Sunday, September 20, 2009

So, What Is China's Excuse?

Wow. Now we have opened up a can of worms. Actually, make that a barrel of worms. A silo of worms.

China is awful in soccer. The casual soccer fan knows that.

But most of us don't know how much China cares that it is awful, how keenly aware it is of that awful-ness, and how embarrassed, ashamed, mortified (we could keep going, but that's enough for now) the nation feels about it.

This is the second of what is going to be a short series on why some of the planet's most populous nations are shrimps in the zoology of global soccer. We looked at India a few days ago.

And now China.

Again, wow. We get a sense that only a fraction of China's soccer-related angst has been translated into English ... and that what we hear or see on the topic, in the West, barely begins to plumb the depths of the national anxiety and subsequent debate.

How deep are those depths? Well, one Chinese scholar has suggested that the national team's incompetence could lead to political upheaval. He was not joking.

First, let's quantify how bad China is.

1. China is the world's most populous nation, with some 1.3 billion people, enjoys a booming economy and it is genuinely sports-mad, having reveled in winning the most gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet it is ranked 107th in the world in soccer.

Behind desperately poor African countries such as Guinea (55), Congo (79) and Mozambique (84); behind countries with microscopic populations, like Latvia (55), Bahrain (64) and Iceland (96); behind countries that aren't really countries, such as Scotland (30), Northern Ireland (31) and Wales (67); behind countries that were invented just in the past few years, such as Macedonia (56), Moldova (88) and Montenegro (89); behind countries wracked by war and/or political unrest, such as Iran (60), Sudan (96) and Iraq (98).

2. China has qualified for the World Cup finals only once, in 2002. It went out without scoring a goal.

3. China was eliminated in the second round of Asia qualifying for the 2010 World Cup ... by Iraq. War-torn, sectionally fragmented Iraq.

4. China lost all three matches in the 2008 Olympics, failing to salvage even a tie when playing on its home soil.

That shoddy Olympics performance was documented in this New York Times story, which notes that "soccer may be the sport the Chinese care about above all else, but it is also the one that most frustrates and disappoints them," adding that "the men's national and Olympic teams are the subject of much scorn, shame and hand-wringing."

The most interesting take on China and its soccer team came in a Washington Post op-ed piece written by a Chinese national who teaches history at Kalamazoo College in the U.S. state of Michigan.

In the piece, written before the 2008 Olympics, Xu Guoqi suggests up to 700 million Chinese watched the 2006 World Cup, which China failed to qualify for. "They weren't happy," Xi wrote.

Of the 2010 qualifying ouster at the hands of Iraq (which occurred he 2008), he writes, "Such losses have not only plunged many Chinese into the sort of depression that only a Chicago Cubs fan could understand. They have also prompted doubts about Chinese manhood, undermined the country's vaunted can-do spirit and sparked agonized questions about our politics, culture and society -- even about what it means to be Chinese. For the regime in Beijing, success at the Olympics may demonstrate China's superiority, but for the country's long-suffering soccer fans, the only real yardstick of greatness is a victory in the World Cup."

He also touched on numerous suggested explanations of China's soccer incompetence. For example ...

--Only a tiny fraction of China's enormous population plays sports, including soccer.

--China attempts to bring to the soccer field the same training techniques it employs for individual sports, at which it is so successful. Mind-numbing repetition and sheer exertion clearly can mean victory in what are sometimes referred to as the "robotic" sports -- such as diving and gymnastics. But that approach doesn't translate into success in a free-flowing game like soccer.

--A creaky, top-down system that starts with the "hidebound" Chinese communist party.

--Endemic corruption in Chinese soccer, from club to national team.

--Modern Chinese society's rejection of "communal values" in what has turned into a dog-eat-dog system. "These days everybody wants to be the boss, and nobody wants to be the goalie," Xu writes.

The reason why soccer failures generate so much anxiety in China, the writer suggests, is that China expects to be the best at everything ... and there is no easy way to explain away these shocking failures on the pitch. And it comes just as regional rivals Japan and South Korea have qualified, again, for the World Cup ... and even xenophobic, paranoid North Korea has clinched a berth at South Africa 2010.

Writes Xu: "The World Cup strikes Chinese as the most meritocratic, the most (gasp!) democratic, of competitions. Every nation, rich or poor, strong or small, has a real shot at winning. No country or regime, regardless of its wealth or power, can manufacture a victory the way that, say, East Germany used to during those dreary Cold War-era Olympic Games. On the soccer field, China is forced to test itself against the family of nations. It's social Darwinism as sport. No wonder millions of Chinese fans link soccer to their national sense of honor."

So, what is China's excuse for its soccer incompetence?

Let's boil it down as best we can. A country that loves sports but doesn't really play them; a heavily individualistic population that has trouble with the basic concepts of team sports; a badly run and probably corrupt federation; a government not open to transparency or to taking responsibility for failure.

At any rate, China must be considered the biggest underachiever in the history of global soccer. Because, unlike India, which doesn't really care about soccer ... China cares, and quite deeply. But still can't figure out how to beat Iraq.

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