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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.
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.