Success in football still elusive for China

opinion February 17, 2014 00:00

By Suwatchai Songwanich
Chief e

One of the highlights for many Chinese in the past month was the stunning success of popular player Li Na in winning the Australian Open, the first of the year's four tennis majors. This was also great news for the sport's administrators and sponsors, who

From a wider perspective, the success rate of Chinese men and women in the world’s biggest sports – which are also some of the world’s biggest businesses – compares poorly with the international performance of Chinese companies and investors. Nowhere is that more apparent than in soccer, China’s – and the world’s – most popular sport.

Despite massive funding and other support from both the government and the private sector, China’s top football competition, the Chinese Super League, has for a long time been tainted by corruption, while the national side has an extremely dismal track record.

The team is ranked 92nd in the world, between New Zealand and Estonia – a humbling position for a nation with such impressive human and financial resources, and such grand sporting ambitions.

The damage to China’s sporting prestige is magnified by the fact many of China’s most famous leaders have very publicly embraced the sport. Mao Zedong was a determined goalkeeper at his teacher’s college and Deng Xiaoping spent much of his limited student budget on watching football at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.  In 2011, Xi Jinping, now China’s president, expressed three wishes for Chinese football – qualify for another World Cup, host a World Cup and win a World Cup – without putting timeframes on any of these goals.

Chinese love soccer, so there is no shortage of strongly-argued opinions about why Chinese football is so mediocre. While these theories vary, they all seem to involve problems with “the system”, which is taken to include schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sports, the tough treatment of athletes, the one-child

policy, bribery and the corrosive

influence of gambling.

The Chinese Communist Party’s controlled, top-down approach to identifying and nurturing top athletes may have worked for a wide variety of traditional Olympic sports, but it has failed in football. And with a lack of local role models, fewer

children are taking up the game

each year.

Li Na reached the top only after breaking away from tennis’ state-run model to manage her own career. After being selected at an early age for pressure-cooker government training, along with thousands of others, she said she needed the space and freedom to be herself, find her own personality and way to express herself on and off the court.

International investors who have shown interest in other countries’ sporting competitions have stayed away from Chinese football, including Rupert Murdoch, who has invested in India’s football league.

While one of McKinsey& Company’s 10 predictions for China in 2014 is that European football teams will invest in the Chinese Super League, the consulting company adds that it made the same prediction last year, and nothing happened.

Amid the gloom, there are slivers of light. Super League standout Guangzhou Evergrande won last year’s premier club competition in Asia, under renowned Italian coach Marcelo Lippi, proving Chinese teams can occasionally get it all together on the pitch.

There may be no quick fix, but my hope is that a country with the resources and potential of China will eventually sort out its football problems, in the same way it has brought its considerable expertise to bear on its economy and trading relationships over the past decade.

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