What’s the Matter With Chinese Football?
Type in “China football why bad” on Google and a slew of answers quickly present themselves. Among the first hits are news articles detailing sex scandals, corruption prosecutions, and lopsided game losses. There aren’t a lot mentioning victories.
The question remains why?
Message boards are full of theories—mostly ignorant or racist—that don’t hold up on close examination: If Chinese people are too short, Pele and Maradonna have some explaining to do. If China’s developing country status is to blame, then Brazil and most African countries should be doomed to failure. If a certain national apathy toward the sport were the cause, the US shouldn’t be qualifying either.
Rather the problem seems largely to be the way sport is organized in the country. Sports where China does well—swimming, hurdling, and gymnastics for example—are heavily state-directed. Students are selected early and groomed for athletic success. Football is not among the sports that received a great deal of government largess.
In many countries there exist competitive and thriving professional football associations. These teams develop players over years. China’s Super League (CSL), however, is a shambles, currently under investigation for massive corruption. So far over twenty people—including many league executives—have been arrested for game-fixing and gambling. Apparently, entire teams were co-opted by criminal organizations and induced to take dives.
And, although it may be something of a chicken or the egg question, even if these institutions were running smoothly, the society at large is not focused on the sport (and sports in general) with the same enthusiasm as elsewhere. Football remains the most broadcast sport on CCTV5, but talk to Chinese children about which sports they enjoy and the answer will typically be ping pong and basketball. The former has long been popular and the latter has an internationally famous player to look to.
Nor are sports looked on as a legitimate career path to pursue. From a young age students are pressured to focus on their academics and prepare for the grueling and decisive test that awaits. Non-academic extra-curriculars are kept to a minimum in China. Inter-school athletics are negligible. School life does not revolve around athletics as it often does in the States. A kid with a passion for football just won’t find the same degree of family and community support as he would in Europe and elsewhere.
Finally, there is the simple fact that the Chinese team just isn’t that good. It’s in the same division as Japan, North Korea, and South Korea, all of which field competitive teams. China has won against major national teams in “friendlies”—it’s only the qualifying matches where success consistently alludes them. When they last made it to the World Cup in 2002, they failed to secure a single goal in three games.
In the following years the team has not faired much better. Besides losing when it counts, they have developed a bad reputation for thugishness—Tan Wangsong kicking a Belgian player square in the crotch during the Beijing games led a fan to quip that, although the team had failed to medal in football, they’d won “a medal in martial arts.” Similarly, the thirty-man melee between the Queen’s Park Rangers and China’s under-23 team in 2007 did nothing to soften the image.
All is not lost of course. Bad as they have since performed, the Chinese did make it into the World Cup only 8 years ago and the women’s team was in the 1999 finals. In sheer numbers, China commands the world’s largest football fan base. Perhaps a great Chinese player will emerge to inspire youths to play more and encourage parents to cheer them on. Or perhaps hosting the games will become the next big national ambition now that the Olympics are past and the Expo is nearing its close; such a moment on the international stage might spur the country to finally achieve.
In the meantime, however, China lags behind the competitors and pin-pointing the precise cause will doubtless remain a topic of barroom debate for years to come.