Chi­nese foot­ball is in no­body’s court

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Cai Zhen­hua is a much-loved fig­ure in China, both as a for­mer world ta­ble ten­nis cham­pion and coach of the na­tional team. Be­fore he took over as coach, the Chi­nese men’s ta­ble ten­nis team had been pushed by Euro­pean play­ers to play se­cond fid­dle in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions. His lead­er­ship, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, how­ever, en­sured that the Chi­nese squad re­gained its un­con­quer­able po­si­tion.

Lit­tle won­der then that Chi­nese soc­cer fans have high ex­pec­ta­tion from Cai, now that he has been ap­pointed as chair­man of the Chi­nese Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion. But Chi­nese soc­cer fans need to be re­al­is­tic.

Cai, given his ac­com­plish­ments as a world-class ta­ble ten­nis player and out­stand­ing man­ager, is the right per­son to build a strong na­tional men’s soc­cer team. Yet the Chi­nese men’s soc­cer team has a his­tory of let­ting down the largest group of soc­cer fans in the world, ir­re­spec­tive of the per­son in charge. Can Cai re­ally change his­tory? We hope he can.

Still, the core prob­lem of Chi­nese soc­cer has lit­tle to do with who is in charge of the na­tional gov­ern­ing body. The core prob­lem is whether the coun­try has a pool of young soc­cer tal­ents and a high-qual­ity league for them to show­case their skills. All the top soc­cer pow­ers in the world rely on these two as­pects to build their na­tional teams. China should be no ex­cep­tion if it wants to ex­cel even in Asia, which lags be­hind Europe and Latin Amer­ica in soc­cer.

But re­turns in sport, as in any other field, can­not be in­stant. It takes time, money and en­ergy to cul­ti­vate young play­ers.

The Chi­nese foot­ball league started in the 1990s. Since it is young com­pared with other coun­tries’ leagues, a long-term strategy still does not fig­ure high on the agenda of many de­ci­sion-mak­ers in the league, such as CFA pol­i­cy­mak­ers, club man­agers and in­vestors and lo­cal of­fi­cials. What they care most about is how to make the na­tional or club teams win more ti­tles or how to get greater re­turns on their in­vest­ment, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on how to train young play­ers at dif­fer­ent lev­els to en­sure the longterm strength of the se­nior team.

For many years, there­fore, de­ci­sion-mak­ers in soc­cer gov­ern­ing bod­ies have pri­or­i­tized select­ing good adult play­ers, fa­mous coaches, or, in the lat­est case, a soc­cer am­bas­sador, with the aim of fast-track­ing the na­tional or club team to suc­cess.

Apart from fat­ten­ing the pock­ets of many clubs and in­vestors in the soc­cer busi­ness, the fast-paced eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of China has also fueled in­vest­ment fever. Now good Euro­pean and South Amer­i­can play­ers and coaches can earn much more money in China than in many other coun­tries’ — even if they fail to im­prove the team they serve.

The most in­fa­mous case is that of Jose An­to­nio Ca­ma­cho, the fa­mous Span­ish coach, who was sacked as the coach of the na­tional men’s team af­ter it lost to min­now Thai­land 1-5. De­spite fir­ing Ca­ma­cho, the CFA, ac­cord­ing to the con­tract, has to pay him more than 50 mil­lion yuan ($8 mil­lion) as com­pen­sa­tion and an­other 25 mil­lion yuan as tax al­lowance, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

How much did Ca­ma­cho earn in China? $3.5 mil­lion a year. What is his record as boss of the Chi­nese team? Seven wins, 11 losses and two ties. Does the re­sult jus­tify his earn­ings? The an­swer is ob­vi­ous.

China has hired a num­ber of for­eign coaches in re­cent years, but the Chi­nese team has failed to make much im­prove­ment. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers should re­think their strategy and shift their fo­cus on more mean­ing­ful ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, they should en­cour­age more young peo­ple to play soc­cer, be on the con­stant look­out for young out­stand­ing play­ers, and build a qual­ity na­tional league that is free of cor­rup­tion.

For years, the coun­try’s soc­cer league has been fraught with scan­dals, such as match-fix­ing and bribery. Some se­nior of­fi­cials and play­ers have even been tried and put be­hind bars for their il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties. Such a scan­dalous league is bound to drive away in­vestors and play­ers who are in­ter­ested only in the cause of soc­cer, cre­at­ing a void in the re­serve pool for the na­tional team.

Only when we ex­tend gen­uine sup­port to young play­ers and build a clean and pop­u­lar league, which at­tracts big for­eign names, can we ex­pect to build a for­mi­da­ble Chi­nese soc­cer team. Be­fore that hap­pens, it is rea­son­able to as­sume that the team will con­tinue to let us down — even un­der the lead­er­ship of a le­gend like Cai. The au­thor is a se­nior writer with China Daily. xinzhim­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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