Chi­nese par­ents shy away from World Cup dreams

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Bei­jing’s dream of mak­ing China a foot­ball pow­er­house de­pends on mil­lions of chil­dren tak­ing up the sport, but even coaches say tra­di­tion-minded par­ents view the game as a waste­ful dis­trac­tion from school.

China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, an avowed fan of the game, has de­clared three goals for the coun­try: to host, qual­ify, and win a World Cup.

But the team are ranked a lowly 83rd in the world by FIFA-just be­low the Caribbean is­land na­tion of An­tigua and Bar­buda, pop­u­la­tion 86,295 — and are bot­tom of their qual­i­fy­ing group for the next World Cup, de­spite the re­cent hir­ing of Ital­ian coach Mar­cello Lippi.

The Asian gi­ant has made im­prov­ing youth foot­ball pro­grammes a na­tional pri­or­ity, with an of­fi­cial plan promis­ing 20,000 acad­e­mies and 30 mil­lion el­e­men­tary and middle school pupils play­ing the sport within four years.

The goal is to make China one of the world’s top sides by 2050, the doc­u­ment said, to bring to life “the sports-su­per­power dream”.

But it faces steep so­cial bar­ri­ers, with train­ers say­ing tra­di­tional at­ti­tudes to­wards ed­u­ca­tion and chil­dren’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to sup­port their par­ents in re­tire­ment make it dif­fi­cult to se­cure re­cruits.

“The big chal­lenge is that mind­set in gen­eral, that foot­ball is a dis­trac­tion to ed­u­ca­tion,” said Tom Byer, a Ja­pan-based foot­ball con­sul­tant hired by the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion min­istry to de­sign pilot pro­grammes for young chil­dren.

“If you look at fam­i­lies that have just one child it’s kind of a no-brainer. If you’re think­ing about the fu­ture of your child, should you put an em­pha­sis on sports... or should you nur­ture your child to be bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally?”

To as­suage con­cerns, Byer tells Chi­nese par­ents that stud­ies sug­gest kids who are phys­i­cally ac­tive do bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally. But par­ents on­line ask whether it is “ir­re­spon­si­ble” for chil­dren to play soc­cer.

‘JUST A HOBBY’

At a prac­tice ses­sion for a chil­dren’s foot­ball club in Bei­jing, par­ents praised the sport for giv­ing seven-year-olds the ex­pe­ri­ence of over­com­ing chal­lenges and de­feat, but said they were wary of let­ting it in­ter­fere with stud­ies.

Song Feng, 41, said soc­cer was “just a hobby, an ex­er­cise” for her 11-year-old son, and that stud­ies would al­ways have to come first “be­cause China’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is just that way now”. Gao Fei, fa­ther of an­other boy, said he “won’t let him be­come a foot­baller be­cause China’s pro­fes­sional soc­cer scene is no good”.

Chi­nese me­dia have weighed in to try to re­as­sure them. An ar­ti­cle on in­ter­net por­tal Sohu cited French philoso­pher Al­bert Ca­mus and Dan­ish physi­cist Niels Bohr, who both played in goal for club sides, as proof that sport­ing and aca­demic pur­suits were com­pat­i­ble. “Play­ing soc­cer means fall­ing be­hind in stud­ies? Teach­ers and par­ents wake up, don’t waste your child’s fu­ture!” it said.

While Bei­jing’s plans should see more foot­ball played in school, China’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem still re­volves around the highly com­pet­i­tive, all-im­por­tant gaokao grad­u­a­tion exam, which de­ter­mines univer­sity place­ment and many ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties. That makes it dif­fi­cult to stim­u­late a mass craze for foot­ball, as the struc­ture “leaves very lit­tle space or time for sports”, said Mary Gal­lagher, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. “Will par­ents risk points on the gaokao for the chance to play soc­cer ev­ery day?” The world’s most pop­u­lous na­tion has 25 times more peo­ple than Eng­land, but lags far be­hind its 37,000 foot­ball clubs, says Rowan Si­mons, a foot­ball au­thor and founder of a pri­vate foot­ball club in the cap­i­tal.

LONG GAME

With­out grass­roots teams and a deep pool of play­ers, he said, “It’s ir­rel­e­vant how much money the govern­ment puts into it-foot­ball can never flour­ish un­less peo­ple love it.”

“In Chi­nese there’s just no his­tory of civic so­ci­ety, that’s re­ally at the heart of it,” Si­mons told AFP. “That’s why top-down na­tional fund­ing will never work.”

One chal­lenge to devel­op­ing play­ers is China’s tra­di­tional train­ing meth­ods, says Mark Dreyer of China Sports In­sider, in which the coach “is still the mil­i­tary drill sergeant where he’s bark­ing or­ders and hav­ing them do repet­i­tive drills. What kid en­joys that?”

In other coun­tries, he said, “they play foot­ball with a smile on their face”. Chi­nese Su­per League clubs are splash­ing vast sums on for­eign coaches and play­ers, many of them from Latin Amer­ica, where Byer says chil­dren learn ba­sic ball-han­dling skills at a very early age. Coun­tries that want to em­u­late the suc­cess of Brazil and oth­ers have to en­sure that foot­ball is an ac­tiv­ity at home as well as at school, he added. “It will take a cou­ple of decades,” he said. “When you’re deal­ing with youth de­vel­op­ment, we won’t know if we’re go­ing to reap the ben­e­fits for 10 years.”

The ques­tion is whether the Chi­nese govern­ment’s foot­balling push can last that long. While Pres­i­dent Xi is a soc­cer fan, he is ex­pected to step down in 2022 and his suc­ces­sor may have en­tirely dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties.

“Can they stay the course? It’s pos­si­ble,” said Dreyer. “But in five, 10 years, who knows? If Xi Jin­ping goes, and the next guy doesn’t like foot­ball, then maybe it’s bas­ket­ball and Yao Ming is go­ing to lead the way.”—AFP

BEI­JING: This photo taken on De­cem­ber 14, 2016 shows boys prac­tic­ing dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion at a foot­ball club in Bei­jing. Bei­jing’s dream of mak­ing China a foot­ball pow­er­house de­pends on mil­lions of chil­dren tak­ing up the sport, but even coaches say tra­di­tion­minded par­ents view the game as a waste­ful dis­trac­tion from school. — AFP

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