Mainland youth 'losing interest'
Just 30,000 youngsters now registered players
The mainland is facing a serious talent drought, with the domestic governing body reporting a plunge in the number of youngsters prepared to commit themselves to the sport.
Just 30,000 juniors - girls and boys - are registered with the Chinese Football Association (CFA), according to statistics released by the association at a youth soccer forum in Wuhan. The number stood in stark contrast to its peak more than a decade ago of 650,000 and represented a dive from the 180,000-plus registered youth players in 2005.
'If we don't do enough to reverse the situation, the problem would no longer be a mere conventional source of worry,' Yang Yimin, a CFA deputy president told Xinmin Evening News. 'It would become a matter of life and death for Chinese soccer.'
Yang noted the virtual extinction of the once-booming youth soccer academy industry. At the peak of the cycle in 1995 and 1996, when the Chinese league and professional players enjoyed immense popularity, the mainland had about 4,200 full-time youth soccer academies, privately held or state-owned. The number, Yang said, has dropped to just 20.
The CFA blamed failed policies of past leadership, but promised the governing body would do its utmost to get the sport back on track.
The CFA hadn't placed sufficient emphasis on regulating the youth academy market, which was dominated by private ownership, leaving rampant tuition gouging and poor quality of training unchecked, Yang said. He also admitted the CFA had not channelled adequate financial and technical support to domestic clubs to help them foster youth programmes.
However, observers blamed the decline on an image crisis brought about by repeated scandals in the soccer industry over recent years.
'The overall decline in soccer results from its tainted image,' said Li Chengpeng, a columnist for Soccer News. 'Parents don't want to send their children to play soccer after seeing so much chaos in the sector.'
Rampant match-fixing scandals in the domestic league and consistently dismal performances by the national team have blunted interest in the game, once the most popular sport in China.
Notably, the frenzy of interest engendered by an NBA game 10 days ago between the Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks, which featured the country's two most celebrated players - Yi Jianlian and Yao Ming - reopened a debate over whether basketball had already superseded soccer as the mainland's favourite sport.
The CFA statistics come days after the domestic top-flight Chinese Super League wrapped up its 2007 season. Unheralded Changchun Yatai, who were only promoted to the top level of Chinese pro football last year, won a thrilling title race against Beijing Guo'an, claiming the trophy by just one point.
The troubled league apparently picked up some momentum in its latest edition with the average attendance bouncing back to 15,100 per match from 10,600 last year. The season also was free from the shadow of major embarrassments such as sponsor pull-outs or teams walking out in protest - routine occurrences when the game hit rock bottom not long ago.
But even the league admitted it might take a long time for the sport to regain its popularity.
The number of youth soccer academies operating in China. In 1995-96 there were 4,200 in business: 20