The story of Chinese football

The story of Chinese football

ALTHOUGH THE EACT ORIGINS OF FOOTBALL ARE STILL unclear, the Chinese game of Cuju (or Tsu’ Chu) has been recognised by FIFA as the earliest form of the game, dating back to the 3rd century BC. A wildly popular game at the time, according to their own Ministry of Culture, the game’s historic fanaticism in these specific coordinates of the globe includes the story of a man named Xiangchu dying after playing a game against his doctor’s advice.

Remnants of this passion remain today, with the Chinese Super League ranked ninth worldwide in domestic football league average attendance. Placing ahead of such superpowers as Argentina and Brazil, and other important leagues such as those of Turkey, Russia and Portugal, China is an up-and-comer in the footballing world.

Despite all of this, much like in Samuel Beckett’s play, Godot has still not arrived. Now, however, Chinese football fans are hoping, despite several interrupted dawns, that the circle has been broken and this next act will finally be different.

I. Chinese Super League: A tale of absurdity

国足解散! THIS WAS THE MESSAGE from fans as the Chinese national team capitulated. This was not the first time the national team had lost, but in some ways, and for many, it was the worst. In June 2013, China were humiliated by Thailand in a 5-1 home loss. “Disband the national team!” As the superpowers of football were getting ready for the final stages of their World Cup qualification campaigns, China had already secured its vacation through the summer of 2014. They were at their lowest ebb, and in mid-2013, countries such as New Caledonia, Haiti and the United Arab Emirates towered over the Chinese Dragons in the rankings.

This was a poor showing for the supposed inventors of football. As a nation spoiled by routine conquers of Olympic gold, this was unacceptable. How can a country as big as China not produce a quality, competitive national team? This widespread sentiment among football enthusiasts has been encapsulated in one illustrative fraction: 11 out of 1.3 billion. How are they not world beaters? Or at the very least, somewhat competitive?

A significant factor in this failure has been the development, or lack thereof, of the Chinese Super League. Although still a budding league, it has already gone through more than most. Mired in scandals of corruption, violence and ineptitude, the Super League has still not grown into the global phenomenon it so desperately wants to be.

Founded in 1994, the Chinese top flight (named Jia-A at that time) was the first professional football league in China, before which the state had only allowed limited involvement of non-state-owned clubs within the semi-professional regional and national leagues. The 1994 season was also the first time the Chinese first division was opened up to foreign investment, and major international organisations such as Philip Morris International and the International Management Group were involved in the inaugural season. Clubs in those early stages were described as “commercial ventures” with “lavish sponsorships from state-owned enterprises (SOEs)”, as an incredible effort was put into introducing the world to Chinese football.

Initial success in terms of marketing and viewing figures were indeed impressive, although some point to the introduction of a five-day work week in China creating an activity gap for millions of people, with football taking full advantage. Attendance in the first season was around 16,000 according to some reports, as more than two million people attended games in the Jia-A. Figures climbed over the coming seasons, as turnout increased by another million overall.

Though increasing amounts of funds were still being pumped into clubs by SOEs in the late ’90s, fans were beginning to lose interest in the league as the novelty factor wore off and lacklustre playing standards remained. Allegations of corruption, drinking and general attitude problems were increasing areas of concern, and league support began to crumble.

By the turn of the century the epidemic spread further, as two club presidents came to admit to bribing referees. While some debated whether football needed protection from the illicit practices of the gambling syndicates Rowan Simons, a Chinese football expert, rather contended that football’s problems were a symptom of its own systemic flaws. Cameron Wilson, another celebrated journalist, has called Chinese football a “microcosm of Chinese society” due to the opaque and gung-ho (incidentally derived from the Chinese term gōnghé) nature of the football market.

The stench of corruption did not subside over the next few years, with fans becoming increasingly disillusioned with the state of affairs, and even sponsors began to withdraw their support in light of scandals. The rebranding of the Jia-A to the Chinese Super League (CSL) did little to restore confidence in Chinese football, and it showed in the stadia as attendances dropped below 11,000. Call for reforms largely fell on deaf ears, and any changes made were purely cosmetic in nature.

An apparent apogee was finally reached in 2008 as China’s state television station, CCTV, pulled Chinese football off the air. In an interview with a local paper the head of CCTV, Jiang Heping, commented that the state of Chinese football “makes everyone feel bitter” and is “in danger of being thoroughly destroyed”. Despite this drastic measure, conditions continued to stagnate and a new low was reached in 2009 when Qingdao Hailifeng FC’s blatant attempts to score an own goal, on their president’s orders, managed to shock even the scandal-jaded Chinese public.

II. Chaos at the top

A SEEMINGLY CLEAR ENABLER OF THIS PROCESS has been the Chinese Football Association (CFA) and their approach to developing the sport of football. This has come to the point that new policies in football are even circumvented around the CFA due to the complete lack of faith in their competencies on certain issues. With this being perceived as a typical problem of Chinese society, it may not come as too big a surprise but football, and the CFA, has become a magnet for anger by many, with nepotism, injustice, and incompetence having been the most common charges levelled at the CFA by the public.

The overriding reason for this seems to be that football is only partly subject to market forces. Susan Brownell, anthropology professor at UMSL, describes how, in theory, the Football Association is responsible for its administration and the public office of the Football Management Center is responsible for managing private sponsorships. In reality, however, both organisations are headed by the same person, concentrating the power from both sides in the hand of that same person. Brownell then echoes Wilson’s point: “The sports system are microcosms of China’s current position halfway between a state-planned and market economy.”

Another issue which has been brought up in relation to exactly this is the legality of the CFA’s set-up. It is an official organ under the State General Administration for Sport, which is illegal under Article 17 of the FIFA statutes. The world governing body demands that a nation’s football association must be independent from any outside influence. Indeed, FIFA suspended Nigeria from international football after government interference.

CFA’s role also extends to investigating itself; it’s highly problematic, especially when you consider that their senior leaders have been strongly alleged to have had their hands elbow deep in the proverbial honey pot. This Pooh-bearian (if you’ll allow me) attitude, coupled with the need for control in every aspect, has arguably left Chinese football with a confused direction.

Thankfully, this is not the whole story. Recent years have seen a definite shift in the way Chinese football is operating. A major step in that direction occurred in 2008 when Wang Xin, a manager in the Singaporean S-League, was arrested in China for bribery and match-fixing, having fled Singapore some months earlier. His arrest was groundbreaking in China and, spurred on by then-vice-president Xi Jinping, a major clean-up was started. Thirty-three people were eventually banned from football for life by February 2013. Most shocking were the arrests of three former CFA presidents and China’s most respected referee.

The impact of these changes was felt on a countrywide scale, as the entire landscape of Chinese football began a transformation. The CSL was reinvigorated by the anti-graft campaign, and supporters have begun to flock back, as the public and sponsors have allowed themselves to trust again.

Big financial investments have been invested in local clubs since 2012, most notably signing two Premier League stars in Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba to Shanghai Shenhua. Unfortunately for those two, and the CSL in general, the moves were not exactly an unmitigated success, and both players left soon after. This has been a regrettable side-effect of the recent boom in the CSL as expensive foreign exports have, largely, failed to live up to their wages and hype. More unsettling, perhaps, are the corruption allegations seeping back into the game.

Several, including Bernhard Zand of Der Spiegel, have expressed their concerns of the ownership structure of clubs in China. A clear majority of clubs are owned by real estate companies, which should make some sense given the growth of that market in the Chinese economy. It becomes more troubling, however, when one looks at the financial models of the clubs.

The ticket prices for matches are still quite low, even as attendances have begun to rise again. There are also not a lot of exports from the league. The biggest one in recent years was the transfer of Zhang Xizhe to Wolfsburg for a reported €750,000. None of this goes close to covering the astronomical wages of imports such as Tim Cahill (estimated $9.6 million per season) and Fabio Cannavaro ($10.79 million per season), however, and raises an interesting point to the sustainability of these Chinese clubs.

That’s where the real estate link comes back in. According to Zand’s source, building contractors use football clubs to develop political capital in order to acquire land to build on, which is increasingly scarce. With football being one of the largest spectator sports in the country, it remains one of the easiest routes in to the peoples’, and politicians’, hearts.

While the model works for the investors, it has yet to wield results for the game in China. Expensive imports into the league like Drogba and Lucas Barrios made little to no impact on the country, while an expensive promotion deal with David Beckham seems like a stunt at best. Even bringing in former Spain and Real Madrid manager José Camacho did not solve the problem of the underachieving Chinese national team, and he was unceremoniously sacked after the disaster against Thailand in 2013.

The short-term success which the CFA, and Chinese football in general, seem so desperate to achieve has not arrived. Arie Haan, another former national team manager, has criticised the CFA for their prioritisation with regards to the national team, calling them out on their incessant need for tournament qualification overshadowing the long-term development of the national team. After qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, where they failed to score a single goal, the national team has failed to kick on, and has been in a terminal decline.

Another example of this short-termism is the lack of exports from the CSL. There are clearly two sides to this argument. On the one hand, a good example is the Venezuelan league. As football was beginning to grow in the country and challenge the booming obsession of beauty pageants, the stars of the Primera División were picked off by foreign clubs, leaving the domestic league devoid of any star power and left the league in the lurch. The CSL, therefore, would prefer to avoid that fate, especially as they are just now regaining their popularity.

On the other hand, if you close off the domestic league players can get old fast. In the case of leagues seeking prominence from the outside, or improving the quality of its play, importing players from abroad only goes so far. One case in the CSL is the defender Zhang Linpeng of Guangzhou Evergrande. Zhang has been dubbed the “Chinese Sergio Ramos” for his style of play, and is one of the first names on the team sheet for the Chinese national team.

Having achieved almost everything in Chinese football, having won several league titles and an AFC Champions League title with Evergrande (a first for a Chinese club), Zhang had set his sights on a move abroad, with reports of interest from Germany. A move for him seems unlikely, though, as any offer would have to meet Evergrande’s exorbitant demands, as they have no need to sell him for a lowered price given their wealthy backers. That he is also the best defender in the league by some distance gives his club even less incentive, with few replacements being available.

The other side of the export argument is that the national game would ultimately improve should the clubs release their hold of the star Chinese players. A case in point is Zheng Zhi, who had spells with Charlton Athletic and Celtic, and is described as a key player in the development of the Chinese game due to his impressive decision-making and excellent control of the game. These are traits which many experts have pointed out as being a key fault in a Chinese player’s repertoire.

III. Passion at the Bottom

ONE SUCH EXPERT IS MADS DAVIDSEN, a Danish coach who has been in China since 2012, having been employed as first team coach under Sven-Göran Eriksson at both Guangzhou R&F and Shanghai SIPG, and he gave an exclusive interview to These Football Times. “There is no doubt that lack of decision making is the major football-related challenge for Chinese players,” he said, adding that it is “the skill to ‘know when to do what – and how.”

Aside from the other problems, Davidsen blames the culture of youth coaching in China. “I have seen a lot of youth coaching in China and it’s often not very professional, [where they deploy] old fashion methods and a culture of fear where the players are told exactly what to do and not to do. And this aspect kills the development of decision-making.”

One symptom of this disease is simply the lack of participation at grassroots level. It has been estimated that only around 50,000 children are involved in football today in China, a shocking figure considering the population total. Simons has previously highlighted the relationship between participation and footballing success; with his theory being that one great footballer will emerge from every 200,000 players. That would mean that “China is likely to have one-quarter of a world-class player,” according to Simons.

In order to fix these ailments, two significant moves have been made in recent years. Firstly, President Xi last year decreed that football is to become a compulsory part of the national education curriculum. The president is a self-proclaimed football fan, and has declared himself ashamed of China’s poor performance on the football pitch. Vitally, the development of youth football has consequently been transferred from the CFA and to the Education Ministry.

If it is successful, this plan will ingrain football within the Chinese psyche to a larger extent, and hopefully convince more parents to allow their children pursue their sporting ambitions, which has been a perennial problem. It will also grant new football pitches and training facilities to 20,000 schools by 2017. “Chinese football would have already reached a global level if the game had been promoted earlier in school,” says Liu Hechun, a physical education teacher at a primary school in Dalian.

Secondly, Guangzhou Evergrande have taken a huge step in cementing themselves as China’s largest club by opening the world’s biggest football academy. No expenses have been spared, with Evergrande Group president Xu Jiayin having reportedly spent around €160 million on the 300-acre facilities, and a co-operation with Real Madrid to bring in top Spanish coaches. With more than 50 football pitches and a school for around 2,400 students – with ambitions to grow up to 10,000 – the idea is to track down and capture talent around China.

Davidsen agrees with these developments, arguing that it is the right way forward: “The new football schools and foreign coaches will help Chinese football move forward. This is a huge step forwards, but it’s also a long journey and will take 7-10 years before we see results, so patience and continuity is the key now. A path has been chosen – keep going.”

These two projects would go some way to also tackling the footballing culture in the country. Tom Byer, who has been hired as a consultant for the school programme, said: “The only way to really make a change is by empowering the kids and educating the parents.” This has been sorely lacking, however, in China.

While there is massive interest in watching the game, this stretches mostly to the foreign leagues unfortunately, with the most supported clubs in China being those playing in England and Spain. Spanish clubs have recognised this market and have violated the tradition of the siesta and started playing games at noon. Recently, Chinese investors have even begun to buy stakes in European clubs, with ADO Den Haag in Holland and Atlético Madrid being the most high-profile purchases.

Domestically, however, the interest has traditionally been low, but is growing with last season representing the highest viewing figures for the CSL according to Davidsen. “We are slowly moving in the right direction.” Fans are now accustomed to the foreign leagues, and are expecting the same in their domestic game; both on the pitch and in the media.

This passion, however, has yet to translate into playing the game. There are several opinions on this development. Byer, who has also worked with the Japanese FA, has said that countries in Asia generally “do not have a football culture”, and as such there is a need to convince people of its benefits, rather than it being a grassroots project such as in Latin America and Europe. It has been argued that this is because local grassroots football unions would be a threat to the all-encompassing state, and would explain the lack of local sports autonomy. One author went so far as to suggest that the footballing craze in China is just that, a craze, and is just a way for the Chinese middle-class to taste another of the West’s indulgence and nothing more. Whatever the case, the multiple bottom-up projects will be a boost to the Chinese football market.

Problems still remain. Millions are still being spent on foreign imports that will need to be paid, with Brazilians Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart being the most recent examples. China has often looked to Brazil for its imports says Davidsen, largely due to the qualities which the Chinese players often lack – flair and decision making. Some clubs have moved away from the Drogba transfers to more realistic ones from the Scandinavian leagues, with Davidsen describing those players as being “considered rather cheap and with a top discipline”.

What the upper echelons of Chinese football need to consider is a solution based on something beyond spending money. The Nordic moves might be more fiscally prudent, but there is recognition that China must start producing their own stars now.

The national team performed admirably at the last Asian Cup, reaching the quarter-finals, and the current crop under Alain Perrin has drawn plenty of praise. Perrin has placed great emphasis on building a side based on younger, aggressive players, with some experienced heads dropped in the process. It bears to remember, however, that the side barely qualified for the Asian Cup and faces a tough road ahead.

Xi Jinping has boldly stated that he believes China should host and win the World Cup. Based on previous experiences, perhaps shooting for the moon should be avoided. Foreigners coming into the CSL continually complain about the flimsy structure of clubs, with coaches and owners moving through a highly lubricated revolving-door. Chris Killen, a New Zealand international who moved to China in 2012, gave a near-perfect description of many of China’s ills: “There was a lot of money but not a lot of organisation.”

There is no need to despair, however, as the future, to end on a cliché, looks bright. As Davidsen says: “A path has been chosen – keep going.”

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic