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China's struggling soccer program won't field a team in the 2010 World Cup

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A08

BEIJING -- When teams from 32 nations gather for the World Cup in South Africa this month, one country will be most conspicuous by its absence: China.

China may be the world's most populous country and its new sporting powerhouse -- winning the most gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. But its prowess at soccer is lamentable. China is ranked 84th in soccer's world standings, just ahead of Mozambique.

Chinese are huge soccer fans, and hundreds of millions are expected to tune in to the World Cup, with all the matches broadcast live here on free television. Sports bars will be packed. But the Chinese won't have their own team to root for.

To add to the insult, even China's neighbor, hermetic North Korea, has earned a trip to the World Cup this year. "We will cheer for North Korea because they are our neighbors," said Wang Qi, whose company is selling tickets for Chinese fans to travel to South Africa. "They can't even feed themselves, but they work harder than Chinese athletes."

Since China emerged from the Cultural Revolution and ended its international isolation in the late 1970s, its national team has managed only one World Cup appearance, in 2002, and it failed to score a goal in three games. As the men's national team continues to struggle, though, the Chinese women's team, dubbed "The Iron Roses," ranks among the top 10 in the world.

Many Chinese fans find this sorry state of men's soccer particularly painful since China has a reasonable claim to have invented the game (along with gunpowder, printing and, arguably, spaghetti). Images from the Han Dynasty, before 220 B.C., show a game similar to soccer being played with a leather ball filled with hair.

"Chinese might have a reputation to be good in math, but they have trouble explaining why a population of 1.3 billion cannot produce a winning 11-member soccer team," said Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong and the author of a book on sports in China called "Olympic Dreams."

'Winners' favored

Journalists and soccer fans offer any number of reasons, most often money, politics, corruption and culture -- and usually some combination of the four.

As in industry, the government picks national "winners" in sports and funnels cash to create champions and win medals. But the support typically goes to individual sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, and to sports in which Chinese have traditionally excelled, like badminton and table tennis. Soccer teams here are left to look for private sponsorship.

"The biggest problem for Chinese soccer is they don't get enough money," said Ma Dexing of Titan Sports.

Even though China now boasts wealthy companies and individuals who could sponsor teams, there is little support as long as Chinese teams are perceived as perennial losers. "This is a very bad circle," Ma said. "No results, no money. No money, no results."

Politics comes into play, several sports journalists and others said, because sports ministry officials, particularly at the local level, would rather invest government money into promising sports prodigies with a quicker guarantee of victory. "It's related to their promotion," said Li Chengpeng, a soccer commentator and author.

Soccer in China also has been tainted by widespread corruption. Late last year, the Ministry of Public Security launched a crackdown that so far has led to the arrests of about 20 soccer officials, referees and players accused of match-fixing, throwing games and gambling.

Few children play

Few Chinese children are playing soccer, which some sports journalists and fans attribute partly to schools de-emphasizing sports in general, and partly to the lack of playing fields in the country's dense urban areas.

"What can Chinese kids do? said Fan Huiming, 61, a Chinese soccer fan who grew up watching matches at Beijing's Workers' Stadium, which was built in 1958 near her childhood home. "If they play soccer, the ball may fly directly into the glass of someone's home."

For young people, soccer has largely been eclipsed by basketball, thanks in part to Chinese players in the NBA who are treated like rock stars here, most famously Houston's Yao Ming and New Jersey's Yi Jianlian. "In soccer, there's no Chinese idol for these young kids," said Li Chengpeng.

Journalists and fans said the NBA's aggressive campaign of marketing and merchandise in China has helped swell the popularity of basketball. By comparison, they noted that international soccer does not even have an office in China.

Rowan Simons, a Briton who came to China more than two decades ago and discovered that he wasn't able to play weekend soccer, has been on a campaign to popularize the sport here. He is now the chairman of China ClubFootball, the country's first amateur joint-venture football club.

Simons, who has written a book called "Bamboo Goalposts" about his experiences, said the main problem is that soccer elsewhere has traditionally started as a series of neighborhood clubs, but in China, the ruling Communist authorities have always frowned on homegrown organizations that the party does not directly control.

"In China, there's virtually no football at the community level," Simons said.

"Football in China can only succeed if it's a grass-roots activity organized by the people. And for that to happen, you'll have to change the political system -- and that's not going to happen either."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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