Soc­cer strives for elu­sive suc­cess

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - NATION - By TANG ZHE LEI LEI

Sto­ries about bribery and match- fix­ing scan­dals may have dis­ap­peared from the front pages, but 2013 has so far been an­other frus­trat­ing year for Chi­nese soc­cer fans.

Th­ese past seven months have seen the national team elim­i­nated from qual­i­fy­ing for the 2014 World Cup, slip­ping out of the top 100 in FIFA’s rank­ings, and los­ing 5-1 to a young Thai­land team.

And for for­mer head coach Bora Mi­luti­novic, re­sults are un­likely to im­prove un­less the coun­try fo­cuses more on youth de­vel­op­ment.

“When peo­ple talk about the national team, they should be aware that the fu­ture of the team de­pends on how young play­ers are brought through,” said the Ser­bian vet­eran, who led the Chi­nese team to its first and only World Cup fi­nals, in South Korea and Ja­pan in 2002.

“I worked in the United States when soc­cer was start­ing to be en­cour­aged among chil­dren,” he said. “Do you know how many young play­ers aged 10 to 17 are reg­is­tered in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia alone? It’s 150,000. How many are there in China?”

The Chi­nese Football As­so­ci­a­tion was un­able to pro­vide spe­cific data on youth play­ers, yet ac­cord­ing to its fig­ures from 2011, China only had about 8,000 reg­is­tered play­ers of all ages.

Two draws and one win at the East Asian Cup last week did bring some re­lief to soc­cer fans.

The national team fin­ished sec­ond in the fourteam tour­na­ment, draw­ing 3-3 with Ja­pan and 0-0 with South Korea, and record­ing a morale-boost­ing 4-3 re­sult against Aus­tralia.

How­ever, few will be herald­ing the per­for­mances as a new dawn, es­pe­cially as op­pos­ing teams all fielded line­ups of mostly re­serve and youth play­ers.

Many prob­lems still need to be solved be­fore China can ever dream of be­ing a force at in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments. The most ob­vi­ous are China’s rel­a­tively small pop­u­la­tion of play­ers and its league sys­tem.

Ja­pan set a great model for its Asian coun­ter­parts by build­ing a pyra­mid sys­tem, chan­nel­ing pri­mary school leagues to univer­sity leagues, and then into pro­fes­sional di­vi­sions.

Af­ter us­ing the sys­tem for sev­eral years, the Ja­panese women’s national team went on to be­come 2011 World Cup win­ners, and its men’s and youth teams are also com­pet­i­tive chal­lengers at in­ter­na­tional level.

By com­par­i­son, China’s league struc­ture, which has just two 16-team pro­fes­sional leagues and an am­a­teur league with an ever-chang­ing num­ber of teams, failed to pro­duce a sus­tained flow of tal­ent.

For­mer China striker Hao Haidong says the coun­try’s at­tempts to re­form its Staterun league sys­tem into a mar­ket­driven prod­uct, which be­gan in 1994, have been in­ad­e­quate.

De­ferred salaries are not rare for play­ers from teams in the sec­ond and third tiers, the 43-year-old said.

“As op­posed to soc­cer in de­vel­oped coun­tries, where play­ing for a pro­fes­sional club means a se­cure liv­ing, cer­tain Chi­nese play­ers are not prop­erly paid and don’t even have in­sur­ance,” he said, ex­plain­ing why some Chi­nese par­ents are re­luc­tant to let their chil­dren play “the beau­ti­ful game”.

Op­er­a­tional dif­fi­cul­ties, as well as match-fix­ing scan­dals in re­cent years that in­volved sev­eral well- known play­ers and CFA of­fi­cials, have also not helped pro­mote the sport, Hao said.

More­over, he said, small clubs are in­ca­pable of or­ga­niz­ing youth teams, since rent­ing sta­di­ums and train­ing bases, and salary costs al­ready have them stretched.

Mod­ern way

Mi­luti­novic sug­gested the way for­ward is for China to con­tinue learn­ing from the out­side world.

“To mo­ti­vate and cre­ate pas­sion among teenagers and young adults, you need to train them in a more mod­ern way,” he said. “This is why clubs and fed­er­a­tions need to send coaches to travel and study dif­fer­ent tech­niques.”

China’s new lead­er­ship has shown a strong in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing soc­cer.

Del­e­gates made up of of­fi­cials from the State Coun­cil; the National De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion, the top eco­nomic plan­ner; the min­istries of ed­u­ca­tion, fi­nance and pub­lic se­cu­rity; and the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport were re­cently in­volved in fact-find­ing mis­sion to Ja­pan.

The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion has also started to co­op­er­ate with the CFA to pro­mote soc­cer in schools, while Chi­nese news web­site Sina re­ported that more poli­cies will be in­tro­duced to de­velop the do­mes­tic game, such as tax breaks for com­pa­nies in­vest­ing in soc­cer and sta­di­ums.

Dalian Wanda’s mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar spon­sor­ship deal with Chi­nese soc­cer was also bro­kered through ne­go­ti­a­tions at a national level.

How­ever, con­cerns re­main that the govern­ment may still have too much in­volve­ment in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. In­stead of be­ing an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion, the CFA is an ad­min­is­tra­tive depart­ment un­der the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport.

Wang Dazhao, a vet­eran soc­cer re­porter for Peo­ple’s Daily, said higher ad­min­is­tra­tions are tak­ing care of too many de­ci­sions for the CFA, in­clud­ing the ap­point­ment and fir­ing of for­mer national team coach, Jose An­to­nio Ca­ma­cho.

“Re­gard­ing CFA’s limited power, it is only an ex­ecu­tor of a higher or­der in the Ca­ma­cho af­fair,” he said. “It was much bet­ter 20 years ago, when no of­fi­cial in­ter­fered in the as­so­ci­a­tion’s de­ci­sion.

“The CFA al­ways takes the blame for the de­ci­sions, but most of the pub­lic don’t know the truth,” he added. “If the CFA can’t even de­cide the national team’s head coach, the sit­u­a­tion will never im­prove.” Con­tact the writ­ers at tangzhe@chi­nadaily.com.cn and leilei@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PARK JIN-HEE / XIN­HUA

Chi­nese defender Zhang Lin­peng evades a tackle from a South Korean player dur­ing an East Asian Cup game on July 24, which ended in a goal­less draw. The team’s per­for­mance at the cup brought re­lief to soc­cer fans af­ter a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat to Thai­land in June.

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