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One Billion Fans, One Terrible Team: Why is China’s National Soccer Team So Bad?

BEIJING, CHINA— On a Friday evening in May, more than 50,000 green-clad Beijingers streamed into Worker’s Stadium to watch the local soccer team, the Beijing National Security, play the Guizhou Harmonious Relations. Harmonious Relations lost that night, in more ways than one. The drone of vuvuzelas was punctuated with periodic chanting, mostly variations on the unprintable-in-English term shabi. (A polite translation might be “dumb vagina.”) When a Guizhou player subbed out, the Beijing fans hassled his replacement: “Shabi, big shabi, the more you change, the more you’re a shabi.” While the taunts were directed at the opposition, it occurred to me, sitting in the bleachers among the rowdy yet remarkably sober teenage fans, that they could be addressing Chinese soccer itself. 

Soccer is one of the most popular spectator sports in China. Games between teams belonging to the domestic Chinese Super League (CSL), the top professional league in China, regularly draw crowds in the tens of thousands, plus millions of eyeballs on television, while the 2004 Asian Cup between China and Japan was the most-watched sports event in Chinese history. The CSL sold more than 4.2 million tickets in 2011, with an average game turnout of 17,651—greater than that of any other Asian league. While ticket prices fluctuate, a rough estimate of 50 yuan per ticket (that’s how much I paid a friendly scalper) would put the CSL’s annual revenue at around 210 million yuan, or $33 million. The widespread appreciation makes sense, considering the Chinese claim to have invented the sport: A team-based ball-kicking game called cuju became popular as early as the Han Dynasty. As international contests expanded in the early twentieth century, Team China enjoyed a hot streak, winning the Far Eastern Games six times in a row between 1915 and 1925. 

But in recent decades, Chinese soccer has suffered. The men’s national team scored zero points in three games at the 2002 World Cup, the last one for which it qualified. Since 1988, it has only made it into the Olympics once, in 2008, and that was because it hosted. The team’s performance then was most notable for a Chinese fullback nailing a Belgian player in the crotch. Despite having the world’s largest population, China now ranks seventy-third in the world in men’s soccer, according to FIFA, down from thirty-seventh in 1998, though better than its 104–place ranking in 2009. The women’s national team isn’t quite as awful—it won the Asian Football Confederation Cup in 2006—but its success hasn’t compensated for the men’s failure. Outside Beijing’s Olympic Sports Center, I asked ten-year-old Qiang Guoming, who was coming from soccer practice with his weekend youth team, which was better, his team or the national team. “Ours,” he said without pausing. “They stink.”

OF ALL THE troubles plaguing Chinese soccer, corruption is the most publicized. Bribery convictions have soiled the sport from top to bottom in recent years: CFA deputy chief Yang Yimin accepted $200,000 in bribes and was sentenced to ten and half years in prison; former head of referees Zhang Jianqiang took $433,000 and got 12 years; and the ref known as the “Golden Whistle” (for his reputation for fairness) took $128,000 and received five and a half years. On June 13, courts sentenced another eleven players and officials, including former CFA head Nan Yong, to prison terms for match-fixing and bribery. The sport’s hand-greasing culture runs deep: Coaches pay off government officials in order to get hired, and players in turn bribe coaches for spots on professional teams. Nan Yong once quoted the price of a spot on the national team as 100,000 yuan, or about $16,000. 

Ethical laxity has even infiltrated youth soccer. At the World Middle School Football Championships in Turkey in 2009, a Chinese middle school girls’ team from Chongqing unexpectedly thumped the competition—beating the Turkish team 6-0, the French 3-0, and the Brazilians 1-0. Chinese media went wild, praising the team for its “excellent defense” and “cool composure.” As it turned out, all but three players were actually members of the national youth team. The school’s principal apologized but did not return the trophy. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) pleaded ignorance.

Youth soccer in general is in a sorry state. Last October, a primary school team lost a high-profile match to a visiting Russian youth team, spurring a Chinese media meltdown. Some fans blame the country’s Soviet-style sports education system. Starting as early as age four, aspiring professional athletes typically attend at rigorous government-run boarding schools, where they study in the morning and train in the afternoon. The least skilled players are regularly booted out, eliminating late bloomers before they’ve had a chance to mature. Parents are often reluctant to let their child—usually their only child—do anything other than study for the all-important college exams. Adding to their reluctance is the perception that soccer is dangerous. “Now kids only play soft games, like jump rope,” says Cai Wei, general manager of the Beijing Off Road soccer club.

Fixing China’s soccer system will take time, but long-term solutions are not China’s specialty. “China needs a 30-year football plan,” says Rowan Simons, the author of Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic of China to Love Football. “But if I present that plan to a new leader, the only thing he can be sure of is it will not work in his tenure.” Incentives favor short-term maneuvers that burnish the reputation of whoever is currently in charge, he says, not long-term fixes that earn incumbents little credit. Officials at the China Football Association generally hold their positions for four years. Coaches cycle through even more quickly: There were eight national men’s team coaches in the last decade. As a result, they tend to favor splashy “solutions,” such as importing expensive foreign players like French former Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka and coaches like Italy’s Marcello Lippi. These strategies gin up media attention, but don’t fix systemic problems like the country’s shoddy youth program.

Some organizations—Beijing Off Road, for one—are trying to help. With three freshly painted bright-green pitches and a clear view of the Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, Off Road looks like it would be at home in Bethesda. Founded in 1997 and funded by member contributions (it costs 20 yuan, or about $3, for an hour of play), it offers lessons and facilities to kids and adults interested in recreational play, as well as an entry point for aspiring professional players who haven’t committed themselves to a government-run school. It’s also one of only about 80 pitches in Beijing, a city of 20 million. One adult player told me he commutes 30 kilometers each way to get there.

But even a relatively successful club like Off Road faces huge obstacles, according to Cai Wei, a floppy-haired former car salesman who once played for the People’s Liberation Army soccer team. Land is expensive, so it’s hard to justify using it for wide-open green space. The number of kids who want to play is shrinking. According to official statistics, the number of registered soccer players in China declined from 600,000 in 1996 to 7,000 in 2011. Even the so-called fans who attend professional soccer games are not real enthusiasts, he says: “They just go to shout.”

THAT THE SHOUTING has eclipsed the soccer is remarkable in a media environment as tightly controlled as China’s. The Chinese don’t shy away from publicly discussing the sport’s woes. “If you want to feel desperate and depressed, watch Chinese football,” the comedian Song Dandan joked during a national Chinese New Year broadcast in 2008. “We play soccer like the Brazilians play Ping-Pong,” the men’s team captain famously said after a loss to Brazil at the 2008 Olympics—an insult to Brazil’s not-half-bad ping pong team. That same year, Chinese soccer fans wrote a parody of the Beijing Olympics theme song that included the lyrics, “Come play with us, our goal posts are wide and always open.” “The [CFA] officials need to reflect upon themselves,” said former national team captain Fan Zhiyi, after the team’s loss in the 2008 Olympics. “Who should be responsible for all these mess-ups?”

The Propaganda Department has occasionally drawn a line, demanding the press stop making fun of the men’s national team in the wake of the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Cup. But, in general, the government hasn’t discouraged chatter. If anything, by cracking down on corruption, they’ve fueled it. Fans attending the Beijing game rattled off complaints like talking points. “If Lionel Messi were born here, he wouldn’t be great,” said a man who called himself Zhu.

Oddly enough, soccer has become a kind of safe space for dissent—or, perhaps from the government’s perspective, a useful safety valve for public anger. The people I met did not seem reluctant to share their grievances, and while they started with soccer, they didn’t end there. Upset about government control of land? Complain about the lack of soccer fields. Sick of a culture of corruption and embezzlement? Scold the seedy soccer officials. Or if you just need to let off steam, round up some friends and go scream “Shabi!” Maybe that’s why, at the Beijing National Security match, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers ringed the field. They weren’t watching the game. They were watching the crowd.

Christopher Beam is a writer based in Beijing