SHANGHAI — SOCCER coach Xu Genbao says China is edging toward professionalism and a free market in sports.
In December, the former star player launched a soccer club that he considers the forerunner of professional sports in China. Although underwritten by a conglomerate with interests in real estate, transportation, and communications, the Shanghai Shenhua Soccer Club is legally independent, signs its own players, is responsible for its own profits and losses, and plans to start its own self-funding businesses.
That's a departure from the sports norm in China. Ever since China returned to international competition after the launch of economic reforms 15 years ago, soccer teams have been controlled and subsidized by the now cash-strapped government.
But unlike the country's success in swimming, track, and table tennis, men's soccer has been a flop. Although Chinese women have done admirably over the years in international competition, the men's national soccer team has been an acute embarrassment and was eliminated early from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.
Mr. Xu, the former head of the national team who quit after Chinese officials hired a German coach, says soccer's mass appeal and commercial potential make it the ideal foundation for pro sports here. Still, Chinese soccer won't become an international contender until clubs are economically independent and can cultivate their own players through a network of soccer schools and junior teams, the coach says.
``Looking down the road, it's impossible for the state to continue to finance soccer,'' Xu predicts. He began playing soccer as a boy in the narrow streets of Shanghai and became one of China's best-known players.
``This will be a very major structural change if we can finance the club from our own businesses,'' he says. ``The condition for survival of Chinese soccer is to upgrade our skills. Otherwise, spectators won't be interested.''
In a country starved for exciting soccer, many Chinese have been eagerly following the World Cup. Chinese newspapers printed special supplements and sponsored soccer quizzes. The official English-language China Daily reported that 100 million Chinese - the world's largest soccer audience - were expected to tune in to matches, including those televised live in the predawn hours here.
China has never qualified for the World Cup finals, much to the unhappiness of soccer fans here. International sports competitions elicit a fierce nationalism. China, not content to sit on the sidelines, is bidding to host the World Cup finals in 2002, and in the last year has moved to raise the national profile of soccer.
In August 1992, the China Football Association established a Chinese Professional Soccer Club and designated Shanghai, Beijing, and 10 other cities to host teams. The association has sold broadcasting rights to China Central Television for $65,000 and signed a $1.2 million sponsorship agreement with an American cigarette company.
China now has more than 20 professional and semiprofessional soccer clubs, funded by government sports commissions, state-run enterprises, and even some foreign joint ventures. About 650 professional soccer players participate.
To improve teams and attract more spectators, China also has turned to other countries for help. Chinese teams are allowed to hire up to three foreign players each, and teams are recruiting actively in Russia. The Russians earn up to $1,000 per month, compared with $460 a month for Chinese players, whose pay is still 20 times the average for urban Chinese. Twenty-two young Chinese players, sponsored by a local soft-drink company, are undergoing a five-year training program in Brazil. Officials hope they will form the core of a Chinese team for the 2000 Olympics and the World Cup two years later.
After China failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, officials of the China Football Association hired German coach Klaus Schlappner in 1992 with the sponsorship of Volkswagen's joint venture in China. Mr. Schlappner's arrival raised expectations that China could turn around its soccer fortunes. It also pushed aside Xu, then coach of the national team, and made him No. 2.
``I felt I was second string. But even so, I thought the German coach had his good points, and that I should learn from him,'' Xu says.
But when China once again failed to make the World Cup last summer, and Schlappner stayed on as coach, Xu quit. ``The performance of the German coach was poor, even compared with the Chinese coaches,'' he says. Having second thoughts, soccer officials replaced the German coach with a Chinese earlier this year.
Courted by officials from his native Shanghai, Xu decided to return to launch a new kind of soccer club, one that would not only attract funding and endorsements from Chinese and overseas businesses, but also would start its own companies with an eye to becoming self-sufficient and able to bid for top soccer talent.
To impose better discipline and stir enthusiasm among players, Xu plans to give bonuses for good play and national tournament victories - and to levy fines for contract violations.
His pet project is the so-called ``Zero-Two Club,'' a youth team and training center geared to readying a new generation of Chinese soccer champions for the World Cup in 2002. He hopes to fund the training program through proceeds from new companies, although he declines to reveal his plans.
``To develop soccer in China, you have to focus on youths,'' Xu says. ``If I succeed in this endeavor, it will be a breakthrough in China.''