China Power

China’s Soccer Czar

China could learn a lot from other Asian teams if it wants to make the next football World Cup.

OK, so when I said I’d follow up on the teaser article by Ray Tsuchiyama in Forbes earlier this month about what’s wrong with football in China, I admit that part of me hoped there’d be a quick and easy (and easy to write about) explanation for why North Korea managed to make it to the World Cup finals this year, but China couldn’t.

Of course there never was going to be a magic bullet for improving Chinese fortunes, but Tsuchiyama has come up with an interesting scenario under which the country’s soccer problem gets the full Communist Party treatment. For a start he ‘suggests’ the appointment of a soccer czar as part of a 10-year plan.

The second step is engaging young people. As Tsuchiyama notes: ‘According to a 2006 FIFA survey, China had 708,754 amateur and youth players from a population of 1.3 billion compared to 738,800 in England.  Obviously, there is room for youth soccer to grow in China. Wen (Jiabao) orders a “Great Leap Forward” soccer field construction program in every town and major city district throughout China.’

The third step would be to take a leaf out of the books of other nations that have played football catch up reasonably successfully, such as the United States. What have they been doing right? Tsuchiyama recommends a trip to the $130 million National Training Center in Carson, California, which is home to two US professional soccer teams, to find out.

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Finally he suggests that the Chinese soccer czar stops off in Tokyo ‘and meets several members of the Japanese World Cup team’. He points to Japan’s utilization of ‘foreign’ talent, arguing that injecting ‘such talent into a country with a faltering professional league and poor World Cup performances has paid dividends over the long term in knowledge-sharing and experience, contributing to revivals of both professional league and World Cup play.’ He proposes identifying promising young players in developing countries and offering them scholarships to study Mandarin and attend Chinese schools.

China might not have a premier-appointed, official czar yet, but it does already have a man responsible for trying to improve the state of the game, and he’s been busily attending and taking notes at games in South Africa.

Wei Di was appointed five months ago to try and transform the game in China, and he’s encouragingly gracious about other Asian teams, including presumably future bitter rivals Japan and South Korea. Speaking to China Daily, Wei also had some positive words for neighbour North Korea for their ‘strong fighting spirit’, despite not having a professional league or a big soccer playing population.

However, Wei notes rather dryly that it would ‘impossible’ for Chinese football players to return to the training system that North Korea uses. He doesn’t give specifics, but presumably he has in mind reports that the North Korean team faces a stint in the coal mines after its failure to win a game in South Africa (and for those who might be wondering why North Korean players didn’t defect, it seems that four may have tried before their first match, but then mysteriously turned up again for training; the official story is that they were left off the first match roster).