China’s absence from the World Cup has spurred a call for the total overhaul of its football program, underscoring the frustration fans in the world’s most populous nation feel at being left out of the sport’s top event.
“Only complete reboot can save Chinese soccer,” ran a headline for an opinion piece in China Daily Tuesday, above an article that contrasted the failures of the men’s team with Japan and South Korea, which made the round of 16 in Qatar. The success of the east Asian neighbors “awakened Chinese soccer fans to how big the gap is between the two teams and the Chinese national team,” the article said.
It then pointed to the many problems standing in the way of China achieving its footballing dreams — fostered by none other than President Xi Jinping — such as the lack of a program for training youngsters and a solid professional league. “Only the children who have given up studies are encouraged to practice sports,” it said.
The article also hinted at the corruption problems that have bedeviled Chinese football, with former national team coach Li Tie coming under investigation by graft busters last month.
It was also critical of a strategy by pro teams backed by property developers to lavish foreign players with high salaries, only to see them leave when companies ran into financial problems. That was a reference to China Evergrande Group’s team, the once dominant franchise that had to seek a government takeover last year.
The soccer dream that Xi gave China goes back to at least 2011, when as presidential heir-apparent he said the nation should qualify, host and win the World Cup. So far though China has qualified for just one of the events in its history, stumbling out of the group stage in 2002 with zero goals in three losses. North Korea, the country that China props up economically, has qualified twice: in 1966, when it pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the event’s history by toppling Italy, and 2010.
In 2015, Xi assigned a Communist Party taskforce led by a vice premier to develop the game in the nation. The same year the State Council, the nation’s cabinet, launched a plan to boost funding for the national team, build new training camps and establish 50,000 soccer schools over a decade.
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That’s yet to translate to success on the pitch for the men’s team, which is 79th in FIFA’s world ranking. The women’s team has done much better, coming in at No. 15.
“The government really needs to step back and let football people administer the game and give the Chinese Football Association true independence,” said Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Wild East Football, a news website covering the sport in the Asian nation.
“The impact of building physical football infrastructure will always be limited if there isn’t a culture to support it which understands, values and celebrates the sport,” he added.
Football remains a popular sport in China, where fields at parks in big cities are often busy with recreational league matches. Several of the top topics tending on Weibo on Wednesday were related to the World Cup, with many people talking about Portugal beating Switzerland to advance.
“I would be so happy if the Chinese team played like this,” wrote one fan on the social media site.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.