Soccer is one of China's great underperformers. Ironically, this is in part because of, rather than in spite of, the involvement of state-owned enterprises and government officials. Cashed up with funds easily borrowed from state banks, they have poached and overpaid better players to join clubs in which they have invested to promote their own brands or interests. The result, as our report from Guangzhou at the weekend showed, is the destruction of a level playing field, giving rise to illegal gambling and corruption.
This has undermined the development of the skills, spirit and passion needed for players to reach the highest standards. The abysmal performances of the national team, which languishes in the lower levels of international rankings, speak for themselves. Embarrassed, Beijing has cracked down on corruption, arresting officials, players and administrators, including the head and vice-chairman of the party-controlled Chinese Football Association.
The Chinese passion for soccer is evident in the enormous popularity of the English and other foreign leagues. State leaders are understandably keen for mainland soccer players to reach the standards of other sports, which won a record medal haul at the last Olympic Games. Their hand-picked new soccer supremo, former top water sports official Wei Di, insists that the way forward lies in a state-backed system with Chinese characteristics.
Hopefully he can lead the way in getting rid of graft and scandal and instilling integrity, honesty and basic sportsmanship. That would be a start on restoring confidence among fans and reputable private investors. But the continued direct involvement of government raises its own questions. China would be better advised to follow the code of Fifa, the sport's world governing body, and put an independent national organisation, staffed by dedicated professionals, in charge of a grass-roots-up approach to build the foundations for future success. That way, one day, Hong Kong may be able to realise its dream of playing in a respected, top-level Chinese football league.