Politicians jump at chance to speak about change, but there needs to be a revolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am

Over the past few weeks, senior leaders have been deliberating on soccer, vowing to bring reform and expressing a once-and-for-all desire for the nation to become a global force.

Politicians the world over jump at the chance to be quoted about the state of the national team in the belief it brings them closer to the people.

In China, however, sport is a serious political business and demands as much politicking as the issues affecting the economy, environment and the military.

So when Hu recently addressed the country's soccer woes, you knew something was about to kick off.

In times of crisis, the nation's leaders hold up a 'model worker' as an example for others to follow and a tradition of the Communist Party.

'China should revive the soccer sector through learning from the 'Zhihang Spirit',' declared Hu, referring to the former national team's captain Rong Zhihang, a skilful midfield player revered for his fair play on and off the pitch, and nicknamed 'China's Pele'.

Other top officials took up Hu's theme. Vice-President Xi Jinping, on a recent visit to soccer powerhouse Germany, questioned the 'Olympic success-soccer failure' paradox. How and why has soccer been left so far behind, he asked.

'We've got to resolve to do something to raise [the game], but this is going to take a long time,' he acknowledged.

Then Deputy Sports Minister Xiao Tian admitted the government was feeling the heat. 'Society and the ordinary people are not satisfied and the pressure on us is great. We need to quickly come up with some methods of resolving this problem and engineer a turnaround both in the level of football and the football market,' he said.

State counsellor and cabinet member Liu Yandong said: 'We have to diagnose the crux of the obstruction to the development of Chinese football.'

Perhaps Liu and others had read the book penned by former top Zhejiang province sports official Chen Peide, who was one of the first to expose the level and influence of corruption in the game.

'Many corrupt phenomena in China can be blamed on corruption within the [government soccer] system,' says Chen, former director of the Zhejiang Province Sports Bureau who has written several widely read and influential reports criticising the government's sports policy.

Hu's call for fairness saw opinion writers at the government's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, switch into overdrive.

'The dark forces in football circles are so vicious they have to be eliminated otherwise Chinese football can never develop,' advised one.

Evidently, the president's words echoed chillingly down the corridors of the Sports Ministry because the government has been swift to launch another crackdown against illegal gambling and match-fixing.

Within days of the officials' outpouring, state media claimed police had swooped on several senior soccer officials, including former Chinese national coach Qi Wusheng. He was among more than 100 players, coaches, referees, club officials and industry insiders questioned by police across the country.

As police acted on government orders and the propaganda machine began to whirl, a statement appeared on the CFA website, giving its full backing to what it said was a 'crackdown'.

'Gambling and match-fixing are serious crimes and also a cancer and obstacle to the healthy development of Chinese football,' it read.

'They are a serious breach of sports ethics, extremely harmful. They have to be eradicated. This ... is an important step towards the comprehensive treatment to revive Chinese football.'

Clampdowns on soccer's shadowy figures are not unique. In 2005, the Anti-Football Gambling Leadership Group was launched, but its results were never recorded and match-fixing and bribery remained very much part of the game.

However, such public feelings expressed by a president are extraordinary. The only other known leader to speak out officially on soccer was Deng Xiaoping, an ardent fan of the sport.

Yet how to change Chinese soccer for the long-term good? Ridding the game of its most destructive force - rampant corruption - will not ensure winning ways.

Opinions are divided and this exposes the damaging limbo between commercialism and government control in which the sport is caught.

'China should develop its football sector following the scientific development concept,' said councillor Liu Yandong.

Many fans slapped their foreheads in dismay at the thought of overly officious government sports chiefs instilling the Beautiful Game with more of the Communist Party's socio-economic ideology - the same nebulous policy that demands, among many things, sustainable development and the creation of a 'Harmonious Society'.

Repeated calls and faxed questions sent to the General Administration of Sport (GAS) and the CFA asking for clarification and more detail of the scientific development model for the game went unanswered. Perhaps the sick patient that is soccer demands a healthy dose of rigid, strict, government policy that nurtures extreme elitism? Maybe the coaches need to crack the whip harder? That worked for the Olympics, so maybe it could work for soccer, too, goes the argument. Not so, says Rowan Simons, the author of Bamboo Goalposts, a book about his efforts to develop amateur soccer in China over the past 22 years.

'Football is a completely different sport to most Olympic disciplines and cannot be developed to a successful level in the same way, as has been proved repeatedly. The problem is the lack of participation at grass roots and the lack of ownership or pride in the game,' he says.

A radical change in the game's structure is key, he argues. 'China has a totally back-to-front development programme and this is killing the game.'

According to official figures, in 1995 the mainland had 650,000 registered youth players. That number dropped to 13,524 last year. Figures from Fifa's 2006 'Big Count' claimed China had only 708,754 amateur and youth players from a population of 1.3 billion. That compares to 738,800 from 41 million in England.

A recent survey by TNS/CSM Media Research found only eight per cent of people aged 15-24 had taken part in a game during the spring months of this year, compared to 26 per cent who had played basketball.

Numbers are so big in China they become ungraspable. Statistics are confusing, change constantly and are unreliable at best.

What is clear, however, is hundreds of millions tune in to watch foreign teams on television - but few are inspired to play or support the domestic game.

The answer is to learn from other successful nations that have built the pyramid-shaped development structure pioneered by the English in the late 19th century, says Simons.

His independent Beijing-based China Club Football organisation is now the biggest grass-roots soccer network in Beijing with over 90,000 registered adult and youth members.

'The game developed in England, which had amateur clubs. These clubs formed the Football Association, then leagues. Some clubs went professional while many stayed amateur,' he says.

Meantime, the majority of players who fail to make the professional grade continue to play in amateur leagues and watch the professional games.

Sons - and increasingly, daughters - follow dads and become lifetime players and supporters. It is this development model that has created a multi-billion dollar global business and the most popular sport in the world.

However, China's state-run system is an inverted pyramid, with power at the top - a proven flawed development programme with huge social costs. 'There should be 25 million kids enjoying football, not a few thousand in specialist schools,' says Simons.

John Yan, vice-president of Titan Media, which publishes the popular Titan sports newspaper that often bristles with stinging criticism of the national team, agrees. He says the CFA should be allowed to act independently from the government to stop corruption and adopt international standards and practices, such as developing amateur, grass-roots leagues.

'Football is a team sport but our sport system is only good at producing athletes for individual sports like table tennis or diving. We need to become more professional,' he says.

Yan welcomes Hu's intervention, but says that much more than a crackdown on corruption is needed.

'The political atmosphere towards football has changed and that will definitely benefit the game in the long run. But the CFA needs to obey the international laws of sport. It needs independence to weed out the corruption and other scandals. It needs to be a good watchdog as well as good leader.'

Lin Xianpeng, a professor at Beijing Sport University, also advocates independence for the CFA - and says professional player development is lacking.

'Football needs professional staff to manage it, not government officials who obviously know little about the modern game given their track record,' he says.

'The attitude of Chinese players needs to be revolutionised to stop them thinking that cheating is better than losing. It's the same for coaches. They need to be shown and encouraged to become professional.'

State councillor Liu did say attracting more children into the game was key to the 'scientific development', echoing the belief of Deng.

It was Deng who said in 1985 that the key to developing soccer on the mainland was 'to catch them young'. As the leadership senses a groundswell of frustration, Simons believes that Deng's vision and Hu's comments could be the catalyst for change. But the president might have to speak louder.

'What could transform Chinese football overnight would be one big slogan - one sentence from the president or Prime Minister Wen Jiabo - to bring about the start of urgent change,' says Simons.

Perhaps China needs a Bill Shankly, the English manager of Liverpool FC, who famously quipped, when discussing if soccer was a matter of life or death: 'It's much more important than that.'

Whatever becomes of Liu's scientific development plan or Hu's call to adopt the Zhihang spirit, there will be many sleepless nights for fans and the government in June.

Political push

Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping knew that something had to drastically change on the mainland as far back as: 1985