In July 2011, the then Chinese vice president Xi Jinping met a delegation from South Korea. They presented him with a football that had been signed by former Manchester United player Park Ji-Sung. As a football fan himself, Xi told the Koreans that qualifying for, hosting and winning the World Cup were three of his great hopes for China, according to Xinhua.
Local media outlets don’t mention these aspirations much any more as Chinese football fans have suffered years of disappointment from the dismal performance of their men’s national team.
The latest reversal came on the first day of the Lunar New Year this month, when the Chinese team suffered an unexpected defeat against Vietnam in a World Cup qualifier. The 3-1 setback left China with five points from eight matches, languishing only two points above Vietnam at the bottom of the group. With two matches remaining, the team has now been eliminated from the World Cup finals in Qatar later this year (a presence at the prestigious tournament has eluded the Chinese since 2002).
The latest defeat also marked a new nadir as China’s first loss to a country long considered a minnow in Asian football. Vietnam’s solitary three points in the qualifying group came from its surprise victory over its far larger neighbour. And the defeat feels horribly prophetic. After China suffered a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Thailand’s youth team in 2013 (see WiC198), former team captain Fan Zhiyi went on TV and called for the wholesale revamp of the country’s football ‘system’, warning that the way things were going, the risk was that China might even “lose to Vietnam”.
Fan’s prediction came at a time when Vietnam was below 150th in the FIFA rankings. Since then it has risen to 98th, not far below China in 74th place.
Fan’s remarks of nine years ago forewarned how China’s footballing standards needed to be improved. The lack of progress since then jars awkwardly with the country’s achievements in other areas. In sporting terms, the Chinese have proven much more successful in churning out new gold medals in many Olympic events, for instance. However, they have failed when it comes to football.
Hopes of better times on the football field were initially raised – at least among the nation’s sports bureaucrats – in 2015 when the State Council announced its Overall Plan for Chinese Football Reform and Development, a blueprint that envisaged a day when China challenged other footballing superpowers for glory (only at that point might the country dare to achieve Xi’s goal of hosting a World Cup, some local sports bloggers noted).
Nevertheless, following seven years of supposed reforms, the national soccer side is still failing spectacularly both on and off the pitch.
In all fairness, the team’s effort to prepare for the latest round of World Cup qualifying matches were disrupted by the government’s zealous measures to contain the pandemic. All ‘home matches’ were played in neutral venues, for example. Player morale may also have been sapped by financial difficulties in their domestic competition – the China Super League (CSL) – given that many of the leading sponsors from the real estate sector have cut back on their support.
Yet in view of the lack of fighting spirit shown against Vietnam, fans have been showing little sympathy for a group of professionals who are believed to be making similar weekly wages to many of the players in more elite European leagues.
“You put a piece of pork in goal and a dog would kick the ball with more enthusiasm,” one pundit fumed on weibo.
The bigger question is why China cannot produce a decent squad of footballers out of such a massive population. The answer may rest with the fundamental problem that has long plagued the local soccer scene. China isn’t picking from a pool of 1.4 billion people, China News Weekly noted, since it has only 8,000 registered professional players. This compares with 50,000 in Vietnam and 500,000 players in South Korea.
The failure of the Chinese national football team, the newspaper complains, is also the result of “a lack of input” from the government. The Chinese football world has been relying on market forces to channel investment into the game but the system has imploded since its major backers – i.e real estate developers – have largely pulled the plug on further finance.
Time will tell if the government will revert back to a more state-led model in which it has often championed a ‘grass roots’ focus on soccer from school level and up. But building a broader base in soccer skills at a national scale will take time and consistency to achieve – with limited evidence of substantial progress to date.
In the meantime Chinese football fans wait impatiently for national success. And at this juncture it’s a much more realistic proposition that China’s women’s team is more likely to fulfil Xi Jinping’s football dreams. They won the Women’s Asian Cup last Sunday after coming back from two goals down to beat South Korea 3-2 in a dramatic final. Perhaps policymakers can draw on some of the lessons of the womens’ success to elevate the performance of their male counterparts. Fans are already doing some of that themselves, lamenting that the men’s team has much to learn from the women in their fighting spirit.
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