Where are China’s soccer stars?

It’s true, I almost never post about sports, and it’s safe to say I would never even dream of posting about the coma-inducing sport we Americans call soccer unless it had a strong angle related to my interests, like China. Which brings us to an interesting debate going on over at the NY Times blog as to why China doesn’t play in the World Cup.

I don’t know enough about the game itself or China’s Football Association to offer much wisdom here. But I do know that one of the arguments jumped out at me.

The Chinese men’s soccer team has not been able to improve its world standing in the past two decades for the same reason that its swimming and track and field have not improved….

The Chinese state-supported system works well for sports in which children begin highly specialized training at a very young age, and it produces success in women’s sports because it gives equal support to men and women while most other countries do not.

But that system loses its comparative advantage in men’s sports that have good financial backing in other countries, and it does not work well for sports in which stars emerge slowly from a wide participation base, where talent becomes apparent only as the athletes mature physically.

In January 2009, the revelation of rampant corruption in the professional soccer league partly answered the question of why the Chinese team performed so poorly in the 2008 Olympics. Commentators recognized that one reason for the corruption is that soccer is only partly subject to market forces.

The Chinese Football Association, an organ under the State General Administration for Sport, is responsible for its administration, and the Football Management Center — in theory a “public institution” — is responsible for managing corporate sponsorships and business affairs. But in fact this is a “one office, two signs” situation, which characterizes much of the economic and political system. The same person acts as director of both organs, and where power and money are concentrated in the hands of one person, the system is open to corruption.

Why is there no Chinese soccer team at the World Cup? To answer that question, one has to ask why China has this state-supported system narrowly focused on Olympic medals rather than grassroots sports. The answer is that the sports system –- and Chinese soccer in particular -– are microcosms of China’s current position halfway between a state-planned and market economy.

Interesting to see from this and other arguments that it’s not just the often-cited educational and anthropological factors (relatively little emphasis on problem solving/teamwork, lack of competitive spirit, which, we’re told, is why China sweeps diving and gymnastics but not team sports) but also sociopolitical and economic factors like corruption and an economy that’s still developing.

The comments are worth a glance, too, despite the irritating nationalists on the one hand and the equally irritating “the Chinese aren’t smart enough” jerks on the other. Your typical comment thread on China.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

The number one reason for the sorry state of the Chinese soccer is the shortage of soccer fields. Someone should propose a law at the next CPC meeting that every housing project should include a soccer field. Then there will be kids playing soccer, soccer moms taking kids to play soccer, a respectable professional league, and finally a winning national team.

July 1, 2010 @ 10:03 am | Comment

Read that article – had to laugh. For more soul searching you should try the British press, especially the English papers, on why England can’t play…

I personally put it down to politics…the will to win isn’t there. China wanted to be the best in the Olympics (though, as I keep saying, the majority of medals won were in….ummmm, not wishing to sound belittling…but they weren’t “real” events) and according to this http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/LF30Ad01.html they want to break records at the Expo – making sure the numbers are there (anecdotally, of course, but my wife has a friend who tells her that they’re getting a day off to get a “field trip” to the Expo).

Dunno why China doesn’t have the will – maybe the Opium Wars? After all, Association Football is a British invention (apparently).

As one of the commenters also mentioned, mind – India suck too….and they have a billion+ people…

July 1, 2010 @ 11:18 am | Comment

For a start it’s called football, not soccer.

Second, in your opinion it’s “coma-inducing”, but to the rest of the world it’s the “beautiful game”. Has it crossed your mind that a game so passionately loved by the rest of the world might just have something to recommend it? A rare “ugly American” lapse on your part, Richard.

Having said that, watching England play was bloody coma-inducing.

July 1, 2010 @ 11:49 am | Comment

Sojourner, all sports to me are coma inducing. Some more so than others. Cricket and soccer, as we say in America (and I’m American, sorry about that, though I tolerate the perverse reference to soccer as “football”), are on the VERY coma-inducing side. Baseball, too. Tennis can hold my attention, at least for a little while.

We all have our opinions about things. I respect your right to like a game where nothing happens. Respect my right to find it a complete and total bore.

July 1, 2010 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

Richard, you need to be sent to a re-education camp and be forced to watch endless replays of Maradona’s finest goals until you see the light.

July 1, 2010 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

Didn’t scientists cure Maradona some years ago?

July 1, 2010 @ 1:44 pm | Comment

Sojourner
Football is Rugby Union here in NZ (League is League…poor blokes sport). In parts of Oz, football is Aussie Rules. Gets kind of confusing in the colonies….

🙂

July 1, 2010 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

I can’t see why China must excel in football at all. After watching the Yes Minister 3.7 – The Middle Class Rip-Off (http://www.veoh.com/browse/videos/category/comedy/watch/v19423016NPSKrmmz) I’m even more convinced the football tickets as well as broadcasting should be heavily taxed to subsidize education and health care etc.

July 2, 2010 @ 10:26 am | Comment

This article reminds me of a book ” Bamboo Goalpost”, which is the best book so far as I know to answer all the questions on China’s sports.

my opinion is that sports here in China is all about politics, this is the most important reason why we win lots of Gold medals but so poor at any professional sports.

July 2, 2010 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

Mike and Richard — Fair points about soccer being a perfectly valid name for the game. But being a cultural mperialist I just want everyone to call it by the moniker it’s known by in MY country.

July 3, 2010 @ 11:08 am | Comment

The U.K. has more than 40,000 (yes, that’s a 4 followed by 4 zeroes!) football clubs. These football clubs have little to no affiliation with the central or local governments. All the great British football players (e.g., the Beckhams and Rooneys) came up through the U.K. football club system.

Similarly, the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) was founded in a garage in Los Angeles in the early 1970s by a couple of parents. AYSO now has more than 600,000 member/players. Like the U.K. football clubs, AYSO receives no government support or oversight.

The U.K. and the U.S. are both examples of what happens when civil society is allowed to thrive. China’s “football problem,” on the other hand, is an example of what happens when government takes a leading role in everything and civil society is prevented from developing as it should.

These ideas are not mine alone – I once heard a FIFA official blame China’s lack of civil society for its poor football program. It’s possible, of course, for China to produce an excellent national football team from time to time (ala North Korea), but I doubt very much that China will become a consistent football power until it allows a grassroots club system of the sort found in the U.K. to develop. Arguments that center around Chinese physical limitations are completely wrongheaded, as both Korea and Japan consistently offer up outstanding national teams. Likewise, poverty is no argument either, as many poor nations produce excellent teams.

Interestingly, I was speaking last week with a friend who works for CFA (Chinese Football Association) and learned that the central government is preventing them from bidding to host a men’s World Cup in China. The reason? China’s national football team is not good enough, and an early exit from the tournament would be an enormous loss of face. Ironic, no?

July 3, 2010 @ 6:17 pm | Comment

Many arguments made here are valid, to bring a national team to elite level. However, the inability of the China’s football team to qualify for the world cup is due to its internal organization corruption where the best players do not emerge. And most importantly, due to its wide corruption, players, refs, and officials are bought with $$$ and lacks committed motivation to bring what you call “a beautiful game” to the world stage.

Read here from BBC and Forbs:
http://blogs.forbes.com/sportsmoney/2010/02/china-cracks-down-on-soccer-corruption/
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8472642.stm

July 7, 2010 @ 1:41 am | Comment

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