Why Is China’s Soccer Team So Bad?

You’d think that China, with a population of over a billion people, would be able to field a half-decent soccer team. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches. The Chinese soccer team has never won a game at the Olympics. And as this piece in The Economist attests, Chinese players are sometimes too incompetent not only to win matches, but also to rig them:

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!

And some interesting trivia from the piece:

With the blessing of the international football body FIFA, China also claims the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to football, during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. A version of the game cuju, or “kick ball”, involved a single, elevated net and two sides of 12 men.

The declining teenage population playing soccer in China, despite the growing population, is a surprise:

From 1990 to 2000 there were more than 600,000 teenagers in China playing organised football, according to official counts of registered players; from 2000 to 2005 that number dropped to an average of 180,000; today (with statistics kept differently) Chinese football officials estimate the number of teenagers playing some form of organised football to be little more than 100,000.

And some theories on why the Chinese soccer team is so bad:

So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

The first problem is the method of identifying young talent. The sport system selects children with particular attributes, such as long limbs, which could pay off in athletics, rowing, swimming, diving or gymnastics. These youngsters are the genetic wheat. But football’s legends can emerge from the seeming chaff of human physiques: think of stocky Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest ever player, or his Argentine successor, the tiny genius Lionel Messi.


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