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.
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.
“A lot of the government schools closed, and China’s group of young players collapsed” recalls Wei. “That was a mistake we made. Now the Chinese Football Association’s fundamental job is to develop and organize young players.”
That, he says, means setting up new regional leagues, promoting soccer in schools (even the five-a-side version better suited to playgrounds), and founding high school and college national championships.
This would be a sizable challenge anywhere, but in China it will take a radical shift in the whole approach to sport, cautions Mr. Jin. “If the authorities spent their money on sport for all, that would benefit the public,” he says. “But they are still focused on winning medals.”
“Chinese football can only improve on the foundations of mass participation,” adds Li Cheng Peng, a well-known soccer commentator.
Few soccer pitches, skeptical parents
The soccer authorities will have to start from scratch with apparently simple moves that are in fact difficult, such as finding places to play. There are scarcely any soccer pitches in Chinese cities because property prices are so high that neither developers nor local authorities have set aside land for unprofitable recreational use.
Nor will it be easy to convince parents to let their children play, worries Wei. “All they want is for their children to go to college and they are afraid that too much soccer will get in the way of their homework,” he says with a wry smile. “And they are frightened their boys might get hurt.”
They might be forgiven, too, for wondering whether their children could not find a more congenial career path than the criminal-infested soccer industry. To counter that perception, says Wei, the authorities are planning new laws and regulations to ensure better supervision and higher standards in the industry.
“We have pledged zero tolerance for match fixing,” he says firmly. “If we find anything illegal, we will call in the police.”
Sights on 2014 World Cup
China’s jaded soccer fans, who have been fooled before, are waiting to see if the current crackdown has any lasting effects. Wei, meanwhile, has set his ambitions high; he wants to see China in the 2014 World Cup competition in Brazil.
That may be overly optimistic. In qualifying matches for this year’s competition the Chinese national team came bottom of its group, losing five matches and winning only one.
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