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A missed goal for Chinese sports

The state sports system has produced the world’s best gymnasts and divers, but competitive team events like soccer lag behind.

By Correspondent / August 13, 2008


Six days into the Games, no one doubts that China has arrived as a global sporting power – not least the US Olympians chasing it in gold medals.

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On the soccer field, though, the pacesetters look very different. Both nations went out of the tournament Wednesday, the Chinese losing 3-0 to Brazil; the US, 2-1 to Nigeria.

While soccer has long lagged behind other sports in the US, the game is hugely popular in China. But by ignoring amateur competition and pouring money instead into national squads, China is unlikely to translate that enthusiasm into world-class soccer. Its elite sports system, which has churned out many individual golds, seems to be no match in competitive team events like soccer.

“Government investment or corporate investment doesn’t do it. You need a grass-roots tradition. You need people playing from the time that they’re really young. You don’t have that in China,” says Susan Brownell, an anthropologist and a visiting scholar at Beijing Sports University.

The education system, which stresses grades, not sports, feeds the problem. The China Football Association has failed to promote the game and has fired national coaches after every disappointing result: Its Olympics team has burned through five since 2003.

“You need teamwork to pull together. But if the coach doesn’t know the players, it’s hard to carry out his [coaching] philosophy in the match,” says Ren Hai, director of the Olympics Studies Center at Beijing Sports University.

(China’s women’s team has shown more international promise, although competition for women is less fierce.)

Then there’s China’s scandal-tainted professional league, which launched in 1993 but has struggled to attract sufficient fans to persuade sponsors to stick with teams. Referees are better known for taking bribes than calling fouls. Fans prefer watching European games.

One measure of the league’s poor showing is the decline of domestic commentary. In 2001, the last time that China qualified for the World Cup, the media employed around 8,000 soccer reporters, estimates Ma Dexin, deputy editor of Titan Sports, a popular sports newspaper. That number has since shriveled to 800.

Chinese fans are still avid consumers of international soccer. Titan has several full-time correspondents in Spain, Britain, and other soccer-mad countries. What China lacks, says Mr. Ma, a 20-year veteran of covering the game, is a credible strategy to reverse a trend of losing players to other sports that offer a route to success.

“Go out into the streets and look around. Not so many young Chinese are playing [soccer]. Parents don’t encourage children to play [soccer]. They want them to play basketball or golf or tennis,” he says.

As soccer stumbles, basketball has raced ahead in China, with the NBA promoting its games at home and building courts here. Young men crowd the courts, aping the moves of NBA stars, including home-grown hero Yao Ming. The NBA is reportedly in talks with China’s state-run league about setting up an NBA-branded version here.