In the first of five articles, The Mumbler looks at what is stopping China from becoming the football powerhouse their Government and Leader desire…
The Chinese attitude towards football is like a naïve Michelle Pfeiffer’s towards her students in Dangerous Minds – poor at first but improves over time (belated spoiler alert).
Parents in China saw football as a bad boy sport, particularly after the corruption issues that limited the game’s appeal to the masses. It was assumed that only students who aren’t academically strong would partake in football and that the benefits of the sport were – in their eyes – only physical.
Fortunately, as the nation tried to clean up the corruption by punishing those convicted, the general attitude started to improve (it couldn’t really get worse). This has been hastened by the Government’s recent Football reform, which has encouraged State schools to introduce football into the Physical Education syllabus in all Primary and Secondary schools as well as increasing the proportion of hours.
The tremendous demands of the academic system in China means further study takes over any other activity during a child’s spare time. Developing hobbies is generally seen to be a secondary concern and if there were such opportunities then parents would prefer their child to excel at a musical instrument over kicking a ball.
Education is of huge importance to China and it is a big business as proven by private schools such as Dulwich, Wellington and Harrow opening up campuses in Shanghai.
Chinese parents are at least beginning to appreciate other core benefits of football. Although, this change in attitude won’t suddenly happen like a Britney Spears wedding, as it will take time and a fair amount of it, too.
We Brits take our football culture for granted with endless TV and radio coverage (admittedly not always insightful); a variety of books available and countless parks often occupied by amateur leagues and wannabe stars. In China, this isn’t the case and will require a great deal of resources to establish anything close to what the UK has.
Football is played regularly at UK schools be it during break times or in P.E. class. Children as young as seven, are able to compete in local leagues in support of their development and understanding of the game. But in China, these platforms and opportunities are very much in their infancy and referenced in the Government’s reform. However, whether or not the additional time dedicated to football at State schools is truly taking place is a different matter. After all, an extra class here and there is only going to go so far even after the parents have been convinced.
Having played five seasons of amateur football in Shanghai, I’ve noticed that the approach to the sport is also in need of development. The few Chinese sides that are in the International Leagues on both Saturdays and Sundays are sometimes behind in areas such as discipline, sportsmanship and organisation.
Recently, we played against a side that had a mismatch of red coloured kits and someone – who wasn’t terrible – playing in tights. No shorts, just tights. Obviously it was hard to take the situation seriously but that’s indictment of a player who is unbeknown to what we regard as basic expectations.
Respect for referees – who are pretty terrible here – and sportsmanship are limited both on an amateur and professional level. I’ve witnessed several clashes between Chinese and foreign players – who aren’t always blameless – during amateur competitions that are probably driven by egos and certainly a dearth of discipline.
At the Shanghai Derby I watched a player from SIPG help his opponent from Shenhua who was suffering with cramp. Unfortunately, one of the biggest cheers of the night didn’t arrive when this sporting gesture started but when another SIPG player pushed his teammate away, bringing the act to a premature end. Perhaps I’m just being hopeful that a local derby could set an example for impressionable fans still learning the game.
I’ve regularly seen players crowding referees in the Chinese Super League and getting overly physical. China isn’t alone in its lack of respect for the officials with European teams unfortunately just as culpable. But the frequency at which Chinese players ignore the boundaries of authority on the pitch seems to be greater and would add credence to the social stigma that it’s a sport for bad boys and the poorly educated.
What is certain is that these incidents need to be reduced or ideally eradicated for the country to have a chance of reaching its ambitious targets. They’re not errors made on purpose but mistakes forced by limited understanding in addition to an insufficient football environment.
In response to a question regarding certain nations succeeding in specific sports because of their natural physique, Kevin Anderson, Technical Director at the Guangzhou R&F/Chelsea football school, stated that “nations specialise in certain sports because of their infrastructures.” He dismissed that Chinese players can’t match the world’s best because of their size, citing players like Iniesta, Messi and Xavi as prime examples.
But China needs to establish a football culture similar to that of the UK, which is by no means perfect, to give them a chance of fulfilling their potential.