Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chinese football continues to suck

Last Thursday China got kicked out of the Asian Cup by hosts Australia in the quarter finals, in the most significant match China's national football team had played in years.

China's team is generally quite awful, to the extent that it has become a national joke. It only ever qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and then went on to give a downright embarrassing performance, losing all three of its games by 2-0, 4-0 and 3-0. And this was in spite of being managed by Bora Milutinovic, the Serbian trainer who had already worked miracles with other unfancied teams in previous world cups. 

A couple of years ago the Chinese team's awfulness came to the fore again when they lost 5-1 against Thailand in a friendly on their own turf, leading to much whining online about the state of the country's football. In this year's Asian Cup however China seemed to have bucked the trend, winning all three of its first round matches with Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. This lead to moderate excitement about China's appearance in the quarter finals against Australia. Then last week things went back to normal, with China losing the match 2-0 and heading home with little honour.

I watched the match with two Chinese colleagues in their rundown flat in the north of Beijing. China played a decent first half, then completely came apart after an amazing goal by Tim Cahill, suffering attack upon attack until the hosts inevitably doubled their lead. In the end they thoroughly deserved their defeat against an extremely average football nation. Of course Australia were the hosts, but the Brisbane stadium was so packed with local Chinese that you might have been forgiven for doubting it.

Now there will be renewed debate about why a decent football team cannot be put together out of a nation of 1.4 billion people. It's not as if they haven't tried, with loads of money being spent on importing fancy foreign coaches and players in an effort to raise the level. The sport does not lack popularity either, as you will notice if you go to the sports ground of any Chinese university.  

All the same, Japan and South Korea's teams have been in a completely different league for years. Some blame the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery in Chinese football. Match-fixing scandals are common in China's league. Being familiar with Italy, I don't find this explanation convincing: similar scandals constantly rock the Italian league, but it remains one of the world's great footballing nations. 

As with many other things, it probably comes down to China's system: while the centralized, top-down approach of an authoritarian country works for nurturing gold-medal Olympic gymnasts, it probably doesn't work well for team sports. What's more, a lot of Chinese children would be discouraged from wasting time playing football, and find few places to play it even if they had the time to do so.

Then again, Taiwan's national team (which plays as "Chinese Taipei") is dreadful as well. Perhaps the Chinese and football just don't go together well? Oh well, they still have ping pong.

The Chinese players after a defeat


FOARP said...

"It only ever qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002"

And even that was only possible because Japan and Korea had already qualified automatically as hosts.

RE: Chinese Taipei. My friend the Writing Baron, a Taipei-based sports-journalist, has written more than a bit on this topic. Basically there isn't even a Chinese Taipei team - local universities just put forward their best players who come together only a few times before a major match.

Ji Xiang said...


What, and there's no professional league or anything in the whole of Taiwan? I find that impossible to believe in this day and age.