On football in China – foreign foes and fake fans.
Paper making, gunpowder, the compass, alcohol, tea, silk – and football. Despite many believing that football originated in England in 1863, it is China that is recognized by FIFA as having developed one of the earliest forms of football. Named Cuju, Ts’u-chü, or today commonly referred to as 足球 (pronounced zúqiú), during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279AD), football in China was popular among the wider urban culture of entertainment, sports, leisure and pleasure.
Due to Xi Jinping’s professed love of the sport (he is an avid Manchester United fan), in recent years football popularity in the Chinese mainland has (very) slowly but surely started to gain traction. In 2011 whilst still vice-president, he expressed his desire for China to qualify for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and to win a World Cup. China has stated its ambition to become a world football superpower by 2050.
So, why is the appeal of football still limited to first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai? Many online discussions among avid Chinese football fans have expressed their dismay at China’s continual slump in widespread national adoration.
“国足从04年亚洲杯亚军开始，便如过山车一般坠落，直至今日，无数次 “留给中国队的时间已经不多了”，球迷们的心，凉了又冰，早已兴不起半点波澜。Since China was a runner-up in the 2004 Asian Cup, the national football team has fallen like a roller-coaster. Up until today, it has been said countless times that “the Chinese team doesn’t have much time left.” The spirits of Chinese football fans are down, and have long been unable to rise.”
“那么究竟为什么中国球那么落后，那么多年起不来？ 因为我们并不在乎。问这个问题的人也仅仅是出于好奇。几乎没有人是在乎的。生活压力太大。 城市里找不到球场 大城市的土地寸土寸金。小时候有球场，长大没了。这是城市化的进程。踢球再重要，也没有比居住，发展经济更重要。Why is football in China so backwards? Because we don’t care. People who ask this question are simply doing so out of curiosity. Almost no one cares. The pressures in life are too great. In cities, there is no land to build big stadiums. I never saw a football stadium when I was a child. This is the process of urbanization. Playing football is not important, it’s never going to be more important than living and developing the economy.”
Szymanski, author of Soccernomics, suggested that China’s sporting culture may be too rigid and formal for it to become a true football superpower. Where China was successful in creating Olympic champions, harnessing football talent requires “embracing creativity, improvisation, and individualism” – characteristics not conventionally compatible with Chinese society. An additional reason for a stagnating football culture in China is due to a lack of developed training programs to entice young players.
“我以为一名优秀的运动员，至少需要10年的时间接受最专业的足球训练，和参加无数的高强度比赛，才能成才。这体现了青训体系和职业联赛的重要性。然而目前国内的青训，只有少部分城市还有那么一点青训。I think a good athlete needs at least 10 years of the most professional football training and to participate in countless high-intensity competitions – to become (truly) talented. This reflects the importance of the youth training system and professional league. However, at present, there are only a few of these schools in China.”
“从我弟弟的专业足球训练之路来看，中国的体育培训已经烂到根了，陈旧的训练手段，非常不自律的生活，滥用禁药。我觉得这才是国内职业球员素质难以提高的根源。(虽然不愿意提起，弟弟因为禁药患上了尿毒症，目前已经换肾，也因此退役)。 Judging from my little brother’s experience of having been a professional football player, China’s sports training has been ruined – the methods are old, the life is very self-disciplined and banned drugs are abused. I think this is the root of the difficulty of improving the quality of domestic professional players. (Although I don’t want to mention it, my brother has suffered from uremia because of the banned drugs, has already had a kidney replacement, and is now retired).”
Based on Xi Jinping’s nationalist outlook for the future of China, football could one day start to boom. China would need a dozen or so worldwide renowned players, a consistent and committed investment into cultivating a culture of football right from nursery through to university, and more wins … because no China man or woman would support a losing team. In recent years, pushes to promote domestic football have come in waves. After announcing his intention for China to become one of the world’s leading football nations, a transfer frenzy from European and South American teams ensued – resulting in exorbitant fees and wage packets, of which overseas currency flows and troubling economic data started to worry Beijing.
Today, China has learned that whatever money they spend on football should be to improve their domestic teams only. The revenues collected from player tax are now spent on domestic football development activities – founded on the sentiment for “China first” – football in China, made by China.
This 66hands story is dedicated to Grandad – thank you always for your encouragement and support.