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.

Vincent Thian/AP
Out: Brazil’s Ronaldinho controls the ball as Wan Houliang, of China, follows. China exited the Olympic soccer tournament Wednesday in a 3-0 loss.

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.

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.

That success rankles Rowan Simons, a British media entrepreneur and part-time soccer commentator in Beijing. In 2001, he started an amateur soccer league in Beijing that has since grown to over 100 adult teams in eight divisions who play five-a-side matches on scaled-down fields. But unlike basketball, it gets virtually no backing from foreign leagues, or from the CFA, to which it belongs.

Mr. Simons says his dream is to plant China Club Football across China so that a new generation of players can form the bottom of a pyramid that pushes up talent to the national level. “If you don’t have a grass-roots pyramid of people participating in the game, whatever you do at the top won’t work,” he says.

That strategy depends on China letting amateur clubs run independently – outside the government-run system. According to a 2006 ranking by FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, China has an estimated 26 million soccer players, the most of any country, compared with 4 million in Britain. In terms of clubs, though, Britain has registered nearly 43,000. In China, that number falls to just 2,221.

To get kids involved, Simons hired British coaches for an after-school program sold to parents as “Play Football, Speak English.” About 2,000 children are enrolled at 10 locations in Beijing. “Parents value English very highly, so this will convince them to come. They don’t value football so highly,” says Simons.

A summer adult league was canceled, though, after authorities yanked permission to use public fields, citing pre-Olympics security concerns. Other amateur sports clubs in Beijing have faced similar restrictions.

Historical accounts suggest China may have invented football in the 5th century, though the modern game is usually traced to Britain.

In the 1920s and 1930s, it flourished under Japanese occupation in northeast China, and Chinese teams took pride in beating their Japanese counterparts, says Ms. Brownell. The region remains a stronghold of the game and has hosted some of the preliminary Olympics matches.

* * *

The Olympics: a lesser tournament?

Just as Beijing organizers hoped foreign heads of state would attend the opening ceremonies, they hoped Lionel Messi would come to their soccer tournament. He is a member of the soccer peerage, among the world’s top five players – at age 21.

But he almost didn’t make it. His professional club, Barcelona, did not agree to release him to play for his country, Argentina.

That a club would not release a player to play for his country is not unheard of, but it is rare. And it’s a problem for the Olympics, which is considered a lesser tournament. With professional clubs about to start their seasons, they didn’t want to release some of their top talent.
As a concession to professional clubs, Olympics men’s soccer is already essentially a youth tournament. Aside from three exemptions, all the players are 23 or younger.

But Barcelona didn’t want to let go of Messi. The result was a court case that went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled in Barcelona’s favor – two days before the Olympics began. With Messi already in Beijing, Barcelona agreed it would be impractical to bring him back.

The head of football’s governing body, FIFA, has promised to solve the problem by the London Games in 2012, ensuring that clubs release all under-23 players.

Until then, Beijing still has its brightest soccer light.

– Mark Sappenfield

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