be underestimated. With no clear successor to Mao yet emerging, as Deng accepted the applause he must have considered that this was the moment to make his move. The show of raucous public support — rare at a football match in China at the time, where crowds usually watched on in near silence — proved that Deng had the support of the ordinary Chinese worker. Within a year, he was leader of China.

Hong Kong, 1997

Fireworks erupt over Victoria Harbour but not many people in Hong Kong are celebrating. Certainly not Prince Charles, aboard the HM Yacht Britannia as it sails away from the neon skyscrapers and into the South China Sea. This wasn't how it was supposed to be — another piece of the Empire gone before he's even on the throne. After more than 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong has been returned to China. Charles scrawls in his diary, "The Great Chinese Takeaway."

This was the moment that Deng had worked so tirelessly for throughout the 1980s. He'd met with Margaret Thatcher to negotiate the return and attempted to allay Hong Kongers' fears by guaranteeing that their way of life would not be altered for at least 50 years. He called the compromise "one country, two systems"; it had been formulated initially during discussions with the International Olympic Committee as a way of justifying Taiwan and China competing at the Olympics under separate flags, despite China's persistent claims that the island is rightfully theirs2.

Deng's determination to see Hong Kong returned to China was made all the more resolute by an incident in 1985. As soon as Deng had become China's paramount leader in 1978, he moved quickly to improve the country's football team. That year overtures were made towards the FA in an attempt to persuade the England team to tour China. When England failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup the proposal collapsed, but an unlikely compromise was struck — West Bromwich Albion would instead embark on a four match tour of the country.

The tour was captured by the BBC for the documentary Albion in the Orient. The footage includes the team, managed by Ron Atkinson, visiting the Great Wall where an unimpressed John Trewick muses that, "Once you've seen one wall, you've seen them all."

After narrowly missing out on qualification for Spain 82, Deng was confident that China would qualify for its maiden World Cup in 1986. They topped their first-round qualifying group going into the final game, requiring only a draw against Hong Kong in Beijing to progress.

Everything was set up for a huge celebration. The Workers' Stadium was packed — 80,000 football fans expecting China's passage into Asia's final World Cup qualifying round. The game also held added personal significance for Deng: it was in this very stadium eight years earlier, also during a match between China and Hong Kong,that he had first dared to believe he could lead his country.

Although China had only managed a 0-0 draw in Hong Kong, they had won all their other games convincingly, notching up 22 goals without reply in the process. Needing just a single point, few believed China wouldn't get it. But Hong Kong shocked China early on, taking the lead 19 minutes in through a Cheung Chi Tak free-kick. China responded well and equalised on the half hour. With the score at 1-1, China were heading through.

Hong Kong opened up in the second half, in search of the most unlikely of winners. Then it happened, defender Ku Kam Fai popping up with the goal that would silence the 80,000 crammed into the Workers' Stadium. Not that they would stay silent for long. At full-time the angry crowd took to the streets, rampaging through Beijing in what would be remembered by its date, 19 May 1985, as the 519 incident. Deng's own disappointment soon turned to anger and armed police were sent in to quell the riot. 

Had the rioters known China would have to wait another 17 years to play at a World Cup, things might have been even worse.

So as Prince Charles sails out of Hong Kong and Ku Kam Fai raises a wry smile remembering that night 12 years ago, 2000km north in Beijing government officials celebrate. Many gather in the Workers' Stadium, which hosts an exhibition marking the handover. But as the party goes on into the night, there are just two regrets. Firstly, that "one country, two systems" means that China hasn't fully regained control of Hong Kong. In fact not a great deal changes; Hong Kong retains its Fifa recognised football team, hoping one day to repeat the heroics of the 519 team.

And the second regret? That despite a lifetime of struggle for this moment, the moment that China might put years of colonial humiliation and civil strife behind them, Deng Xiaoping had died five months earlier. He never saw China at a World Cup.

Gwangju, South Korea, 2002

This is the moment that 170 million people have bought TV sets for. As the players line up for the national anthems, particularly enthusiastic cheers go up in households across China when the camera pans past Li Tie and Sun Jihai. From next season, China's best two players will turn out for Everton and Manchester City respectively.

People are realistic. Chinese football fans know their team won't win this World Cup, but it barely matters. The most important thing is that they are here, finally, and that they don't embarrass themselves. The last part shouldn't be a problem: China's opening game in eminently winnable, against the World Cup's customary Concacaf whipping boys, this time Costa Rica.

The circumstances are far from ideal. Few have paid much attention to China in the build-up to the World Cup. Instead the focus has been on Japan and South Korea — the old enemies — but then they are hosting the event. Still, what does that matter? China are at a World Cup!

Deng is no longer around to watch but the country is feeling his impact more than ever. For one thing, those 170 million televisions have been bought by people who would never have dreamed of affording such a thing a few years earlier. Most of them have been manufactured in the country as well; since China was finally admitted to the World Trade Organisation last year the country has cemented its place as the world's leading exporter.

As Yiyongjun Jinxingqu ("The March of the Volunteers") plays in Gwangju, it is clear that the Chinese team appreciate the weight of the moment. The defender Fan Zhiyi, recently transferred to Dundee, sings along, hand on heart. The goalkeeper Jiang Jin lets out a roar. On the bench, the Serbian coach Bora Milutinović smiles nervously

It takes just 61 minutes for the dream to be dashed, the ball falling to Rónald Gómez who side-foots in from the edge of the area. It is to be the first of nine goals China concede in their three matches. 

They don't score any and return home disgraced. China haven't come close to a World Cup since.

Beijing, 2009

Phil Brown is enjoying a well-earned pint, sitting in Danger Doyle's, an Irish pub in the centre of Beijing. Just a few months ago, it didn't feel like he'd be here — China! — preparing his Hull City side for a second season in the Premier League. Double training sessions along the Humber seemed more likely, ready for a trip down the road to Barnsley next season. But Newcastle capitulated, Hull survived and now Brown is dreaming of what might be possible next season.

He can barely believe his luck. Surely China is where big clubs go for their pre-season? Where Real Madrid and Internazionale and Manchester United tour, picking up millions of fans — is it even hundreds of millions of fans? — along the way. Where shirt sales alone will buy you a Champions League-ready squad. Where billionaire tycoons lurk around every corner, just waiting to buy your club. China! Phil Brown has taken Hull City to China.

But just like the fake iPhones or Louis Vuitton handbags being hawked down the road, not everything in this country is as it seems. As he gazes out of the window, just across the street he sees the Workers' Stadium, where his Hull City team have just beaten Beijing Guo'an on penalties in the Barclays Asia Trophy. The Workers' Stadium is known as Gong Tiby the locals. It is a heartless piece of brutalist architecture. A rickety, sprawling stadium with about as much atmosphere as the moon which inexplicably continues to be used despite the sparkling new Bird's Nest Olympic stadium lying vacant down the road3

The Workers' Stadium was one of the Ten Great Buildings, part of an initiative undertaken by Mao and the Communists in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their takeover of China. It was hoped that the construction of vast public works would not only elevate the status of Beijing but also help spur on the Great Leap Forward, Mao's attempt to fast-track China's global economic rise during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

To say the Great Leap Forward did not go to plan would be an understatement. Between 1958 and 1962, as historian Frank Dikotter put it, "China descended into hell." Mao, by this time drunk on power, introduced initiatives on whim. He famously called on all Chinese peasants to kill sparrows, on the grounds that they ate grain and robbed people of the fruits of their hard labour. But as sparrow populations dwindled, so locust populations increased, no longer kept in check by their main predator. The locust swarms grew, destroying crops across the country. Millions starved.

But this was more systematic than ill-advised. "Revolution is no dinner party," as Mao himself said, and of course there would be casualties on the path to his communist utopia. An estimated 2.5 million dissenters were murdered, many tortured to death. Others were deliberately deprived of food for being too old, too educated, too anything. By the time this murderous imbroglio of neglect, incompetence and state-sponsored killing — Mao's Great Leap Forward — was abandoned, it had killed something like 45 million people.

Yet the Workers' Stadium remains and as Phil Brown glances across the street perhaps he feels an affinity with it. Perhaps he senses that in a few months time, Hull's own Great Leap Forward will have cost him his job. Premier League football did not come cheaply and with debts mounting he knows that anything less than a repeat of last season's survival will be disastrous for the club. Because this is what happens when the pursuit of growth is put above everything else. It becomes unsustainable and eventually ends up killing the thing you wanted to grow in the first place.

So as Phil Brown looks at the Workers' Stadium, occasionally interrupted by an expat asking for an autograph, perhaps he starts to wonder whether Hull City in Beijing is such a good idea. He watches the final trickle of fans returning home after the match. And a trickle is all it is. Just 15,000 fans showed up to watch Hull's victory. Even fewer will show up in two days time to see his team lose 3-0 to Spurs in the final. The Workers' Stadium — Mao's Workers' Stadium — was barely a quarter full.

During the fiasco of the Premier League's proposed 39th game one of the more nuanced arguments against the proposal ignored what the extra game might mean for domestic fans or the integrity of the league and instead focused on its financial viability. Given that the idea of the 39th game seemed wholly driven by money, it was a clever tactic. The argument went as follows: sure, Manchester United versus Liverpool will go down a storm in New York but is anyone going to turn out to watch Hull City versus Wigan in Kuala Lumpur?

Hull's visit to Beijing in 2009 suggested not. It also hinted at a reason why China have struggled to build upon their sole World Cup appearance in 2002 despite the remarkable economic development during this period.

Talk to a young Chinese football fan and they will enthuse about Manchester United or Barcelona; ask them about their national team or which Chinese club they support and they will likely go quiet. More worryingly, ask them if they'd like a kick-about at the weekend and they will probably tell you they are busy.

When European clubs look at China, an equation flashes before their eyes. It generally includes some of the following inputs: second largest economy on earth, population of 1.3 billion, hundreds of millions of football fans, increasing disposable income. What it generally excludes is any understanding of China's history or its society.

This is a country where the nature of support is different. The British ideal of the loyal fan supporting a team of no-hopers through thin and thinner does not apply. Instead Deng's 'opening up' of China has turned it into a society where success is paramount and failure, even when combined with heroic effort, is rarely respected.

Football is suffering from this mentality for a number of reasons. For one, people are giving up on the sport. Walk around Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou and you are more likely to see kids playing basketball than football, even more so than five or six years ago. Why? Because Chinese basketball has had success stories, most notably Yao Ming who became a top player in the NBA. There is no similar precedent for football.

As a result, kids who display talent at a young age are not generally encouraged to pursue a career in football. What prospects are there for a Chinese footballer, the thinking goes, when the sport is in such disarray in the country? Instead young people are told to focus on their schoolwork; with the economy growing at the rate it is, study hard and there is every chance you will be rewarded with a well-paid job.

People often ask how a country with such a massive population cannot find at least a few decent players. Buteven if millions across China would call themselves football fans, football is not a sport people actually play. In fact, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) itself estimates that only 100,000 teenagers across the entire country are involved in any form of organised football. (Exact equivalent figures are hard to come by, but roughly 3million adults regularly play football in the UK, the population of which is around a twentieth of that of China.) 

Even for those who are keen to play, there is no established grassroots structure through which talent can rise. The CFA does not even have a department for amateur football. Such an approach is typical of the wider distrust the Chinese government has for grassroots organisations. A top-down approach has brought success to China in many fields and kept the country united for more than 60 years — no mean feat given its past.

It has also worked in other sports, notably those at the Olympics. By plucking promising athletes at a young age and providing specialised central training in more obscure sports, China has converted population and economic advantages into sporting success. Yet the approach struggles against the depth of worldwide competition provided by football. Perhaps more so than any other sport, world-class footballers are created from the bottom, not the top. They are rarely anomalies either. For every world-class player, there almost always exists another 10 solid internationals, a few hundred professionals, a million or more playing on a muddy pitch every Sunday morning.

Is there an answer to China's football problem? Yes, but it is one unlikely to be pursued any time soon. Instead of investing in the grassroots structure needed to encourage growth, China's billionaires have started to throw money at ageing stars looking for a final big payday. Some will argue that Nicholas Anelka's move to Shanghai Shenhua might inspire a new generation to take up the sport. Others will point out that his £270,000 a week salary would be better spent building pitches on which people can actually play.

Even a recent government crackdown on corruption in football will do little to get people out and playing. When trust is lost, it can only be rebuilt from the bottom, not by government declarations that football is now clean.

With the right organisation general Olympic success can be bought, but football is different. It must grow organically, with governments only lending support where it is needed. Even while lurching from Mao's forced collectivism to Deng's open economy in little over 30 years, one thing has remained constant: the unquestionable control of central power. Unless the government learns to let go, to allow people more space to breathe, then watching China play football will always feel like suffocating.

Beijing, 1990

There may not be an individual who played a greater role in forging the modern world than Deng Xiaoping, although even he probably never envisaged the pace and extent of China's rise.

By 1990, Deng had retired from senior politics, just in time to settle down to watch Italia 90 that summer. In an interview in 2004 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, Deng's younger sister Xianqun revealed that her brother had watched all but two of the 52 matches of the 1990 World Cup. "He could then visit places as freely as he liked," she said. "What's more, he could spend more time watching football."

Lin, Deng's eldest daughter, spoke of how her father would become irritated when told the score of games he had recorded. "He tried to watch them live," she said. "Those he could not, he asked his son Pufang to record. He did not let us tell him the result, as it was less exciting if he knew the final score."

As Deng watches the tournament unfold he has time to reflect on his career. Just the previous summer, in his final act as leader of China, he had ordered the army to clear Tiananmen Square of pro-democracy protesters using whatever force was necessary. Deng had learnt a thing or two about the danger of an unruly crowd four years earlier when that mob rampaged through Beijing following China's 519 defeat to Hong Kong.

He told himself that his actions were justified; that he had done what was needed to keep China united. Let the protesters get their way, and before long China would once again descend into hell. All that progress wasted. The prospect of another Mao, or even worse? He couldn't let that happen.

Yet as he watches another World Cup — China as ever conspicuous by their absence — he can't help but think that the players on the television are the same age as those students massacred on his orders in Tiananmen the previous year.

Halfway around the world another elder statesman of international affairs is also watching the World Cup. Henry Kissinger met Deng on several occasions, describing him as the "doughty man with the melancholy eyes". Both share a love of football.

Four years earlier, Kissinger wrote a preview of the 1986 World Cup for the LA Times. He made the point that communist nations had consistently underperformed at World Cups, the USSR only once progressing beyond the quarter-finals. "Too much stereotyped planning destroys the creativity indispensable for effective soccer," he posited.

Was this why Chinese football was not improving? Had Deng picked the right path for his country? Could he still visit the national team as he had back in the 1950s? Who scored that marvellous goal for Uruguay at the Paris Olympics all those years ago? Were there to be other unforeseen consequences to his 'opening up' of China? Would he ever see his country at a World Cup?

But this is too much to think about for Deng, who by now is an elderly man. So with a shake of the head he gets up to insert a VHS of the next match.