China has become an Olympic powerhouse. Since 2000, it has consistently ranked in the top three in medals earned at the Summer Games, and in the top 16 at the Winter Games. But China has managed to qualify for the World Cup only once, in 2002, when it proceeded to lose all three of its group matches and failed to score a single goal. How can a country be so dominant in Olympic sports and so awful at soccer?
China’s soccer troubles are a case study in the limits of authoritarianism. When the government decided to allocate significant resources toward Olympic success — a process that included recruiting children as young as 6 years old, often separating them from their parents, and, as most experts believe and the World Anti-Doping Agency may soon show, using performance-enhancing drugs with abandon — they achieved their goals. In many Olympic sports, high performance is a matter of biomechanics and discipline. To be sure, neither are irrelevant to soccer — but they are not decisive, and too much discipline can actually be a handicap.
Compare that archetype of authoritarian Olympism: East Germany. The country amassed a record number of medals over two decades (thanks in part to a state-sponsored doping program). In contrast, East Germany attempted to qualify for the World Cup nine times and managed to get in only once (1974). The liberal democracy of West Germany lagged well behind their East German counterparts in the Olympic medal tables, but won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990, and reached the final in 1966, 1982 and 1986.
The mighty Soviet Union also dominated the Olympics and still ranks second in the all-time combined medals table. And though not as hapless as China or East Germany, Soviet soccer was a hit-and-miss affair. The USSR reached the World Cup quarterfinals four times between 1958 and 1970 and the semifinals in 1966, but between 1970 and 1990, it barely made an impact. It fared better in the European Championship, which it won in 1960, and finished second in 1964, 1972 and 1988. Then again, it failed to qualify altogether between 1976 and 1984.
Soccer has not succumbed to central planning because the game has proved resistant to scientific analysis. We’re not even sure what a player’s ideal physique may be. It is a contact sport, so you would expect top players to have some heft, but three of the greatest players of all time are decidedly on the short side: Brazil’s Pele is 5-foot-8, while Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-7, respectively.
Training and drills do not appear to make too much of a difference. Most statistical research suggests soccer coaches have a relatively small impact on a team’s success. Unlike American football, soccer is a free-flowing game of infinite, largely unpredictable variety with relatively little use for rehearsed “plays.”
The Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff once said “you play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.” Physical fitness and some measure of organization and structure are certainly helpful, but each player must be able to strategize on the fly, individually. This means you can certainly improve a terrible team’s performance by focusing on the basics, as many of the world’s weaker nations have done over the past decades, but true success depends on factors that remain elusive. Instead, World Cup victories tend to be associated with the mercurial skills of the iconic players: Pele in 1970, Italy’s Paolo Rossi in 1982, Maradona in 1986, France’s Zinedine Zidane in 1998. Almost everyone thinks the outcome of this World Cup will depend on the performances of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.
President Xi Jinping of China, a passionate soccer fan, is committed to raising his country’s game, with an ambitious plan that includes creating 50,000 soccer schools by 2025, up from around 5,000 in 2015.
But no centralized program will create the kind of player who creatively dribbles and dances his team to victory. In fact, the more you plan and the more you dictate, the less likely you are to rise beyond mediocrity. There is a lesson here for the United States as well: American mainstream sports tend to rely heavily on the authoritarian figure of the coach, who draws up plays for obedient players to execute. It is an interesting paradox: in its sports culture, the nation that prides itself on a free-wheeling and nearly unbridled individualism actually encourages unquestioning submission in its popular sports and, far too often, you see well-meaning soccer parents preach to their children about iron discipline when they ought to tell them to express their free spirits on the field.
It is no accident that the nation that has won the World Cup more times than any other and has exported the most talent to the rest of the world is synonymous with the most flamboyant, Carnival-esque expression of o jogo bonito, or the beautiful game: spirited Brazil.