Soccer is by far China's biggest sport in terms of spectators and sponsorship. The Chinese even claim to have invented what fans fondly call 'the beautiful game'; drawings from the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago show players kicking a hair-filled leather ball. Yet the national team languishes near the bottom of world rankings, out of the running for the London Olympic Games next year and all but out of the 2014 World Cup already. State leaders are understandably eager to see the team scale the international heights attained by many other Chinese athletes, but suggestions that this can best be achieved by bringing the sport under tighter government control are misguided.
The state dominates sports, with most top athletes the products of a government-run system with official federations controlling their respective disciplines. For soccer, that means the Communist Party controls the Chinese Football Association, but the involvement that has helped fund, train and drive athletes to the top in other sports has led to poor results and scandals. Match-fixing and bribery claims have rocked the Super League national competition and senior officials, among them former association head Nan Yong and his successor, Xie Yalong , are awaiting trial over a huge corruption case.
Such troubles should be reason to follow the code of Fifa, the sport's world governing body, and put an independent national organisation, run by dedicated professionals, in charge. But authorities would seem to have other ideas. Recent reports said the State Council was considering creating a governing body for soccer, seemingly under its charge, to better co-ordinate departments involved in the game. It would take oversight of management away from the State General Administration of Sports, with the aim of improving the game's quality and stature.
Other countries with high-flying teams do not have government-run offices, though; their success is based on independence and a grass-roots-up approach. And soccer has fared poorly under the party's control. The development of the skills, spirit and passion needed for players to reach the highest standards have been undermined by the involvement of government officials and state-owned enterprises. They have used easily borrowed state-bank funds to poach, and overpay, better players for clubs in which they are personally involved. That has severely tilted the possibility of a level playing field and given rise to corruption and illegal gambling.
Sport requires commitment and fair play to attract, develop and nurture talent. The rigid state system has attained that with scores of individual athletes. But team sports have been quite another matter, and in the case of soccer it is clear that keeping it at arm's-length from the government is the best way for it to develop.