The State Of The Beautiful Game In The Middle Kingdom

Football fans from all corners of the globe have been fixated on the events taking place in Brazil. As teams are gradually knocked out of the tournament, whole countries begin to examine the state of the game in their respective nations. For those whose native lands did not make it to South America, that process began much earlier. With China missing out on representation for a third consecutive tournament, why is it that they have struggled so considerably for so long on the international stage? 

That the most populous nation on the planet is not being represented in Brazil this summer is still of great surprise to many around the globe. The Long Zhi Dui’s only previous experience of the footballing bonanza that is the FIFA World Cup came back in 2002 in South Korea and Japan, in which they limped out at the group stage, conceding nine goals to no reply across their three games.

For the supposed ‘golden
 generation’ of Chinese
 footballers, this was to be as 
good as it got. Corruption
 scandals, accusations of 
nepotism and guanxi-based 
team selections have all
 blighted public perception of 
the beautiful game in China,
 although there remains a
 curious division in levels of 
support for the national side,
 and those sides competing in the Chinese Super League.

Where as indifference towards the national side is patently obvious amongst Chinese supporters following years of underachievement, interest in the CSL is growing year on year. Following the low of 2010’s major corruption scandal– in which three former CFA chiefs were arrested, players and officials were heavily reprimanded, and Shanghai Shenhua were stripped of their 2003 CSL title – football in China has been slowly picking up the pieces. Whilst the anti-corruption crackdown aimed at restoring supporters’ faith in the game, a raft of foreign signings (some more successful than others) also helped draw in larger crowd sizes, with average attendances across the league rising by over 5,000 since 2010, to just under 20,000.

Central to this rejuvenation is the rapid growth of the league’s flagship side, Guangzhou Evergrande. Relegated in 2010 as a result of their involvement in the match- fixing saga, the Evergrande Real Estate group took over the side, and began overseeing a huge restructuring of the club. The owners spent big on Chinese international striker, Gao Lin, and Brazilian forward Muriqui (signed for a record RMB 22,980,000), whilst PSV Eindhoven’s Sun Xiang and former national team captain, Zheng Zhi were also brought in.Needless to say, the investment paid off and the side easily secured promotion back to the CSL, before going on to take the title the following season. Success has stayed with the side ever since, and the club now goes into the summer break sitting on top of the 2014 CSL, looking odds-on to take their fourth consecutive title.

On top of their domestic achievements, Guangzhou
– under the stewardship of World Cup-winning manager Marcelo Lippi – also took last season’s Asian Champions League, and it seems that maintaining this Chinese footballing powerhouse is key to the Chinese Football Association’s vision for the game. The organisation famously altered its ruling on the number of foreign players allowed in a CSL squad in the middle of the 2012 campaign, after the Cantonese club brought in more than their allowed four overseas players.Accusations of preferential fixture scheduling are also never far off, and it is rather apparent that the CFA are committed to having at least one side flying the flag for Chinese football – albeit at the expense of the fifteen other CSL sides, and not to mention the national side.

What’s more, it appears as though Evergrande’s dominance is set to continue, as Jack Ma, owner of Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company, has recently invested RMB 1.2 billion for a 50% stake in the side. Ma had previously committed to investing in his hometown club, Hangzhou Greentown, however, reportedly unhappy at not being offered a majority share; the entrepreneur was lured south to the reigning ACL champions. Ma himself admitted that he was investing in entertainment as opposed to football, and this may well have an impact on the national side as Alibaba’s riches are poured into marketing endeavours
at the richest club in Asia,
 as opposed
to grassroots development in a side with an abundance of young Chinese talent. 

Whilst football 
fans in Guangdong 
may well be 
delighted at these
 developments, what it means for the rest of the league, as well as the national team, is a concern. Evergrande and China captain, Zhang Linpeng recently spoke very candidly about the national set-up, describing it as “complicated” and “unprofessional”, and it is clear that as long as the CFA allows commercialism to top professionalism, such problems will always remain.

Nonetheless, with the CSL’s reputation in the recovery process, and the World Cup in full swing, Chinese football fans still have cause for cheer (even if not for
the national side). Across the country, bars are staying open throughout the night, advertising campaigns featuring players and nations involved in the tournament are plastered across entire cities, and even the Beijing metro has rebranded 32 of its 36 stations with the names and flags of those competing in Brazil. Whereas it may be some time before we see China back in the competition, for now at least, it seems the World Cup will be celebrated in China as much as any other country.


Andy Strong