Soccer Gets Left Behind in China's Rise

China's centralized, control-freak approach to choosing athletes for the national team, and a lack of youth developmental leagues, have relegated its team to 103rd in FIFA’s most recent world rankings.
You'd think China would have the edge when it comes to thriving despite corruption.

In China, the World Cup is a late-night affair. Matches are played past midnight to devoted crowds that -- for a month, at least -- shed all discipline and productivity. In the Shanghai neighborhood I called home through two previous World Cups, raucous roars would rumble down streets and up stairwells any time a goal was scored, no matter the hour. It's the sort of sleep-depriving enthusiasm that in most places is reserved for the home team (or the team playing the home team's rival). In China, however, there hasn't been a World Cup home team since 2002, when in its three losses the Chinese side failed to score at all.

QuickTake The World Cup

Ever since, China's soccer fans -- who remain both plentiful and rabid -- have been left looking for proxies. (Argentina is a longtime national favorite.) All the while, they grumble under their breaths about the government's centralized, control-freak approach to choosing athletes for the national team and a lack of youth developmental leagues outside of the official system -- problems that have relegated what should be a beloved national team to 103rd in FIFA's most recent world rankings and a status so low that only a starting lineup of 11 corrupt Communist Party cadres could claim to have more haters.

The losses are legendary, and worthy of front-page attention. In 2011, for example, the national team's already slim World Cup qualifying hopes were extinguished by Iraq -- Iraq! -- in a 1-0 loss that set off weeks of soul searching about whether China's national star had really risen if it couldn't beat a war-torn basketcase of a country. Then, two years later, playing in a Chinese stadium, the Chinese managed to lose 5-1 to a Thai team that replaced seven of its regulars with youth players before the game. China's home field in that match provided no advantage, but it did give Chinese fans an opportunity to riot and injure more than 100 people. Shortly after that loss, the Southern Metropolis Daily, an independent-minded, soccer-loving newspaper in Guangzhou, offered a broad, socially minded editorial explaining the disappointment:

In this century China and its economy have experienced a leap in strength, and 'the rise of China,' has inadvertently become a consensus at home and abroad. In contrast, looking back at Chinese football, except for the 2002 World Cup it's spent 11 years heading step by step into the abyss.

Those are fairly modest words to describe a national team that's become synonymous with corruption, boorishness, and spoiled, entitled athletes who make American professional basketball players resemble Roman Stoics. The situation was made worse by a 2012 match-fixing scandal that resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of players, referees and even the former head of China's soccer association. Far from enhancing the credibility of China's soccer culture, the crackdown seemed to damage it further. For example, in my very recent experience, referees who make controversial calls at Chinese professional matches aren't called idiots or blind, as they would be in most places. Rather, they're called corrupt and accused of blowing a "black whistle."

Chinese soccer fans aren't ignorant of the fact that international soccer is just as corrupt, if not more so, as China's. But, in a sense, that's an even graver insult. If lesser countries can prosper on the international stage despite corruption, shouldn't much-bigger China be able to do so as well? Until then, cheering for Argentina will have to do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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