Chinese Soccer’s Lofty Goals

LAYNE VANDENBERG discusses the current state of Chinese soccer and China’s renewed push to establish soccer culture.

The Chinese national soccer team, pictured in 2011.
The Chinese national Soccer team, pictured in 2011.

Even with a population of 1.3 billion, China is still experiencing significant trouble fielding a successful, eleven-man national soccer team. While soccer is China’s most watched sport, hardly any Chinese soccer fans are footballers themselves.

Instead, Chinese fans are spectators. English Premier League soccer matches reach more than 320 million Chinese households, and in 2015, the Chinese Super League (CSL) had an average game attendance of 21,800 people, the largest in Asia. China’s love for watching football could be seen in the rising popularity of the term “soccer widow” used to refer to Chinese women whose husbands would stay up all night to watch soccer matches during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

But Chinese fandom hasn’t produced players. While the Chinese Basketball Association reported that 300 million children and adults play basketball, the Chinese Football Association has only 7,000 registered soccer players under the age of 18. So why don’t Chinese children play soccer?

There are cultural and institutional factors that influence why Chinese kids don’t play. First, Chinese parents often discourage their children from participating in any extracurricular activities, including soccer. Even if Chinese children do play soccer, the club structure in China is not strong enough to encourage kids to keep playing. Lastly, if a child does play and belongs to a club, he or she still lacks a role model that demonstrates that Chinese soccer players can be successful on the international stage. I discovered these factors when speaking with three prominent figures in the Chinese soccer world, each with his own vision for how to get China off the sidelines and into the game.

The American

Tom Byer, an American soccer coach credited with Japan’s national soccer success, is a technical coach who believes Chinese kids don’t play soccer because of their parents. Many Chinese parents discourage sports because they doubt that sports can contribute to their children’s academic success. Leaning in and crossing his arms across his chest, as he often does with players at his training sessions, Byer explains, “Parents are the biggest stakeholders.”

Byer’s idea is not exclusive to China. It applies to any country where soccer is not part of household culture and kids aren’t playing soccer at a young age, including the United States and Japan. Byer’s research reveals that the top 50 players in the world, including players like Pelé, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi, “all attribute early childhood development of soccer skills to their parents, and they had all mastered their technical ability before they received coaching around the ages of 10 or 11 years old.”

By having parents introduce their children to soccer in their early years of development, Byer is nurturing a toddler’s ability to learn at a more accelerated pace than even ten-year-olds can. If Byer’s strategy catches on, China could tap into a potential player pool of over 250 million Chinese children under the age of six.

Although convincing Chinese parents to actively promote extracurricular sports isn’t easy, there are some families who are buying in by giving soccer balls to their kids and even enrolling them in newly created “soccer schools” financed by the Chinese government. These soccer schools primarily offer elementary school enrollment and include soccer as a curriculum requirement for all students.

To better understand this small number of families, I interviewed the mother and father of Yuan Shijia, a five-year old who attends one of the suburban Beijing kindergartens where Byer has started a soccer training program. Shijia has been playing football for around two years, ever since his father first met Byer at a training session. When Byer and I arrived at the Yuans’ small, two-bedroom apartment in Beijing, we realized we had forgotten a soccer ball. Luckily, the Yuans already had one sitting on top of their TV that Shijia plays with every day.

Both of Shijia’s parents expressed their desire for their son to play soccer for its rational benefits: health, friends, teamwork, and responsibility. Shijia’s father, a dedicated fan of Beijing Guoan, Barcelona FC, and the Brazilian and German national teams, also expressed desire for Shijia to “build the same interest” in the sport.

Through his family-targeted approach, Byer is slowly beginning to convince parents that soccer does not negatively impact their child’s future success. Instead, he argues it can contribute to their personal growth while solidifying relationships between Chinese parents and their children.

The Brit

Rowan Simons may be the current president of Guinness World Records China, but his 29 years in China have revolved around soccer and turned him into a de facto expert on Chinese soccer. He’s the only author who has ever extensively written about Chinese soccer in his memoir, Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic of China to Love Football.

Simons told me that soccer was never the people’s game; instead, it was the government’s game. China has watched its many leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and current President Xi Jinping, claim ownership over the game for political gains. Until recently, the Chinese government officially controlled the Chinese Football Association, the governing body of Chinese soccer, in clear violation of FIFA’s regulations against government interference.

Simons believes soccer clubs can return the game to the people. According to Simons, soccer clubs foster a community strong enough to supplant “fear of the government that is currently the shared basis of [Chinese] society.” In August 2001, to prove clubs can work as a social enterprise, Simons started Beijing Wanguoqunxing FC Limited, or ClubFootball, the first amateur soccer club in Beijing. Although ClubFootball started with only one club consisting of foreigners living in China, it now has 25 locations with over 3,000 registered kids, 60% of whom are Chinese.

Simons also believes that clubs personalize the game. For instance, in the past, soccer matches frequently broke out into violence because players would attack government-employed referees over their calls. At ClubFootball’s adult leagues, private referees become familiar faces. Overall, Simons explains, “clubs avoid the negative parts of the sport: corruption, bribery, [and] government control.” By weakening the negative associations Chinese people make with soccer, Simons hopes more players will pick up a ball and join the soccer community.

When I asked his opinion on the creation of “soccer schools,” Simons responded, “China cannot just have school reform. It needs club reform.” To prove his point, Simons refers back to his roots, stating in his enunciated accent, “In England, there [were] over 37,000 clubs and 32,000 soccer schools in 2010. You have to have both. You need to have links between the two. China has plans for the schools, but what about the clubs?”

Although China aims to compensate for its lack of clubs with schools, Simons comments with confidence, “China will have to change.” Simons further argues that this change must include China’s approach to teaching soccer fundamentals. Right now, “Chinese players are just as good [as foreign players] technically, they are just as fit physically, but they have no creativity. They lack a football brain.”

Soccer schools may be able to teach technical skills and physical fitness, but Simons believes they cannot teach creativity. Clubs, however, can nurture creativity by providing a community setting and safe environment where players can experiment, fail, and grow. Through this process of building an environment that welcomes all levels of players, clubs generate “emotional attachment and loyalty,” two crucial elements that help get Chinese kids on the field.

The Brazilian and the Chinese soccer captain

Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso presents another key barrier to popularizing soccer among the Chinese: the prevalence of foreign imports and the consequent lack of a Chinese role model.

In 2013 Elkeson left the Brazilian club Botafogo for Guangzhou Evergrande, the most popular Chinese club, for €5 million. That same year, Elkeson led Guangzhou to win the Asian Football Confederation’s Champions League for the first time ever.

Elkeson is easily one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese soccer, but he isn’t the only foreigner playing in China. Since his arrival in 2013, clubs in the Chinese Super League have paid even more money than the English Premier League the wealthiest soccer league in the world for foreign players. Elkeson attributes this surge in imports to the full pockets of Chinese investors, who are “investing a lot in player contracts and attracting trainers and coaches from Brazil and Europe.”

Even though foreign imports like Elkeson may have goals to improve Chinese soccer by drawing attention to the sport, I’m not convinced they encourage Chinese kids to play soccer. After my conversation with Elkeson, I reached out to Wei, one of the student captains of Peking University’s club soccer team.  

When Wei and I met at the only coffeeshop on PKU’s campus, he arrived late and panting, as if he had just run full sprints across a field. He was coming from soccer practice, which explained his full tracksuit. I broke the ice by asking when he first began playing soccer. He succinctly explained he started when he was 10 years old, but then quit. When I asked why he quit, he said, “When I was around 15 years old, I turned to basketball,” he paused. “Because of Yao Ming.”

Yao Ming was important to Chinese basketball for various reasons, but first it is important to understand why it was monumental for Yao to be good at basketball specifically. Basketball is what the Chinese call a “big ball” sport. As Xu Guoqi, Professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sport, explained to me, “the Chinese believe they are good at ‘small ball’ sports, such as ping pong. But there is an issue with big ball sports, such as soccer, where China is still fighting for its manhood.”  

Before Yao’s career, China could not compete in the international arena in most “big ball” sports, and it impacted Chinese national pride. Yao dispelled the “big ball” myth, first gaining fame in China before moving abroad to the NBA in mythic success story fashion. Yao proved that a Chinese man could not only play but excel at basketball to the point of becoming a household name even in the United States. As a result, more Chinese companies invested in the NBA, more Chinese watched basketball, and kids like Wei picked up a basketball and looked to Yao as a role model.

When it comes to soccer, Chinese kids don’t see a Chinese, soccer-playing Yao Ming dominating the field. They see foreign players like Elkeson. When I asked Wei if there was a Yao Ming of soccer, he sat quietly thinking before finally answering, “No one is good enough.”

It is no wonder that Chinese kids don’t choose to play soccer. Why would they ever aspire to join the national joke that is the national Chinese soccer team, when they could instead aspire to be the next Yao Ming?

Chinese soccer lacks an inspiring Chinese footballer who can challenge the assumption that the Chinese are incapable of being successful soccer players. In addition to attracting foreign imports, China needs to turn its gaze inwards and search for a Yao with unprecedented foot-eye coordination.

***

Although the Chinese soccer landscape will continue to be dominated by the non-Chinese in the coming years, the domestic industry is just warming up. To turn Chinese soccer lovers from spectators into star players, the Chinese government is beginning to take action.

In February 2015, President Xi Jinping introduced a rather revolutionary fifty-point plan for the development of soccer as a sport. First, it officially separated the Chinese Football Association from the Chinese government’s General Sports Administration, making it the only one of China’s 72 sports organizations to be ostensibly independent from the government. The plan also aims to open 50,000 soccer schools by 2025, making soccer a staple of many schools’ national curricula. Lastly, Xi established a presidential task force to promote soccer at the highest level alongside other task forces dedicated to Chinese economic affairs, cyber-security, and the military.

This political push for soccer ultimately reflects China’s desire for international recognition, echoing the sentiment of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. This time, President Xi’s goal is to participate in, host, and win the FIFA World Cup. To achieve its World Cup Dream, however, China is quickly realizing it needs more than an army of soccer players. It needs a soccer culture, and getting Chinese children to play soccer is crucial to creating it.

A combined approach of introducing soccer at an early age, encouraging the establishment of more soccer clubs, and developing Chinese soccer superstars, however, still will not solve all the barriers preventing China from succeeding on the field. At all levels, China must begin to strip away institutional and cultural practices of top-down enforcement in favor of grassroots efforts. This includes removing government intervention in the sport, changing the cultural mentality towards academics from punishing to rewarding kids who exhibit creativity and participate in activities outside of the classroom, and allowing social groups to organize freely to generate their own communities. These substantial changes not only give kids the opportunity to play and the desire to keep playing, but they will also result in a very different China; a China much more likely to become soccer-crazed and capable of winning.

 

Layne Vandenberg is a master’s student at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing and a US Fulbright Research Scholar in Rio de Janeiro. Contact her at laynevdb@umich.edu.

Image provided by internchina.com

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