Brazil’s Beatriz scores against China during their Group F match at Miyagi Stadium in Miyagi, Japan, on July 21. Photo: Reuters
Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang

How China’s ‘Steel Roses’ can return to Olympic soccer glory

  • The rise of women’s football elsewhere, growth in Western-style sponsorship and lack of interest from the public and authorities have eroded China’s standing
  • Broad-based efforts including from parents, grass-roots groups, the government, private firms and the public are needed to restore China to global prominence
The Chinese women’s football team, nicknamed the “Steel Roses”, was eliminated from the Tokyo Olympics after a disastrous 8-2 defeat against the Netherlands. Under immense pressure, head coach Jia Xiuquan resigned. Perhaps he could have chosen different tactics or made a better team selection, but he should not take all the blame.
The team performed miserably. In the three games they played, they conceded a record 17 goals. Instead of pointing fingers at the coach or the players, it is time to look at the fundamental problems that led to this humiliation.

Established in 1986, the team used to be one of the best in the world, with many glories in their locker. They have won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup eight times, and they narrowly lost to the US in the 1996 Olympics final, by a single goal.

In the past decade, however, they have sadly gone downhill. The rise of women’s football in other parts of the world, the acceleration of Western-style sponsorship, lack of interest from the public and inattention from the authorities have all played a role.

To start with, China has shockingly few female football players, especially in light of its population of 1.4 billion. There are only 6,000 to 7,000 registered members above the age of 12, according to the Chinese Football Association, though the actual number is likely to be several times more. In the United States, there are almost 1.7 million registered female players.


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China’s small number of players is the result of its historical elite approach to sports, with the emphasis on winning medals rather than a grass-roots approach.

The number also reflects many Chinese parents’ attitude to the game – it is not suitable for girls. When I was a schoolgirl, I once asked our physical education teacher to teach us how to play football. He complied but then added: “You won’t be asking for it in a few years’ time.”

Many more parents are not keen on their children spending time playing sports at all. Rather, they want them to focus on academic studies and take extra lessons in English, piano and painting so they can get ahead in the great game of life.

Even if they are willing, there are not enough pitches. Thousands have been constructed nationwide, raising the ratio for every 10,000 people from 0.08 pitches to 0.5. Yet, the ratio is still relatively low.


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If a career as a female professional player was more lucrative, some parents – those from poorer families in particular – might encourage their daughters to get into the game. However, it is not.
The pay gap between men and women is a global issue, but that gap is more startling in China. The income of a female professional footballer is generally on a par with a factory worker while a male player can easily pocket millions of yuan a year, despite the fact that the women’s team has done far better than the men’s. The men’s team has only qualified to play in one World Cup, where they failed to score a single goal.
In recent years, government financial support has been partly replaced by Western-style corporate sponsorships, which has hurt women’s football. At the same time, men’s football has become the most successful commercialised sport in China as it is more popular.
The decline of women’s football and the disappointing level of the men’s game have long been regarded as a national humiliation in China, the world’s second-largest economy and a rising power on the world stage.


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Chinese football club invests US$1.7 billion to build one of the world’s biggest soccer stadiums
It has attracted the attention of China’s leaders, including President Xi Jinping, an ardent football fan himself. Since he took power, a series of reforms have been introduced, including making sport a mandatory part of physical education at school and improving governance and infrastructure.
Rowan Simons – an old friend and chairman at China ClubFootball FC, one of the largest amateur clubs in Beijing – welcomes such reforms.

“They are ambitious and admirable,” he said in an interview. “But some things can be done easily, such as buying professional clubs and building pitches.

“Other things are harder to achieve but more meaningful: such as building an amateur football culture and letting children – both boys and girls – as well as their parents embrace the social and health benefits of the game.” That is also the main argument in his 2008 book Bamboo Goalposts.

I totally agree. The development of football in China faces many challenges. There is no quick fix. Let’s start with educating parents, making them aware of the benefits of playing football. Only by doing so will China have any hope of developing a larger player base.

It needs to diversify and broaden the grass-roots level by developing school football teams, private academies and recreational clubs. All of these can complement the state-supported system and act as a pipeline for the recruitment of talented players into professional provincial and municipal teams.

Meanwhile, the government should offer the women’s game more care and attention. Market-oriented sports tend to favour men. Yet, as a centre-powered government, China has the advantage of allocating financial resources as it wishes.

Corporations and individuals also need to show their support. It is common sense that for a rose to thrive, it requires fertile ground.

The Chinese women’s team is 15th in the latest Fifa rankings, while the men’s team languishes in 77th place. Let’s face it – despite the disappointment at the Olympics, the women’s team is still far more likely to bring football glory to the nation than the men’s.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus