China has to play by the global rules of soccer
Soccer is by far China's most popular spectator sport, with one in four of its 1.3 billion people following matches. However, it is not local teams they support, but foreign ones. The reason is simple enough: the men's national team is the country's sporting disgrace, languishing in the lower reaches of international rankings and unable to qualify for next year's World Cup finals. There will be no change until the game on the mainland adheres to its global codes.
The world governing body, Fifa, recognises China as having invented soccer. But that is no reason to allow the nation to flout the rules by which the game is played. Foremost among these breaches is the government's control of the sport. Fifa's code is clear: independent national organisations and dedicated professionals should be in charge.
There are good reasons for such rules. The corruption that is tearing the heart out of soccer on the mainland is in part down to the greed of officials. President Hu Jintao has ordered a cleaning up of the sport, and dozens of arrests have been made for illegal gambling, match-fixing and bribery. His intervention proves just how eager leaders are for China to join the ranks of the soccer elite.
That goal is a long way off. The training programme of the national governing body, the China Football Association, follows the model that pushed the nation to the top of the gold-medal table at the Beijing Olympic Games. Unfortunately, what works for table tennis players, divers and gymnasts does not apply to the football pitch. Soccer has its own laws that require a grass-roots-up approach; players must have skill, passion, energy and group spirit to be considered for a squad.
Professionals, not civil servants, best know how to identify such traits. They have the knowhow to help communities develop amateur leagues. Their dedication to the sport will keep corruption at bay, foster professionalism among players and ensure international standards and practices are adopted. Only when the government steps aside will soccer have a chance of flourishing at the national level and China of moving up the rankings.