China sat atop the medals table at the Beijing Olympics, at least in terms of number of golds. So why can’t a country with 1.3 billion people put together a team that can qualify for the most-watched sporting event in the world—the FIFA World Cup?
This is a question that has been vexing Forbes magazine the past month or so, including Ray Tsuchiyama, who has a rundown of the variously fielded explanations and his view on their validity. As he notes, it’s not as if football isn’t popular in China—the country has for the past 6 years had its own professional soccer league (Beijing Guoan are the current champions), while China Sports Today adds that Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham appear on Adidas and Motorola billboards nationwide.
So why has China only managed to qualify for the World Cup Finals once, in 2002 (where it failed to score a single goal)? Teasingly, Tsuchiyama isn’t revealing that quite yet. But he does give short shrift to some of the most commonly fielded arguments:
Lack of money and restricted space (How, then, does cramped Japan find room to practice, and what about that burgeoning Chinese middle class?)
Inadequate physiques of Asian players (Height and size may sometimes be an asset, but Pele is only 5 ft 8 inches, and Maradona is even shorter at 5 ft 4. At least when he’s not using an outstretched ‘hand of God’…)
Soccer in China is too corrupt (True, it seems, but China is hardly alone in having to suffer corrupt officials, and successful nations like Argentina and Italy are hardly models of rectitude in this department).
A top-down authoritarian approach through a governing body with apparently tight links to the government (How on earth does North Korea qualify then? And the government body it is linked to anyway didn’t do too badly in Beijing).
I look forward to hearing Tsuchiyama’s theory on what the real problem is. In the meantime though, Chinese football fans are apparently finding another outlet for their passions until their team is able to make the grade. London’s Evening Standard reports that in a bid to boost their communist brethren North Korea, hundreds of Chinese have been drafted by the North Korean government to cheer their team on.