Sport

Bottom of the league

Who wants to manage the Chinese national football team?

Off side: China's national football team is a perennial underperformer

Mix together an expectant but disillusioned public, a group of overpaid but underperforming players and a string of poor results and who would want to coach the Chinese national football team?

In fact there are four Chinese candidates currently battling it out (exams, interviews and presentations) for the dubious honour of succeeding the Serbian, Vladimir Petrovic, whose contract was not renewed after China failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Petrovic’s failure is a familiar story. The Chinese team has qualified for the World Cup only once since rejoining international competitions in the late 1970s.

When it did make it through in 2002, the team didn’t manage to score a goal and was knocked out in the first round. In last year’s Olympics – when other Chinese sportspersons were excelling – the team flopped again.

Chinese fans date the rot back to the so called ‘5.19 incident’ in 1985, when a Chinese side was beaten 2-1 by the colonialists Hong Kong (at home, moreover). The result meant they (again) failed to qualify for the World Cup. Fans went on the rampage, even overturning the team bus. Then coach, Zhen Xuelin recalls: “5.19 [which refers to the date May 19] was a nightmare. The match is the heaviest blow in my life. I have never trained a team since.”

Xinhua, the state news agency, tells it like it is when it says the national team’s sub-par performance has “consumed the patience of fans, and soon they considered the national football team as a joke”. A writer on the Qianlong.com website even referred to the team as “our national humiliation”.

Being pathetic at football is hard to take for a country that can legitimately claim to be the birthplace of the world’s favourite sport. In 2004 football’s governing body FIFA recognised the game of cuju was the antecedent of today’s game. Cuju involved kicking a rubber ball stuffed with feathers and originated in Shandong during the Warring States period.

So who is to blame for the game’s problems in China? Many point at the players, who are commonly thought to be overpaid, oversexed and undereducated. But so what? Sounds like professional footballers the world over.

In fact, China’s footballing stars are paid less in a year than the top English Premiership players earn in a week. All the same, this is still a huge salary in China and one large enough to create expectations of outstanding performance.

Unfortunately, some players have made headlines more off the pitch than on it, especially for their amorous pursuits. In one of the more publicised incidents, a group surreptitiously left the team hotel during the Olympic campaign for a thirty minute stop at a neighbouring hotel. One claimed in a written apology afterwards that he went to “take a bath”, which has passed into local online parlance as a euphemism for less solitary activities.

Then there is the violence. Not amongst the spectators but on the pitch. Last year the team was fined for its physical conduct in a clash with the Japanese (which China lost) at the East Asia Championship. The year before a Chinese junior team spiced up a “friendly” game with the London club side Queens Park Rangers with a thirty-man brawl, featuring karate kicks.

Perhaps most shockingly to the Chinese public, two players were sent off in an Olympic game last year against Belgium. After the red card offences (an elbow to the head and a kick between the legs), China’s netizens soothed their frustration with humour: “The Chinese team just won two red medals.“

In fact, jokes about the national team are widespread. One goes ‘Smoking does harm to your health, and watching the national football team does harm to your life’; another states ‘Pay money to watch the English Premier League, pay with your life for watching the national football team’.

Gallows humour became so popular after the failure at the Olympics that newspapers were pressured by government agencies into cutting down on the jokes. The Chinese Football Association is a government-body, after all.

The players themselves sound deflated. Following the Olympic exit, Li Weifeng recognised the reality: “We play soccer like the Brazilians play ping-pong,” he admitted.

But perhaps the Chinese players take more than their fair share of criticism, especially in a society in which public rebuke is an exception rather than a norm.

Others say the game in general needs a vigorous spring-clean. Repeated allegations of match fixing have been made over the years. In one of the more damning examples, the China Daily quotes the president of one football club saying he thought at least half the games in the 2004 season had been tainted by betting scandals. Notorious referees are known as “black whistles” – for example, referee Gong Jianping was sentenced to 10 years in prison for accepting an Rmb80,000 bribe before a match between Zhejiang Lucheng and Xiamen Hongshi. The country’s main TV broadcaster CCTV has only this month relented on a ban of televised games in the domestic league, after growing frustrated with a lack of “professional ethics”.

In fact, the new coach might be best advised to start with the grassroots. Many believe that there are too few children being encouraged to play soccer in China. In FIFA’s “Big Count” in 2006, the country had less amateur and youth players registered than in England, despite the huge difference in population.

Or perhaps the new coach should listen to Li Chuyuan, chairman of a southern Chinese team called Guangzhou Medication. Li believes Chinese medicine can adjust the bodies of the nation’s players and make them world class. Anything is worth a try.

Keeping Track: in WiC8 we wrote about the woeful state of China’s national football team, and its search for a new coach to replace Serbian, Vladimir Petrovic. This week – after months of delay and deliberation – Gao Hongbo was selected for the role. A former Chinese national striker, Gao guided Changchun Yatai to the Chinese Superleague title in 2007. Less auspiciously he was also forced to step down after a rift with the team’s players. He is the seventh coach appointed since 2000 and the youngest.(8 May 2009)


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