With one soundbite, Deng deflates volleyball heroes and declares soccer as the national game

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

It was Deng Xiaoping who deflated the excited college students on an autumn day in 1981 when the women's volleyball team beat Japan to win the world championships.

Shouting patriotic slogans about China's 'revival', they called on the government to declare an anniversary to honour the triumph. Call it 'China's National Game Day', they pleaded.

Deng pondered for a few moments, and replied: 'National game? It should be football.'

In the eyes of Deng (who, according to his sister, watched all 52 games of the 1990 World Cup) and in the eyes of millions of fans today, it is soccer - and soccer only - that can be regarded as the country's national game.

Indeed, the Chinese Super League this month said spectator numbers were at a record high.

'The CSL is still the most popular [Chinese sports] league in terms of spectators and television viewers,' Lu Feng, manager of the CSL's commercial arm, told the Shenzhen Economics Daily.

'The average number of spectators at each game this season was 16,300. It's the biggest number in the league's history. It's a remarkable number and our sponsors are very satisfied,' Lu said.

Yet the majority of the China's 350-million plus soccer fans shun the country's 42 domestic teams who play in the three professional leagues, the Chinese Super League, Jia A and Yi .

Instead, they get their fix from watching the success in other countries.

Most follow a European domestic club and adopt an international team during major competitions, with Italy, Germany, Spain, England and Italy among the favourites.

Though a handful of Chinese players have flown the national flag over the past decade, playing for the likes of Crystal Palace, Manchester City and Charlton, fans from Kunming to Harbin pin posters of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to their walls for want of a Chinese hero to worship - though they would dearly love a home-grown player to reach the kind of success and produce the same pride that Yao Ming has brought to basketball through his exploits in the NBA.

Yet they are divided over whether the government should interfere more or less in soccer. But they all agree on one issue - there should be grass-roots development.

'I think President Hu Jintao and other senior officials mean well by what they say. But what will they change and how?' asked Wu Tong, 26, a Beijing website editor.

'It needs more than scientific development. We don't need to waste any more tax payers' money on training footballers at elite schools. We need to use the finances to get ordinary people, especially in schools and the communities, to play the game.

'The problems are huge and complex, dirty and ugly. Chinese football has little to do with performance on the pitch. A lot of government-related people make a lot of money out of it from corruption, so why would they want to see it changed?' he added.

Blogger Yao Xiaoyuan wrote on his Sina.com blog: 'We have to get the government out of the game. One of the main reasons why China is so weak is the strange, complicated system run by government policy. There's already too much politics involved in football and it does not need scientific development. To play the game successfully demands a combination of skill, art, passion, energy and group spirit. It has its own laws.'

Self-employed worker Yang Jiacai, 50, from Beijing said: 'I agree with the scientific development approach. Like everything, football has to have regulation. But the vital thing is to get more children playing football. They will become the future national team.

'Our players need to learn to love the country. It's a great honour to play for China. But Chinese football is fraudulent. The current situation should make them feel guilty, as it does me, as a fan.'

Blogger Laobai claimed the short-term view and inexperience of the government officials running the game were to blame for the lack of success.

He wrote: 'The key to making Chinese football great is not through scientific development. There's already too much political bureaucracy that encourages corruption. Football needs to be fully commercialised and become subjected to market forces. This will see more money flow into developing grass-roots football.'