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China and World Cup soccer? Let's talk in 2014, says Chinese soccer's new boss

Wei Di, new head of the Chinese Football Association, admits he faces a tough task in qualifying his country for the World Cup. For a country that claims to have invented the game of soccer more than 2,000 years ago, this is rather embarrassing.

By Staff Writer / July 2, 2010

Chinese men play a game of soccer in Beijing on June 30. Although China did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup, soccer is one of the most popular sports in this sports crazy nation.

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo



Off the pitch, the country with the most palpable presence at this year’s World Cup in South Africa is probably China: the ubiquitous "vuvuzela" horns the fans are blowing almost all came from Chinese workshops.

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On the pitch, though, China is nowhere to be seen. Ranked 85th in international standings, China did not even come close to qualifying for the competition.

Indeed, in soccer-mad China, where tens of millions of fans are watching World Cup matches on television, the game itself has fallen into disrepair and disrepute.

With a professional league blackened by corruption and amateur youth teams folding, the new boss of Chinese soccer admits he has “a lot of work to do” to restore the game’s luster.

Wei Di is the new head of the Chinese Football Association because the old one, Nan Yong, is currently in police custody as part of a match-fixing and bribery investigation that has so far netted two dozen top players, coaches, referees, club owners, and government officials.

Mr. Wei is trying to pick up the pieces of a sport that has been convulsed in China over the past two decades by an attempt to turn it professional. The experiment “has not failed,” he insists, “but it definitely has many problems.”

For a country that claims to have invented the game of soccer more than 2,000 years ago, this is all rather embarrassing.

But soccer players here have never enjoyed the sort of government support that has propelled other Chinese athletes to Olympic gold.

State system a poor fit with soccer

The Chinese state sports system was designed to train promising young individuals intensely, whether they be gymnasts, weight lifters or divers, until they reached world class.

“But soccer is different,” points out Jin Shan, former head of the Sports Culture Research Center at Beijing’s Academy of Social Sciences. “You need a lot of people playing. It doesn’t work to just get a few people together and train them.”

Wei, who came to his new job in January after a successful spell as head of China’s water sports, puts it down to money. “We are a developing country,” he argues. “The policy has been to support sports where it is easier to do well with less investment.”

The authorities hoped in 1994 that by professionalizing soccer they would attract private funding. Private entrepreneurs did indeed buy and found clubs. But the league soon attracted all the wrong sorts of money as illegal gamblers paid coaches and players to throw games.

And as “black whistles” – as corrupt referees are colorfully known – helped ruin the reputation of the professional game, the amateur game fell apart as the government withdrew from soccer. The new private clubs saw no reason to spend time and money training young talent when they could simply buy other clubs’ players.