In sports, China has distinguished itself on the global stage, taking advantage of a naturally vast talent pool with a large-scale state-sponsored training program that takes in children as young as five years old, and hones them into world-class Olympic athletes. Individual sports are where China does best in the medal standings, dominating the world in table tennis, shooting, diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, and badminton.
In ball team sports, however, China is not so successful on the international stage. Nowhere is this more obvious than football, the most popular sport both in China and the world at large. Currently, China’s men’s football team is 100th in the global FIFA ranking, having at best achieved 37th place some 17 years ago. The decrepitude of the team’s morale and performance was brought into a harsh light recently, as it lost 1-2 to Uzbekistan on June 6th, then 0-2 to Holland on the 11th, and, in the most heart-wrenching match for China fans, a dismal 1-5 against Thailand.
The Thai match was the catalyst for a new round of scrambling to rectify this persistent crack in China’s pride and national image. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) dutifully published a shame-faced press release, in which it said the Association “accepts this criticism from the masses and its leaders and will work hard to rectify [its problems].” The national team’s Spanish coach, Jose Antonio Camacho, was fired with a severance package of over 50 million yuan. For all of Camacho’s experience as a footballer and manager, including a successful tenure as manager of the Spanish national team, he presided over a rapid decline in the Chinese team’s already poor match performance. The team is now looking for another foreign coach as it continues to try to reverse-engineer football success. Camacho was not the first coach to be fired, either: America’s Fox News refers to the national coaching position as a “poisoned chalice.”
After the humiliating loss to the Thais, football pundits posed the basic and most baffling question about China’s poor performance: why does a football-loving country with the world’s largest talent pool fair so poorly in international competition? China has been trying to rectify the situation by importing help – Camacho is the seventh foreign coach – but so far, that hasn’t been sufficient to address the nation’s football problem. Dumping state money on the sport hasn’t produced the desired results yet, leading most to suggest that there is no easy answer: the problems that dog Chinese football are symptomatic of those that affect the nation at large.
Staying home to study
At the grassroots level, the main obstacle to developing a productive and successful football culture is the effect of the one-child policy, which sharpens Chinese parents’ already agonizing concern for their children’s success. A mere 200,000 children play on organized football teams at least three times per week in China, an astoundingly small number that is kept low by parental emphasis on academic success, which devalues organized sports as merely another distraction. While Chinese families share the school-first attitude with their counterparts in Japan and South Korea, youth football in these countries benefits from a more balanced view of what makes a successful child, a better-developed youth sports infrastructure (particularly outside of government Olympic training centers), and the absence of a one-child policy. In Seoul or Tokyo, a child is far more likely to become a professional player through regular sports associations, while in China, the only acceptable route to success through sport, in the eyes of parents, is provided by direct government sponsorship and support.
Football in the dock
But the most important factor in China’s football failure is the corruption that has infected the CFA. Unlike most countries’ national associations, the CFA wields deep influence over clubs and, illicitly, even the outcomes of football matches. On July 8th, former CFA vice-chairman Nan Yong stood on trial in Liaoning province on seventeen separate counts of bribery, for a total of nearly 1.5 million Yuan. Many other officials from the CFA, in addition to referees and players, have been on trial since last December, leading Caixin Online to comment that Chinese football itself “is in the dock.”
CFA-approved match fixing has become so prevalent that nearly all the referees in China’s Super League knew about it, according to Huang Junje, a referee now on trial for corruption. It has become an unmistakable reality for China’s fans, too, who even nicknamed one prominent referee “the Golden Whistle.” Huang also pointed out a telling difference in the professional culture of football in China, complaining that “in Japan and South Korea, football leagues have nothing to do with associations.”
Profit and political maneuvering are the distorting forces behind China’s football corruption. Investing in clubs is often unprofitable in China, at least on paper, but savvy businessmen know that they can use a team’s success or failure to their companies’ advantage. Deals between business leaders and local officials, especially concerning real estate, can include the win or loss of a football match as an unwritten clause. The graft extends beyond the national level, according to Nan, who admitted that he sold positions on China’s national team in 2002 for 100,000 Yuan apiece. Ironically, 2002 was the only time China has ever qualified for the World Cup finals.
As long as China’s national football teams are used as pawns in China’s political and economic power structure, where backroom deals between politicians and investors are the order of the day, the country’s leagues won’t be producing much of value for China’s national squad, and fans will continue to be disappointed by the poor performance that results from match fixing.
A false cure
The steady trickle of European soccer stars into China is a predictably failed tactic in the struggle to improve the Super League. Most notably, former Chelsea star striker and captain of the Ivorian national team, Didier Drogba, left Shanghai Shenhua FC early in 2013 after serving just six months out of his two-year contract. Despite the generous terms of his contract (a reported 270,000£ per week), it’s hard not to feel bad for Drogba. At the start of his tenure last summer, Shenhua was languishing near the bottom of the Super League, suffering from conflict at the boardroom level, a mostly-mediocre side, and the detrimental antics of erratic billionaire owner Zhu Jun.
Despite his awful soccer skills, Zhu is occasionally inclined to join the Shenhua squad on the pitch, as he did during a 2007 game against Liverpool F.C. His megalomaniacal management style, and his determination to use Shenhua as a pawn in his business deals seems to be his team’s undoing. Lately, Zhu’s modus operandi has been to attract foreign talent with promises of vast wages and then find ways of disposing of them while withholding most of their pay. It was no different for Drogba and Nicholas Anelka, another former Chelsea star at Shenhua, who walked out at the same time over unpaid wages and conflict with management.
Xi Jinping, China’s President, is a “well-known football fan” according to Global times, and is interested in improving the country’s national team. But the ways China has attempted to fix the sport’s graft problem – cracking down on CFA officials who are, at the end of the day, merely caught up in the country’s larger power structure of capital and political power, and engaging foreign celebrity coaches and advisors – clearly won’t address the underlying issues. Is it possible for China to develop a successful, winning football culture without the political underpinnings of separation of powers, business regulation, and consistent rule of law? Depressingly, many fans seem be as pessimistic about the state of football as dissidents are about the pace of political reform. In the public preview of a new documentary in development about the national team, 11 in 1.3 Billion, the filmmaker asks football fans if China could ever win the World Cup. “Not in 50 years!” they shout in response, or “not in this century!”
Meanwhile, Chinese parents continue to prefer that their children spend the half-dozen hours per week during which they could be playing on an organized football team, on extra studying. Pity China’s long-suffering fans, because the combination of low participation among youth and persistent corruption makes a dim outlook for Chinese football.