Football in China

A recent article by The Washington Post that appeared on the MSN homepage bore the title, “In China, a desperate desire for soccer competence.” The opening paragraph read as follows: “For years, soccer in China has been a source of national embarrassment. It is the sport Chinese often care about most but also one that infuriates them most.”

Anyone who ever took Writing 101 knows that the opening paragraph is supposed to establish the context of the article. And although not specifically referenced in the opening paragraph the reader can assume from the context that the writer is going to provide an explanation – and it probably won’t be kind.

In a clever play on implication the article doesn’t quite literally state that football is the most popular sport in China and it isn’t. In my experience, not by a long shot. Ping-pong, badminton, and swimming are the sports I see people playing and talking about and the sports I know many people who actively participate in.

I have only known one Chinese national who played football on the weekends. But it is true that a woman in our Beijing office gave herself the English name of Macy, after the famous footballer Lionel Messi. (Whether it had to do with his handsome looks or his football prowess I don’t know.)

Embarrassment is also not a word I would normally associate with the Chinese when it comes to sport. Pride and embarrassment are normally associated with people who glorify China or cause it to lose face. The most common heroes are those who battled heroically in the war against the Nationals. And the Japanese invasion of World War II remains an open wound of embarrassment and anger for most Chinese even today.

One European expert on the sport whose name escapes me suggested that great football countries are a function of the number of footballers in that country. His research suggests it takes 200,000 active footballers to create one world-class footballer. By his estimates that would result in China producing less than one world-class footballer despite the size of the population. There just isn’t that many youth actively playing the sport.

At a couple of points in the article the author implies the real reason for the low global ranking of the Chinese Men’s National Football team is not the quality of the footballers but the Communist Party of China which, the author suggests, runs the country in a fashion that inhibits the creativity and independence required for great football.

Huh? He’s obviously never driven a car here. The Chinese are about as independent and creative as it comes. And the Soviets, by the way, produced some very good hockey teams and that is an equally freewheeling sport. But if the form of government is so critical to quality football why isn’t the US team a world power?

Most Chinese will tell you that they find the plight of the men’s national team to be more humorous than embarrassing. (The women are actually quite good.) And when asked the source of the deficiency they will generally offer that the team is simply too big for the Chinese – you will never find 11 Chinese men to play a sport in the organized way of a world class football club.

Personally, I think the issue is much more fundamental. Sport is generally not a career path in China. There are exceptions, of course. Li Na comes immediately to mind.

I suspect, however, that few parents in China are going to allow their only child – a son – to devote hours and hours to play football. They’d rather he spend the time studying or learning to play the piano or some other skill that will help him get into the best university and start his way on a successful career.

That is why so many of China’s most successful global athletes are actually members of the military. The military is a career path. Once they can no longer compete they still have a career to fall back on.

It is true that President Xi Jinping has expressed his admiration for the game and set lofty goals for China’s football ambitions, including hosting, and ultimately winning the World Cup. That’s no surprise, really. It is the one truly global sport and is very much a sport of the people, not the elite, which I think naturally appeals to a man who frequently references The Chinese Dream.

Perhaps it is the governing bodies of football, rather than the government of Xi Jinping, which needs to take the lead here. The American NBA has done a masterful job of marketing itself in China and its efforts have paid off. It is commonplace to see NBA apparel on the streets of China and players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are household names here. There are many exhibition games played here and during the off-season there is a steady stream of top NBA talent touring China working with youth and generally promoting the sport.

The only piece of professional football apparel I have ever seen in China has been on the back or the head of Europeans. And while the biggest games out of Europe are generally televised I am unaware of any concerted effort to bring the best teams to play here.

Perhaps with more emphasis and support the popularity of football will grow and greater competence will follow. But I have my doubts.

Football, in my mind, is the ultimate deductive sport. It is the passion of football fans worldwide that make it the sport that it is, that attracts the big money and the top talent and gets them to play at such a high level.

It is the love of the game; it is the love of the club that gives the sport its unparalleled intensity. The fans literally bleed their feverish enthusiasm. But these are ideals and institutions. And somehow I don’t see the Chinese getting there.

As the article correctly pointed out, but breezed over, the love of sport in China is all about Chinese nationalism and pride in the nation and the ethnicity. That may be enough to field a world-class team, as it has been in other sports.

In the meantime, I don’t believe the Chinese or the Chinese government is either desperate or obsessed with football. They’re simply too busy with other priorities at the moment.

Getting Western journalists to give them a fair break is probably higher on the list than winning the World Cup in the short term.

Sports is not a path to education in China.  I have, in fact, never even heard of a university athletic team.  Elite athletes are generally schooled in a parallel education system.
Sports is not a path to higher education in China. I have, in fact, never even heard of a university athletic team. Elite athletes are generally schooled in a parallel education system.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.