The total population of this year’s world cup countries is about 1.5 billion. Why then is China — a nation of 1.3 billion — not able to produce a 11-member team to the World Cup when even its destitute neighbor, North Korea, has managed to be there this year?
China is obviously embarrassed about its World Cup failure. The United States, which China would like to surpass politically and economically, has done quite well at the World Cup even though soccer is far from being the most popular sport in the country.
China, ironically, has the world’s largest soccer fan base. No wonder the absence of a Chinese team in the World Cup has touched a raw nerve. Many Chinese fans blame the existing political culture and social norms for China’s soccer failure. Some are even questioning China’s national identity.
Flaws of Central Planning
Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of “Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.”
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 (in the 2008 Olympics, Chinese swimmers earned medals in six events, including the first-ever men’s medal; two women won track and field medals).
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.
A Threat to the Government
Ray Tsuchiyama has led operations in China and Japan for several multinational technology firms, and also headed the Asia office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a contributor to The China Trackerblog at Forbes.com.
The history of soccer’s growth and excellence in countries like England and Brazil reveal urban working-class roots. Urban soccer clubs have long served as neighborhood or even regional centers for children and youth, and become “feeders” of new talent to local soccer teams.
The clubs not only teach soccer fundamentals, but sportsmanship, courage, discipline and loyalty. (During the World War I, some British battalions were recruited heavily from urban districts with already established soccer clubs, and officers kicked soccer balls into German trenches to lead assault teams.)
Paradoxically, for a nation that prides itself as having been founded by the “masses” of peasants and urban workers and where teamwork is prized, China has not emphasized some team sports — soccer being the most significant omission. (Basketball, however, is played by many Chinese urban dwellers, and a player like Yao Ming has become a N.B.A. star.)
Build a Football Network
Rowan Simons is the chairman of China ClubFootball FC, the first amateur football network in China with foreign investors, and the author of “Bamboo Goalposts.”
China is not at the World Cup and its women’s team is no longer a leading force for reasons of politics, economics, culture and education — all challenges we are trying to tackle with ClubFootball.
Let’s talk politics. The Chinese Football Association is an illegal organization under Article 17 of FIFA’s constitution which demands independence from government. Yet government control of the C.F.A. is clearly laid out in China’s 1994 Sports Law. These mutually exclusive regulations pose significant concerns.
This “top down” system has several fundamental flaws that ignore the long-term grassroots solutions required. Chinese sport still follows a Soviet model, placing children in elite schools (at their own expense!). Football is a mass participation sport in which the best players may not emerge until their later teens. The simple truth is that China needs a system of community-based clubs that are run by the people for the people.
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By Ng Han Guan/Associated Press Updated, June 30, 12:45 p.m. (NYT)
Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong, is the author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008,” “China and the Great War” and the forthcoming “Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese workers and the Great War.”
None of those explanations fly. Such as the Chinese parents focus on book learning instead of sports. Japan and South Korea have similar parents yet they field decent teams.
Political system? North Korea athletics is even more state controlled, has a much smaller population, a lot of the population if malnourished, has less financial backing, and has no domestic leagues and yet they qualified.
Simple, Chinese kids don’t play together. From infants they are picked up and carried everywhere by their grandmothers. They are picked up after school and taken home by car, scooter or bicycle. There is very little social interaction
between children in Chna.
I marvel when I see kids in Africa playing on a patch of dirt or girls in northern Afghanistan running like the wind at their school playground………….you just
don’t see it in China…………and considering a lot of those kids (not all) come
from a one-child policy family, it’s childhood lost.
I’ve seen this question elsewhere, and it shocks me how blind people are to the fact that for many years, China has had a team that competes at the top level of world soccer, losing by a shootout in the championship world cup game in 1999, and making it to the semi-finals in 1995 and the quarter-finals in 2003 and 2007. In recent years they’ve not done so well, but through the 90s and early 00s they were top notch. I am speaking, of course, of the women’s team, which I guess doesn’t count for much with readers of the NYT.
One can also ask why India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Vietnam haven’t been able to field teams in the World Cup finals. Each is a large nation with millions of fans and growing economies.
As someone who has lived and taught English in China for seven years, most recently at a high school, I can say that at least one statement each of the above authors wrote is correct. My school has a pretty decent football pitch and in the year I’ve been here I can honestly say I’ve never once seen any kind of football match played on it. Not even a “let’s pick teams and play” sort of thing. My students are in school 6 days a week, until 10PM, and spend 80-90% of their waking hours with their noses buried in books designed to help them score higher on exams. They’re awakened at 6AM, still half asleep and I can hear them “reciting” at 7:30. By the afternoon, when they actually have what passes as “free time,” they are exhausted. Nobody feels like actually playing anything. All they want to do is take a nap.
The corollary to this question is “Why is soccer not nearly as massively popular in the USA as it is in most other countries?” After all, it is an English sport, and we share a close historical rapport with England. I used to believe it was because soccer is a low-scoring game and Americans “like to see lots of scoring.” But then I realized that hockey — itself a low-scoring game and, in several ways, quite similar to soccer — is very popular here. I have come to the (tentative) conclusion that the problem is in the word “soccer.” In some as-yet-undefined way, we Americans may have an aversion to the word. Perhaps it sounds uncool. Every other country calls it football, which, after all, is its proper name. Perhaps we should do likewise. Then the USA would be the country with two football sports.
Sorry. I did not have the chance to read the experts’ comments, but I will do. Here is my two cents. Two factors do not arrest the development of the Chinese soccer playing. First, soccer is a high competitive sport. Be physically strong and competitive is not what the Chinese society has expected their men; by contrast, playing it safe and being smart is. This lowers the level of the willingness and hence ability to be competitive among Chinese. No less important is the fact that soccer requires a high level team spirit. At least 11 players have to cooperate with one another well. No weak link is acceptable. Theoretically, the most populous nation has more people to offer, but in reality that is not the case. Even top players who cannot cooperate well have little chance to prevail. The Chinese are not famous for their team work. The Chinese know this better than others. It is said that one Chinese will do well, but three Chinese will do badly. Interestingly enough, both the US and the Soviet Union dominated the most sport events, but never excelled in soccer, the popular sport in the world except the US.
Simply put: Winning soccer games is not China’s priority. Nobody in the government has told Chinese people they should play and win soccer games.
If one day someone like Wen Jia Bao suddenlly says, “Play soccer, and win!”, China will win. It’s that simple.
India has a population that will soon catch up to China’s. It is not a soccer powerhouse but it is the world’s largest cricket market. At any given time you will see children playing cricket in every available alleyway in Mumbai. India is not as dominant as Australia in cricket, but they have produced world-class cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar. Same goes for Pakistan.
China, on the other hand, is *the* world power in table tennis and badminton. In table tennis, Chinese players are so dominant that Chinese ex-pats who couldn’t even crack the top-100 world rankings would end up playing for other countries. Table tennis is the “people’s” sport of China, it’s played in dusty alleyways and recreation rooms across the country.
Does it matter that China & India were unable to send representatives to this year’s World Cup? The Chinese and Indians already have their own sports that are played in their country by hundreds of millions.
But with the growing interest in televised soccer in China (and India), it may only be a matter of time until there will be decent teams. Until then, there’s plenty of table tennis in China and plenty of cricket in India.
These explanations fail at a root level because the explainers have no idea what they are talking about. To discuss why football (US soccer) is not popular in China, one must understand football first.
Football, at a root level, is very easy to understand. But played at its highest levels, football is extraordinarily complex. Think about American football (NFL and college), where over the course of nearly hundred years, thousands of bright minds have spent their lives thinking up hundreds of offensive and defensive formations, thousands of plays for down and distance, individual techniques (pass or run block, run with or without the ball, pass) for various positions. But I would argue that world football (soccer) is even more complex because each player on the pitch must do much more than one or two things – each player must do a host of things depending on where he or she is on the pitch, who has the ball, and how much time is left, – all without time-outs for coaching and drawing up new plays.
At its highest level, world football is fast, fluid and dynamic, and teams with relatively little depth in the complexities of the game will founder. It takes time to develop junior programs, to develop coaches that understand how to play the game, to develop footballing mindsets for fans, to develop a cultural understanding of the game.
If you walk into any cafe anywhere in Europe or South America, you will be able to discuss the differences between various football formations, be it 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 or a 4-5-1. You simply cannot do that in China; nobody will know what you are referring to.
And so it would be extraordinary (in fact, almost unbelievable) if the Chinese national team were to be able to field a team equal in strength to South Korea or Japan, as both of the latter sides have had their histories in world football extending many, many decades beyond that of China.
So the question of why the Chinese national football team is not at the same level of its East Asian neighbors, is quite easy to answer: the program is far too young. China did not start trying to compete for World Cup finals berth until 1986, and only once made it to the Finals in 2002. For all China’s population, there simply are not enough individuals with the footballing background to be able to pass along the knowledge and history of the game, enough so that the next generation will be incrementally better to perform.
Contrast that with South Korea, who made it to the Finals in 1954 and has eight Finals appearances, or Japan, who also started trying to qualify from 1954 and four consecutive Finals appearances. And even further, North Korea made the quarterfinals of the World Cup back in 1966. These countries, with South Korea and Japan in particular, have had world football permeate their modern culture, and this has made footballing knowledge more common and able to be passed along.
I’ve talked with some friends about this and it’s not really a cultural issues. Yes, sports in China is rarely grass-roots. Yes, teamwork isn’t really apparent in the society at large. But despite the “factory” nature of sports production in China, you still have 1.3 billion people to choose 11 people from. Women’s team sports like volleyball and also soccer have historically been successful. So it’s not about a lack of smarts (I’ve met many smart people here) or talent (they have their own local version of skillfully kicking a feathered hacksac-like thing around) The issue is more specific. It deals with the soccer organization’s inability to hire a good coach. And the inability to hire a coach comes from the fact that people in charge of hiring the coach can’t keep their hands off the pot that contains the salary of the coach. It’s what nobody talks about but everyone seems to know. And as we’ve seen throughout the world cup events, bad coach equals bad team.
So it isn’t some inherent cultural thing. While the lack of grass-roots is true and is an issue in the cultivation of sports in this nation, it’s probably less relevant to this issue. The issue that most directly addresses the factor that China isn’t in t
Sweden and Norway dominated the winter Olympics but either country has a great soccer team. The bottom line is no one is good at everything.