Football greatness cannot be bought, it needs to come from the heart
There has to be a culture, time, patience and nationwide understanding if the nation is to achieve its goal to be a soccer powerhouse
Ridicule is rare on the mainland for state-sponsored sport, but it is widespread for the national men’s soccer team. A 2-0 defeat by Uzbekistan early this month has all but dashed hopes of China being represented at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With just one win from four games, social media is awash with jokes and barbs and it was inevitable that the coach, Gao Hongbo, would resign, another in a long line of casualties. While there is the slimmest chance his replacement might inspire a turnaround, hopes should not be overly raised; instead, there has to be an understanding that winning ways come from the strong foundation of a footballing culture.
China does not have that, no matter how much authorities and fans desire a world-topping team or the amount of money being invested in coaches and players. No national sport has been declared, but there is little dispute that table tennis is king, followed by basketball. President Xi Jinping is a super fan of soccer, though, and has laid out ambitious goals that include winning the World Cup. The vision is for the nation to be one of Asia’s best by 2030 and an international footballing power by 2050 with 50 million players.
A strategy unveiled last year is slowly taking shape, with thousands of new pitches being built and a push for 20,000 schools to include the sport in their curriculums next year. Cracking down on corruption was an early target, with players and officials rooted out and the national association revamped. Substantial funding has been put into coaching and training.
But throwing money at the team is no guarantee of turning losers into winners. The greatest footballing nations have come from a culture of embracing and loving the game, from the grass roots up. That means a pitch in every village, a stand for spectators and children taking to the field from an early age.
Even that is not enough, though. Young people have to be given an opportunity to train and play against other teams at a competitive level. Good coaches are needed along with facilities and a system has to be in place that allows talented players to be spotted and given every chance to develop their potential. So far, progress has been patchy and in some areas, too slow.
China has made huge international sporting strides and can be proud of what it has achieved. With 1.3 billion people, it has every chance to build a great national soccer team. But it cannot be created or bought. Instead, there has to be a culture, time, patience and nationwide understanding.