Sport

Club vs country

Soccer boss has a quirky idea

If they can win the league, then surely they can win Olympic gold?

England qualified for this year’s World Cup by beating nine other national teams. But what if England had to play Manchester United? Who would win? For football fans it’s one of those great hypothetical debates.

After all, the coach of the national team is free to choose from a wide selection of the country’s finest players. A club manager has to work with a smaller squad and finite financial resources. Surely the national team should beat the country’s best club sides?

Well, it’s a scenario that’s about to be put to the test in China. Wei Di – China’s new soccer tsar – has announced that the national team will play the country’s club teams this year. The plan is to give it more practice in the hope of winning a football medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.

There is a certain logic to that. National football sides can look great on paper, but often perform below expectations because they don’t play well as a team. That is where club sides have the edge – playing week in and week out together, allows the players to gel. That’s why bookmakers might well make Manchester United favourites in a match versus England.

However, with the Chinese football season set to start tomorrow, many clubs, newspapers and netizens have derided Wei’s plan as ill-thought out.

Wei begs to differ. “I don’t mind them saying my head was kicked by an ass,” he retorts, adding that Chinese football is in such terrible shape that a radical new approach is needed. “For a socialist country like us, why can’t we find a route for soccer with our characteristics.”

His original plan – made public last week – was for the nation’s Olympic football team to play in China’s First Division. However, in a classic example of policymaking-on-the-hoof he soon upgraded his idea. At the weekend Wei suggested the Olympic side instead play in the country’s top division, the Chinese Super League (CSL).

This is the equivalent of England playing in the Premiership, and meeting the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in regular fixtures. By playing together each week, Wei reckons the Olympic footballers will “raise their level” and grow in fitness and confidence.

Not everyone is in agreement. While Wei claims to have got 23 football clubs to concur with the plan, the Chengdu Blades is not one of them. The Blades – owned by England’s Sheffield United – fear the move will decapitate its team. That’s because four of its key players are also regulars in the Olympic side. The Blades coach didn’t take long to do the math: if the Olympic team joins the CSL, he will lose almost half his footballers. His season will pretty much be over before it’s started.

The Chengdu Daily is accordingly quite hostile to the idea, labelling it an “administrative dictate”. Another newspaper, Modern Express, also raises some practical drawbacks with the plan. For example, will players be motivated when they play against their own clubs? Who will pay their salaries? What happens if the Olympic side has a bad season and comes bottom of the table? Can it be relegated?

WiC has written extensively about the corruption problems in Chinese football (see WiC39). Wei sees his plan as a first step in rehabilitating the game in China – where soccer’s reputation has fallen so low that it’s the butt of jokes.

Nike executives, no doubt, agree with Wei’s determination to turn Chinese football around. But the American sportswear firm may be less enthusiastic about this particular initiative. It recently signed a 10 year deal to sponsor the CSL, paying $200 million. One of the chief benefits: all the teams play in kits that are made by Nike and carry its famous swoosh logo.

However, the Olympic team’s strip is made by its biggest rival, Adidas. The sight of Adidas-made kits gracing CSL games would be galling for Nike. After all its big sponsorship deal with the league was supposed to mean Nike was the only sports brand on show at matches.


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