If you want to know how dire Chinese soccer has become, consider this: in the space of a week, President Hu Jintao, his deputy and another top leader, Liu Yandong, have weighed in on the state of the nation's most popular game.
Hu held up the example of a former national team captain and Vice-President Xi Jinping spoke of the need to build up the national team. But it is Liu, a state councillor, who will surely have raised eyebrows - and furrowed brows - with a call for the team to play the game according to Hu's theory of 'scientific development'.
Liu imparted her wisdom at a soccer work conference in Qingdao last Wednesday. There has been no feedback yet from players and coaches, but they are bound to wonder how to apply a theory of sustainable, energy-efficient economic development (instead of breakneck growth at the expense of the environment) to the Beautiful Game, let alone to achieving qualification for the World Cup finals again.
Liu did offer one clue: taking a leaf from Deng Xiaoping's book, she said a key to the 'scientific development' of soccer was attracting more children to play the sport.
In 1985, the late paramount leader, an avid soccer fan, said the key to developing soccer players was to catch them young. Ten years later, the mainland had 650,000 registered youth soccer players. By last year that number had dropped to 13,524.
Hu said the national team should learn from the 'Zhihang Spirit'. Rong Zhihang was made China captain in the 1970s, because of his spirit of fair play, his work ethic and discipline on and off the field. Hu recognised Rong among a group of sports icons during his stop in Jinan, Shandong, on Friday and told him China needed to revive the soccer sector by learning from him.
In Germany last week, Xi said China would produce a team capable of winning championships, but it would 'take us a long time'.
The national men's team has been something of a joke at home and abroad for some time.
The shame over the state of soccer even resulted in the government postponing the Beijing team's match on October 5 in Tianjin for fear it would ruin the upbeat atmosphere of the National Day holiday. It was rescheduled for October 14, a Wednesday afternoon, when most fans would have been at work.