Fans claim Fifa award for mainland 'is a joke'
Peter Simpson in Beijing
After another year of disappointments and controversies, mainland soccer finally has something to cheer about.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has been handed Fifa's Development Award for promoting youth football during a nationwide grassroots campaign.
Yet the accolade was met with a howl of derision from cynical fans and pundits, who claimed the prize lacked credibility and went to a pilot scheme yet to 'prove its validity'.
'The speed with which the CFA moved to take the lead in implementing the [Fifa] programme certainly impressed everyone here,' Fifa, the game's world governing body, said on its website.
It said the government paid US$6 million to fund the scheme, with 'sponsors responding with significant value-in-kind contributions'.
'The programme has been rolled out to no fewer than 44 cities, with a staggering one million children taking part,' it said of the experiment.
The China programme has led to the establishment of a CFA grassroots development committee 'in which the country's education and sports ministries are both represented', Fifa said.
The CFA refused to comment on the committee, but deputy chairwoman, Xue Li said of the award: 'This will encourage us to do more work in developing the school football project.'
Public promotion and media coverage of the programme have been minimal and the award has surprised many.
'I thought it was satire or a joke spread on the internet,' said Yan Qiang, vice-president of Titan, the sports newspaper and internet site.
'The development of Chinese youth football is awful and there is little evidence of any grassroots work by the CFA. I think it's inconceivable - and cannot understand why - Fifa has rewarded China for grassroots development,' he added.
Rowan Simons, who runs Club Football - the only independent organisation promoting amateur football and author of Bamboo Goalpost, a book about the poor state of the sport on the mainland - said he was shocked by the award.
'I am very surprised that China should win just one year into a pilot project that has yet to prove its viability. It is easy to get lots of kids to play football once to meet a central target. But how many will still be involved next year?' he said.
He added: 'The jury is still out on whether this project is sustainable. The central funding sounds impressive. But if you divide the cash between 44 cities, there is not enough to build one new football pitch in each city.'
Supporters poured scorn on the award. 'There are fewer and fewer young football players each year, so what development is Fifa awarding?' one fan said on sina.com
Another posted: 'This award is CFA's new fig leaf to hide all the corruption and incompetence.'
China - ranked 93rd in the world - were once again knocked out of the 2010 World Cup qualifying competition at an early stage and the game's already tarnished reputation was further blackened by TV images beamed around the globe of players attacking referees.
In recent weeks, the failure of the country to qualify for the World Cup led President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders to call for a shake-up of the sport.
Fifa was unavailable for comment on the award.