It’s a shame that while China has progressed significantly on the international geopolitical and economic arenas over the past decade, its football team hasn’t kept pace at the same rate. In fact, it could even be said that the men’s football team has gone backwards. From a World Cup debut in 2002 and reaching the Asian Cup final in 2004, the team failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and hasn’t advanced past the group stage of the Asian Cup since 2004. When it hosted the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the men’s team crashed out without even a single win in the soccer tournament. It’s not a mystery why the team is so mediocre, which is actually putting it kindly, because there are a host of reasons why. Rather it’s trying to figure out what is the main reason that’s the hard part. From corruption and mismanagement in the domestic league to a lack of quality players, it’s anyone’s guess. Former national team coach Arie Haan gave a great indictment on the state of Chinese football including slamming players for being showmen and being undisciplined. While there might be a little European chauvinism there (he says Chinese players “cheat all the time” because they dive a lot, I suppose he doesn’t watch European football or even Brazil?), what he said isn’t untrue.
Before anyone thinks I was being facetious with my first sentence, comparing football prowess to economic performance, yes it was tongue-in-cheek, but football is also a sign of some of the nation’s serious problems. Corruption is one thing, but when it involves players and referees, it takes things to a new level. Likewise players attacking referees or even fans attacking referees and crowd riots (yes, I know this happens in Europe and South America too but that doesn’t make it right) aren’t good for a league that doesn’t have much history, tradition or flair to go along with it. Anyways one of Haan’s criticisms was that Chinese players who go overseas, especially Europe, to play need to be better. This has been one of my frustrations, going back to my days in college when I argued with a Hong Kong acquaintance who was a Japan fan, about Chinese versus Japanese players in Europe. Sun Jihai, who was a mainstay of Manchester City for a few seasons, was my main example. Right now, Hao Junmin, mentioned in the Haan article is a clear example of how Chinese players underperform overseas nowadays. Hao plays for Schalke in Germany’s top division, Bundesliga, but hardly plays. Schalke famously reached the semifinals of the European Champions League and yet Hao barely, maybe even never, figured. Japanese teammate Atsuto Uchida is a regular starter (compare their minutes this season here -click on squad). It’s not as if all Japanese players are doing fantastic in Europe, but clearly if you compare them to the Chinese players, they’ve done and are doing much better. When it comes to South Korea, everyone knows Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United, but they also have a few players in the Premier League.
I can only hope that one day in the near future, China’s top-level football league can be as good as Japan’s and its players as successful. First the authorities have got to clean things out with the game and build the league. Wild East Football is a good site to keep up with the league.