Shanghai. The new Chinese state President Xi Jinping is an avowed football fan. And fottball has been included in the curriculum at 20,000 elementary and secondary schools. But China’s national football team can play however which way they want, in the end they are treated in the main with scorn by their own fans. Reaching the quarterfinals of the Asia Cup in Australia with a 100 per cent record after three games would be reason enough to heap praise on the young team. Instead China’s internet community have used the success to poke fun at them. One post in allusion to the fact that young men outnumber young women by miles in the country read, “If our footballers can reach the quarterfinals, then you’re certain to find a girlfriend this year.”
Numerous other jokes in the “If they can,” category are circulating the social networks and symbolically stand for the way the majority assesses the side’s performance to date – even a broken clock is right twice a day. The frustration amongst the Chinese is so deep that doing well in the tournament Down Under will by no means be enough to ignite any semblance of euphoria in the country. The fans have been disappointed all too often by their national team. Past match fixing and corruption scandals in professional football have also killed off any last traces of credibility.
It is not an easy situation for the new coach Alain Perrin who has decided to make radical changes and cut the average age of the squad. After the era of failure with the Spanish idol Camacho in charge, Perrin has started the rebuilding process with a mixture of newcomers and players back in the fold like Hao Junmin who was once on Schalke’s books in Germany. With an average age of 24, Perrin consciously risked an early exit in Australia. Under no pressure on them but with then again showing the long lost fighting spirit, the Chinese have sprung a surprise. Wins in the Asia Cup against Saudi Arabia (1-0), Uzbekistan (2-1) and North Korea (2-1) should spark a change of mood. However the hurdle in the quarterfinal against hosts Australia could be too much for them to attract greater attention with additional successes.
Perrin will however ultimately be judged on whether China qualifies for the 2018 World Cup finals. Sceptics in the country are recommending, for safety’s sake, fans that they savour the latest victories as there are no grounds for long term optimism. The People’s Daily, the voice of the ruling authoritarian Communist Party, even dedicated an editorial to football. “China’s professional clubs are burning money at a record rate but the potential of the national team and the academy system is lagging way behind,” wrote the newspaper. Then the author rants about the fact that women’s and junior teams have to practice in mud in amongst marauding pigs.
The former professional coach Wang Liang has first hand knowledge of the problem, even though there is huge potential slumbering in the country. After his years as a second division coach, he has now turned his focus to the young talents in his home region in northwest Chinese province of Shaanx.
“There are too few football pitches, the coaches are badly paid and the leagues are not played all through the year. Instead, kids only have four or five matches in a single tournament week per season,” says Wang. It means children only gain minimal competitive experience.
The state organisation of the sport system has replaced a club setup in China. Teachers decide whether children should play table tennis, do artistic gymnastics or swim. Those sifted are fully supported in everything they do. Four-year olds board in sports schools and are moulded into future Olympic champions. Football however is way down the list of sports deserving support. “Schools and communes have little money left for football. They don’t see any sense in providing funding,” complains Wang. Accordingly few Chinese children ever get the chance of playing football.
Whilst good coaches lay the technical groundwork in artistic gymnastics and swimming for children in every village in the back and beyond, good football coaches are rare. Wang Liang can remember a talented left-footed player amongst his protégés. In elementary school, a coach forbade him to use his left foot because he believed it was best to play football with the right foot. The youngster nevertheless managed to be selected for the state team of the province which has a population of 38 million. Whilst juniors get all the help they need in other sports to also fulfil academic expectations, school demands eat up virtually all the time young footballers have for training.
It has created the vicious circle in which Chinese football finds itself. In need of improvement, the image of the professional leagues has resulted in officials in many parts of the country stopping funding. Without the grass roots, there is hardly any growth within football and the Chinese are having to turn to foreign know-how. The People’s Daily has recognised that Chinese football is lagging 20 years behind Asia’s main football powers, Japan and South Korea. China has only ever qualified once for the World Cup finals – in 2002 – and they have been trying to catch up Asia’s top teams ever since.
In order for things to change, football has been included in the Chinese school curriculum in the past years. 20,000 elementary and secondary schools will in the future allow football to be played in sports lessons. A similar initiative started by the Ministry of Sports in 2009 produced little of note as the Ministry of Education was not going to allow others to interfere in their business. Responsibility for the new campaign was therefore apportioned to both educational ministries.
Whether it will be sufficient is something that, for example, the state daily newspaper Yangtse Evening News doubts. It argues that the academic performances are decisive for the promotion teachers and headmasters – not the integration of football. Parents also disapprove of football due to its bad image. Coach Wang’s services have already been declined. The headmaster told him that he is welcome to offer football but he will receive no funding.
The only hope pessimists have is the new Chinese state President Xi Jinping who, despite all the setbacks, has proved to be a true football fan. The Ministry of Sport in Beijing has been encouraging the provinces to promote football since 2014. Unfortunately the appeal has produced no fruits as of yet says the ex-professional coach Wang. The communes prefer to sell land to real estate agents to build residential areas and shopping centres. It brings them economic growth and plus points in the party. “Nobody has been promoted because he laid a football pitch,” says Wang.