China – The Relationship Between Society and Football and Why the Two Must Adapt to Progress

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In 2012, the current President of China, Xi Jinping, stated his desire for the country to set its sights on a World Cup trophy, China PR is currently ranked 76th in FIFA Rankings, sandwiched between Bolivia at 75 and Uganda at 77. Whilst the national team remains weak and stagnant, the domestic league (The Chinese Super League) is progressing rapidly and its profile is ever-rising, for now. But, how did the CSL achieve continental prominence? 

In 2012/13 Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka played for Shanghai Shenhua. The former Chelsea players would only stay in the Far East for one season amid reports of unpaid wages and extensive corruption. The president, fearful of these incidents damaging the reputation and credibility of the CSL announced a 10-year plan. The goal: to double the size of the Chinese sports economy to upwards of $733 billion. This would be from both state and private investment in football. The plan was put into motion in 2015, evidently seen by the large inflation of transfer fees:

  • 2014/15 – Highest Transfer Fee = £13.50 million
  • 2015/16 – Highest Transfer Fee = £45 million

As well as state investment, clubs have received colossal investment by big corporate companies. The likes of Shanghai Shenhua, Shanghai SIPG, Hebei China Fortune, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao and Beijing Sinobo Guoan are among the clubs that top the financial abilities in the league. It must be said that the plan to raise the reputation and profile of the league, has worked. How many of us can say that we were familiar with Dalian Yifang 5 years ago? 

Nevertheless, with the league’s profile at a solid and sound stage, being the 7th most-watched league in the world being behind the traditional Top 5 and the Dutch Eredivisie, what does the Chinese Football Association need to do to further progress and take the next step without relying upon Europe’s ageing elite to keep viewers engaged?  

The need for systemic change

Considering that China has a population of over 1.3 billion and a population density of 148 people per square kilometre, there is an extremely broad and wide range of talent that could be exploited. I say this as developing and nurturing homegrown talent is attractive to most viewers regardless of nation, and should be a sector of focus for the Chinese Football Association, as it could greatly benefit the national team in years to come and could benefit the Chinese Super League consequently. For example, MLS has changed its profile from a ‘retirement home league’ to a growing, exciting and innovative format. As the USA is generating exciting players: 

  • Sergino Dest
  • Christian Pulisic
  • Weston McKennie
  • Tyler Adams

Young, exciting players attract viewers, so what can China do to generate their own golden generation? 

One of the main issues regarding children in Chinese society is getting them to participate in sport. In many instances, with only one child per household, it has become prevalent for parents across the country to prohibit over-protected youngsters from participating in sport — especially when raining or cold in the winter. In 2015, football was made compulsory in schools by the government in order to encourage participation and potentially ignite interests and passions for football within children.

Football is not something that is normally enforced or regularly encouraged as it is in the UK for example. In the UK you either inherit a club or select one yourself and before you can talk, you’re kicking a football and have joined a team by the age of 5. British society deems you unusual and freakish if you don’t indicate an interest in football. In the Far East, it is very much the opposite as a passionate and ‘European attitude’ towards football is a minority within society. Parents would rather see their children compete in athletics, badminton or basketball as they are extremely accessible, traditional and most importantly extremely limited in terms of physical contact.

I mention accessibility as this is also an issue in terms of participation and overall footballing development in China. In order to get the children playing, they need to be in an adequate climate and environment to do so, and currently, pitch/adequate playing surface access is low in China. The lack of access alongside the consequent issue of the pricing to rent a surface ultimately prohibit children from playing and taking the initiative of playing football. 

Playing surface quality is not just a grassroots issue, it also affects the highest level of football in China as CSL games are played on low-quality surfaces as the pitches are exposed to frost and drainage issues especially. Excluding the issues that pitches and playing surfaces present in the Far East, a handful of top tier Chinese clubs do not have their own fitness and conditioning centres, thus relying on public gyms. When the country’s top tier clubs are in these conditions, it is easy to imagine the deprived and desperate situations the grassroots clubs of China are in. 

Saying this, developing pitches and overall access to football across the country would be ignorant of the Chinese Football Association if they did not also focus on the development of their coaching education scheme, as improving the knowledge and coaching skills of the coaches will clearly correspond with player development.

 Unfortunately, this is where another issue with Chinese society enters the conversation and this is the selfish attitude in China of only focusing on yourself and ignoring other people’s problems. It is this attitude that explains why volunteering numbers in China are low, with the average Chinese citizen contributing to no more than one hour of voluntary activity per month as people are reluctant to sacrifice their time for the benefit of others, which is a fundamental motive for most people that volunteer, especially when coaching. 

If one decides to begin coaching in China and naturally wants to progress by completing courses, badges and coaching associated qualifications, this is not the simplest of tasks. The Chinese Football Association do not offer their own coaching education scheme, leaving aspiring coaches to select private companies that charge highly for football courses, or you can pay more to travel to places such as Bournemouth and Manchester in association with their respective local FAs and earn your qualifications.  Either way, the two most popular methods are not very accessible and are expensive. This has a detrimental influence on grassroots players as the coaches might not have the relevant knowledge and skills in order to develop a footballer, which in the long-term leads to the lack of progression which is evident in the Chinese national team now. The two priorities for the Chinese Football Association and the Chinese Government should be: 

  • To make the game as accessible as possible (installing 4g pitches/indoor playing surfaces).
  • And to invest in developing a coaching education scheme, as better coaches produce better players.

Whatever happens to Chinese football in the years to come, it will guarantee excitement and controversy. But in order to establish itself as a league, that is seriously considered to challenge the Premier League and nations on the international level, society must adapt to allow the beautiful game to prosper and grow in the Far East.