Black plague

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

China's long-held dream of finishing on top of the Olympic gold-medal standing was transformed into reality during the dazzling summer of 2008. But 15 months on, the nation's pride has waned.

A glaring chink in the gold-plated armour worn by the 21st century's sporting powerhouse has exposed the country's Achilles' heel: soccer, the nation's favourite sport.

With 200 days to go until the kick-off of the World Cup in South Africa, government leaders in Beijing - including President Hu Jintao - are becoming increasingly concerned the Olympic medals haul will look hollow.

Glaringly absent from the biggest sporting event on the planet will be the nation that proved itself as an Olympics superpower.

To rub salt into the wound, nations across East Asia are brimming with pride and anticipation. Japan, South Korea and the pariah state of North Korea will join the plethora of iconic World Cup teams next June.

Millions of disappointed Chinese soccer fans - some 400 million-plus are expected to tune into the World Cup - are fuming.

They feel let down and alienated from the global celebrations.

'The fans' passionate frustration with their football team exposes the deep insecurities about China's place in the world,' noted Xu Guoqi, the author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.

Indeed, the World Cup is the jewel in the crown, and only when the country can wrestle it from the likes of Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Italy will China's new-found confidence be complete.

Sport is a crucial part of government policy and also serves to display the country's soft power; a winning soccer team arguably wins more global respect in the eyes of many both at home and abroad than a parade of missiles.

Yet after decades of failure and worsening corruption in the game, the anxiety coursing through the leadership has in the last few weeks become more than palatable - it's become audible.

Tasked with delivering to the masses champions who are the envy of the world is the General Administration of Sports (GAS), a key government ministry.

What, Chinese sports fans are asking, is the true worth of all those Olympic medals and investment dollars in the government-run sports' training machine if you still suck at the World Game - the so-called People's Game?

How is it that China, with all its focus on sport since the turn of the century, has managed to spectacularly regress since its historic first World Cup showing in 2002?

Both the Olympic and World Cup squads have failed dismally despite the millions pumped in by the government and the partial commercialisation of the domestic leagues 15 years ago.

The men's national team lie at number 102 in the Fifa world rankings, slightly worse than the Cape Verde Islands but slightly better than Estonia. The world's poorest nation in 2008, Malawi, is 12 places higher than the mighty PRC, the other half of the newly declared G2.

Chinese fans are wondering just how, with a talent pool of 1.3 billion from which to pick a squad of 23 players, the government sports' supremos fail to trump the lowly Cape Verde Islands, that have a population of 506,000.

The men's team have qualified for the Olympics only once on their own merit, in 1988.

The side were granted an automatic Beijing Olympic berth as the hosts and became the black sheep of the Games - the embarrassing family member unceremoniously dispatched for an early bath.

At the 2002 World Cup, when the competition was expanded to include 32 teams, China, under then Serbian head coach Bora Milutinovic, lost all three games and failed to score a single goal.

The hinges on the revolving door at Chinese Football Association (CFA) - the government organisation set up to run the game - have been worn rotten. Seven coaches - three of them foreigners - have managed the team since 2000.

Commercial interests - the sponsors, marketers, merchandise merchants - are also ruing missed opportunities, but maintain a wary distance.

Those foreign sponsors that have attached their name to the domestic Chinese Super League (CSL) in recent years rarely sign on for more than one season.

Far from being a money-spinner, the game has instead become a microcosm of the problems that blight China. Chinese soccer is better at passing brown envelopes stuffed with cash than the ball.

Illegal gambling - worth up to US$150 billion a year, according to government estimates - has fuelled match-fixing and bribery among officials, coaches, players and the notorious 'black whistle' referees.

Add to these on-pitch violence, the lousy performance of underdeveloped players and the general incompetence of the men and women in charge, it is of little wonder fans and big-paying sponsors stay away and a berth at the number-one sporting tournament goes wanting.

Moreover, Chinese soccer is a law unto itself. An investigation by Sunday Morning Post has discovered the structure of the domestic game is severely flawed and illegal under a raft of rules governing the sport.

Each of the 42 teams playing in the three professional domestic leagues were formed under the auspices of provincial football associations.

These FAs are all unelected bodies free of any public scrutiny unlike their counterparts in the rest of the world. They answer to their respective provincial governments rather than to the national body appointed by the government to run the domestic game, the CFA.

Yet the CFA is also a rogue element and blatantly ignores all international rules governing the game - including the required independence from government control and rules overseeing players' transfers and contracts.

Crucially, unlike other FAs, there is no department to promote the game at grass-roots level - the vital foundation blocks on which to construct long-term success.

Experts line up to point out the illegalities, yet the CFA seemingly acts with impunity from the all-powerful international organisation that governs the world game, Fifa.

How is it that Fifa severely punishes other nations that flout its codes, but fails to reprimand China - the country that Fifa recognises as inventing the sport on the principles of fair play 2,000 years ago?

This, and other questions, are being asked with increasing intensity and disgruntlement.

Soccer is the one area in which the public and the media are free to debate and criticise - a rare colourful splash of democratic contention in the grey, monotone intellectual landscape.

The groundswell of frustration is most keenly felt in blogs, internet chat rooms and by the fans on the street.

The government is fully aware of the historical power of soccer to stir emotions that threaten to spill over into gripes about other rotten areas of mainland society.

The CSL clash between Beijing and Tianjin ahead of the October National Day parade was postponed over fears a loss for either side would dampen the mood.

Aware that a possible summer of discontent lies ahead with nothing but the Shanghai World Expo and Guangzhou Asian Games on the events calendar to stir the patriotic blood, the government seems to be listening to the brooding masses.

The nation's sporting disgrace has reached the top of President Hu Jintao's in-tray. And heads are rolling.