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.