China turns to science to help fix troubled soccer team
Officials eye new video match-analysis system to improve woeful performance of league and national teams and seek global glory
Government organisations are funding research to help football teams raise their game in a sport that has been mired in corruption and failure on the mainland.
At least three research teams are working on a computer system that can analyse videos of matches and highlight teams' strengths and weaknesses.
China's national team failed to quality for the World Cup in Brazil this summer and has only taken part in the tournament once in 2002. Several top soccer officials, including two former heads of the mainland's soccer leagues, have been jailed for accepting bribes and match-fixing.
Among the organisations funding the video research are the Chinese Academy of Sciences and National Natural Science Foundation. Researchers working on the project include teams at Xian Jiaotong University and Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Funding for soccer game analysis has increased rapidly over the past few years due to the government's eagerness to revive the national game, according to Qian Xueming, a video content analyst at Xian Jiaotong University's school of electronic and information engineering.
Qian said there was similar research overseas, which required setting up more than a dozen special cameras around the pitch to capture every movement of the players and the ball. The research on the mainland was more ambitious as researchers want to get all the necessary data and information from ordinary television broadcasts.
"This is quite challenging, but if the project succeeds almost any video recordings of a match can be analysed by the computer and provide some helpful insights," he said. "With sufficient government investment, I am quite sure about its success."
Gao Hong, a former goalkeeper with the women's national soccer team and a coach with China's youth team, said the technology would help improve standards.
"I spend more than seven hours analysing a match and a lot of critical data can't be obtained from just watching a video," she said. "The computer can relieve coaches of a most labour-intensive job and give us some very valuable information."
Gao said that before an important match China's national squad buys reports on rival teams from overseas soccer analysis companies, mainly based in Europe, but for most games they do without because the cost was so high.
Video analysis technology would help with teams' tactical skills, according to Li Jie, a professor of sport at Peking University and vice-chairman of Beijing's College Soccer Association.
"Our soccer training has produced many good individual players, but not a team," Li said. "With the new technology on game analysis, even an ordinary player can be given a chance to do in-depth tactical analysis, which could significantly improve their awareness of space on the pitch and timing to make good team play."
Dr Yang Ying, a researcher at the China Agricultural University's College of Information and Electrical Engineering, is working on the software for the video project. She said tracking all the players and the ball across the 90 minutes of a game needed a huge amount of data and processing and that the project was proving difficult.
"The technical challenges of soccer game analysis can rival the complexity of a national defence system," she said. Yang said there was a deadline for her research, but did not give details.
President Xi Jinping is a keen soccer fan and he was quoted as saying by the official sports newspaper Soccer News that his three wishes were China making the World Cup finals, holding a World Cup and winning a World Cup.
National youth team coach Gao said the video technology was a start.
"Technology alone certainly can't revive Chinese soccer, but it will definitely help a lot and narrow the gap between us and the world's leading teams," she said.