Why is the Chinese National Soccer Team so Bad?

By | April 25, 2016

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It seems absurd that a country with over a billion people cannot field a team that can qualify more than just once for the World Cup. Yet, with a FIFA ranking of just 81, China has managed to do just that, finishing 31st out of 32 teams in the 2002 World Cup (Noymer 1). Even at the Olympics, China ranks highly among both total and gold medals – a fact that means there is not a general lack of athleticism.  What is it about soccer that makes it so hard for China to excel in it? Ultimately, much of the blame falls on the Chinese education system and the cultural values that accompany it, which results in a lack of grassroots soccer in the country.

Chinese culture places a significant emphasis on education, which is “geared toward standardized tests, requiring hours of after-school work, which are considered by many to be the lone path to upward mobility” (“Little Red Card…” 1). Parents realize the nearly impossible odds a player has to overcome to play professionally on any level, and while the average salary at top clubs like Guangzhou Evergrande is high, at about $1 million USD for the 2014, much of this is skewed as a result of the influx of foreign players (“Global Sports Salaries Survey 2015” 96). The average salary drops off immensely after the top few clubs, and especially into the lower leagues. As a result, most people do not see soccer as a viable career, and aspiring professionals have the stigma of being perceived as a failure in school. As a result, in 2011, there were just 7000 under-18 players registered under the Chinese Football Association (“A Game of Two Halves” 1).

To compound matters, what emphasis that remains on physical education tends to fall on more traditional (and generally individual) sports like badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. One reason for this is how talent tends to be identified; the system is built in a way that looks for physical attributes like height or long limbs, which are useful in a number of sports. Moreover, from the government’s point of view, individual sports at the Olympics yields much more potential for medals. By essentially “funneling athletes into obscure sports,” China has found an efficient way to gain athletic prestige (“Little Red Card…” 1). In the that mindset, it makes no sense to spend the effort and money to field a team of 23 individuals that at most can win one medal per competition.

Even within the realm of team sports, soccer takes a backseat role to basketball, which has been marketed more aggressively in China. Part of this was due to Yao Ming’s prominence in the NBA, which caused millions of people to watch basketball. Another reason that basketball is more popular is that it takes up less space to set up a court, and land is a valuable commodity in China’s cities (“Little Red Card…” 1). As a result, most schools have no soccer pitches to play on, and the few that exist in cities tend to cost money to use.

The final problem with soccer in China lies in corruption. When China began its economic reforms in the early 1990s, sports teams began to operate more like commercial ventures rather than as state-run entities, freeing up investment. As wealthy investors began to flock towards soccer, so too did corruption, as investors began to bribe officials and fix matches. With little oversight, this became the norm, starting a culture based not on meritocracy, but on who had deeper pockets. This problem continued deep into the mid-2000s, before culminating in a serious investigation in the 2009-10 season, where twenty people were implicated (“Little Red Card…” 1). Corruption has caused aspiring players to be demoralized and for the public to want to disassociate itself from the sport. No parents want their children to be associated with a morally corrupt sport, which has been another reason children are discouraged from pursuing it professionally.

Looking ahead, however, there seems to be some hope for soccer. Property developers, some of the richest companies in China, have begun pouring money into the Chinese Super League. 13 out of the 16 clubs in the league are connected with developers, who can afford to pay better salaries, reducing the incentive for match-fixing (“Little Red Card…” 1). Moreover, this has allowed somewhat absurd signings in the recent January transfer window, with the CSL outspending the Premier League and making five of the six largest signings in the window. Players like Gervinho, Alex Teixeira, and Jackson Martinez all moved to China in search of lucrative contracts. As a result, total attendance has risen from 1.4 million in 2004 to over 5 million in 2015, and per-game attendance has doubled (Flowers 1). As the CSL becomes more prominent and cleaner to the general public, it represents a greater chance for the sport to attract more attention among the youth and ultimately lead to a stronger national team.


Works Cited

Flowers, Andrew. “China Is Splurging On Big-Name Soccer Talent.” FiveThirtyEight. N.p., 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/china-is-splurging-on-big-name-soccer-talent/>.

“A Game of Two Halves.” The Economist. N.p., 5 June 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21603420-worlds-largest-nations-will-play-almost-no-part-world-cup-there-are-signs>.

“Global Sports Salaries Survey 2015.” Sporting Intelligence (2015): n. pag. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

“Little Red Card: Why China Fails at Football.” The Economist. N.p., 17 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://www.economist.com/node/21541716>.

Noymer, Andrew. “2002 FIFA World Cup Final Standings.” UC Berkeley (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.


6 thoughts on “Why is the Chinese National Soccer Team so Bad?

  1. Y Thi

    Tying culture to sports achievement is as silly as typing academic achievement to it. Baloney, as an American might say.

  2. Tim Jowers

    Kinda sad as China had a “football” sport long before most everywhere else in the world. Since that time, China has lost much of its mystique. I’d love to see them competitive and thought their women’s team was. Isn’t it? Having worked with lots of Chinese I realize they have a very diverse set of cultures but the general culture does not encourage individualism nor challenging authority – both of which are very valuable traits in soccer. One has to have that belief and drive to take over the game and bow to no one else.
    I’m sure China will become a force as soccer heroes arise from the Chinese population. One could certainly point to India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries and ask where is their world-class team. Why are small countries in Europe always in the World Cup? I think it takes a soccer culture to drive for soccer greatness.

  3. Lopa Rahman

    Excellent post, Patrick! As someone who knew nothing about soccer in China beforehand, I really appreciated the in-depth analysis you offer here. I think the point you made about education in China and the stigma of focusing on a sport over school is spot-on. Based on conversations with Chinese friends, it is evident that the bar is set incredibly high for academic success in China and students who fall short–whether it is by choice (i.e. choosing not to prioritize academics) or not–are ostracized for their decision. It’s hard to overstate the impact of social pressure, and I can imagine that social pressure alone deters many young soccer fans from aspiring to a career in the sport. I think it’s interesting how most of the big-time players in China are international. For that to change, cultural and social changes would need to come first.


  4. Austin Tran

    I have actually talked to many of my relatives who live in China about the relevance of sports for the nation and they admitted that everybody enjoyed playing it in their free time when they were young, but when they got older they had to give up sports to focus on studying for their exams that pretty much decide the rest of their lives. In this way, in a nation as large as China the national team would perform so poorly because anyone with talent cannot hone and refine their skills because they are too busy studying for tests. The focus on individual academic success in China then contributes to this sort of “talent drain” that China has experienced. However, it is important to note that my relatives are also huge Kobe and Yao Ming fans, so the lack of talent may also be partially due to the fact that the Chinese youth have so little free time to dedicate to sports and the sport they do follow is basketball, not soccer. With the Chinese Super League looking to spend whatever it takes to aggressively expand, it will be interesting to see the trajectory of soccer’s popularity in China.

  5. Kevin He

    The lack of Chinese soccer talent is actually something I’ve pondered before, and I think some of the points you make here are spot on. The emphasis that Chinese culture places on individual achievement drastically reduces the appeal of team sports, where individual talent is overshadowed by superior teamwork and group play. Soccer is a prototypical team-based sport, where a team of average players with good coordination can beat a team with one or two superstars and poor teamwork. Personally I think this mentality is crippling for the social development of China’s youth. Involvement in team sports from a young age provides some of the best experiences in working with peers and functioning in a group setting. Without participation in these activities, Chinese kids fail to receive a lot of the exposure to working with others that American students have, especially outside of academics. So when it comes to the work place and functioning as a member of society, the lack of value placed on team exercises in schooling years starts to become evident. I’ve spoken to my parents on their experiences with the Chinese education system, and they feel the same way – because emphasis is not placed on physical education and athletics that focus on working as a team, a lot of kids in today’s younger Chinese generation seem to lack the social sense and suave that their American counterparts have. Although this may simply be attributed to cultural differences, there is no doubt that the American school system’s attention to teamwork and exercise are huge contributors to its students’ healthier social development.
    Returning to soccer in particular, my personal experience (having talked to some of my friends in China) with soccer is that a lot of people actually enjoy playing it, and it’s actually one of the more popular sports, but most tend to play on concrete surfaces in public parks, rather than grass fields. To this end, your point about lack of space for soccer pitches is probably very accurate. As for your point on basketball, I definitely read somewhere that Kobe was almost unanimously the most popular basketball figure in China – even in front of Yao Ming – because his success came solely through rigorous hard work, and he wasn’t just some monstrous physical specimen that no one could hope to grow into. Kobe’s individual skill was enough to carry the Lakers for several years, and his impact on his team’s success is probably greater than any individual soccer player. It’s much harder to find a soccer player to idolize that you can say the same of, and that’s another reason (like you said) that soccer isn’t as popular in the national eye.


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