How can a country with 2.66 billion feet not be a football world-beater?
It’s a question regularly posed by the Chinese media. The fact that a country like Slovenia (population 2 million) can qualify for the World Cup grates. After all, there are fewer Slovenians than there are residents of an average-sized Chinese city like Wuxi.
One statistic, in particular, jumped out at WiC. We calculated the combined populations of all 32 nations playing at this month’s event in South Africa. It adds up to 1.55 billion, a couple of hundred million above China’s own population. Then again, if you strip out the US, the other 31 nations were – collectively – less populous than the Chinese. So those that like to argue that population is destiny seem confounded.
It is also a galling state of affairs for a country that lays claim to inventing the game. (In 2004 football’s governing body FIFA recognised the game of cuju was the antecedent of modern day soccer. Cuju, which originated in Shandong province during the Warring States period, involved kicking a rubber ball stuffed with feathers).
The qualification of countries like North Korea for the World Cup constitues “a sharp slap in the face for Chinese football,” agrees the Jinan Times. In a poll of 50,000 frustrated fans on kaixin.com – the Chinese version of Facebook – 97% called for the entire Chinese team to be sacked. “Chinese football is like a piece of rotten meat,” commented a netizen on the Tianya Forum.
A man, surnamed Chen, even attempted to sue the Chinese football team in a Beijing court this week. He says the players have signed a contract with the nation’s fans – who expect them to play in the World Cup. Their failure to do so constitutes a breach of contract law, he contests.
So what reasons are given for China’s feeble football record? Forbes magazine has been giving it some thought this month. One suggestion is that Chinese children lack access to practice pitches (although that doesn’t seem to stop a series of superstars appearing out of Brazil’s favelas).
Another is that the Chinese physique is disadvantaged against larger opponents. That doesn’t seem valid either. Chinese nationals have played successfully in the European leagues. And the South Koreans are proving in South Africa at the moment that the Asian physiology can more than stand up for itself.
Corruption in Chinese soccer is another offered explanation, although that one looks a stretch too (if it was a major factor, the performance of some of the African teams needs explaining. Why, indeed, has Italy managed to win World Cups)?
In fact, the Forbes article points more to a failure to develop a genuine grassroots structure for the game, something that the Americans and Japanese have now been able to develop, to their respective benefit.
Until then, perhaps, expect repeats of previous failures to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup. May 19, 1985 holds a special place in infamy. That’s when a Chinese side was beaten 2-1 in Beijing by the then-colony of Hong Kong. Fans went on the rampage, overturning the team bus. The man who coached China to that calamity, Zhen Xuelin recalls: “It was a nightmare. The match is the heaviest blow in my life. I have never trained a team since.”
The current coach is trying to be a bit more upbeat, and in an interview with Sports Weekly, he said he was learning from the performance of two Asian nations at this World Cup: Japan and South Korea.
After Japan beat Cameroon 1-0, Gao Hongbo praised the victory as a result of teamwork. The “magic weapon” was Japanese discipline. South Korea’s win over Greece also displayed its team’s strong spirit and physical strength, Gao thought.
This led Gao to conclude that Asia’s ideal team would combine “Japanese discipline, South Korean morale and a Chinese brain”.
But for now, Gao is concentrating on leading China’s own bid to reach the World Cup finals. “I hope in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the Chinese men’s team will shock the world,” he says.
Just getting to the finals would shock most of his compatriots. But perhaps Gao has some grounds for optimism. In February, his team won the East Asian Football Championship, beating the South Koreans for the first time in 32 years.
And Gao can always look on the bright side. Things could be worse. He could be manager of France.
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