When I lived in South Korea the running joke regarding Chinese football was that it sucked pretty bad. That was it. Regional tension aside – the opinions were hardly unbiased – it was hard to disagree. The Chinese football program has yet to make a dent internationally. Qualifying for the 2002 World Cup was considered the nation’s greatest achievement- yes I know, Canadians are hardly one to talk.
They didn’t score a goal in 2002, much to the pleasure of folks in Japan and South Korea. Tired of being stomped on by their neighbors, the Chinese FA hired José Antonio Camacho in August 2011, paying the former Spanish international $24 million for three years of service – not exactly small change. Wei Di, the head of the FA, knew Camacho’s task – to make China a footballing power – would not be easy:
“Compared with our neighbours Japan and South Korea, Chinese football is lagging far behind,” Wei said. “We need to work with a long-term view and start to catch up with a pragmatic approach.” “A lot of our fans expect China to qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. “They are afraid that changing the coach at the last moment may cause bad effect to the team’s qualifying prospect. I can totally understand that. But we do not have any time to waste.”
Camacho was unable to do the impossible and China crashed out of qualifying last November – they couldn’t get out of a group that featured Iraq, Jordan, and Singapore . There are parallels between China and fellow burgeoning superpower/frenemy India and their attempts to gain relevancy in a sport beloved by their people. The I-league remains in shambles – consider the investment made in cricket in India compared to the apathy devoted to soccer and it’s not surprising.
The Chinese super league hasn’t fared much better. Match fixing, general owner sketchiness and poor infrastructure has held the league back.
We know what followed next. Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Marcello Lippi made their way to China in search of one final pay day. I still laugh at this Lippi quote from his introductory press conference:
“My arrival should be a big deal and the most important thing in China today,” Lippi said. “I will start my work today, the same way I did in Juventus and Inter. The most important thing is to bring the Italian football concepts to China.”
They weren’t the first foreigners to join the league – China has been home to footballers from Serbia, Brazil and smaller Latin American countries for some time – but their arrival signaled an intent to make China a legitimate place to go for quality football. In a comforting sign, the big names haven’t been treated with kid gloves – Lippi’s in trouble after Guangzhou Evergrande crashed out of the AFC Champions League. Though, I’m not a fan of the whole Anelka player-manager thing.
Ratings have improved and generally the football is better – disclosure: I’m basing this off of a small sample size, watching illegal internet streams from China is a tough ask at four in the morning. But so far, the gigantic investment made by state and private enterprise have failed to produce homegrown talent. China’s incredible success in a variety of sports has been a revelation in recent years, but football continues to lag.
The question is – and the reason I wrote this meandering post – will the presence of stars and managers on their decline actually help the Chinese game? I remain skeptical.