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Can China Order Up Soccer Stars?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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What does it take to succeed in China’s high-pressure high schools? Hard work, brains, an ability to function without sleep and now, apparently, a talent for scoring penalty kicks.

This last measure was announced on Wednesday by China’s Ministry of Education, which declared that an evaluation of each student’s “soccer skills” would now become part of his or her permanent assessment file. The state plans to train 6,000 new coaches by 2015 and to install 20,000 soccer “academies” in Chinese schools by 2017. In the city of Guangzhou, students participating in those academies will receive as many as half-a-dozen football lessons per semester.

Less-sporty students might well wonder if the ministry is serious about this new program -- and if so, why. Traditionally, students who show athletic talent have been funneled into government-run sports schools. More than that, China’s nascent educational reform movement has been fighting to loosen decades of top-down directives and test-based learning. Demanding that kids suddenly prove their ball skills would seem a reversal on both fronts.

Of course, as indicated by the fact that the announcement was made by the education minister himself as well as a vice premier, this new program has to do with more than sports. Thus far in his presidency, Xi Jinping has focused both rhetorically and ideologically on reviving Chinese greatness (the oft-cited “Chinese Dream”). That means more than improving China’s economy or geopolitical standing -- it means winning glory in international sporting competitions.

A concerted push ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing vastly improved China’s medal count there and in subsequent Olympics. But the world’s most populous country still has trouble playing the world’s most popular sport. FIFA’s current national rankings have China tied with Morocco at No. 88 (ironically, a lucky number in China). And that’s not bad considering that the Chinese team barely qualified for next year’s Asia Cup.

The low point might have come last June when the national side sputtered to a 5-1 loss against a Thai squad that started seven youth players. Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper summed up the sense of national outrage:

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.

Over the years China has imported expensive foreign coaches and spent millions to replicate the state-sponsored success it’s achieved in events like ping pong, diving, and gymnastics. But unlike solo sports, where talent combined with an incessant emphasis on skill building can breed world-class athletes, there’s simply no drill that can replicate the teamwork an athlete learns on the playground, where games are played for fun rather than national glory. In the U.S., for example, private and school youth leagues have played a critical role in the slow but steady improvement of once-woeful USA soccer to 13th in the world prior to this year’s World Cup.

Wisely, China is planning similar leagues in Guangdong province at least. However, even those teams will compete within the state system; the most promising athletes will then be shifted into China's government-run professional leagues. Over the years, these have become synonymous with corruption, ineptitude, and fan contempt. Even the most patriotic athlete could be excused for wanting nothing to do with such a system, especially in a China still rich with safer opportunities.

Suddenly ordering millions of school children to start booting around a ball won’t change those facts; it’ll just add more talent to a broken system. To take the next step, China needs to clean up its professional leagues, and then allow the teams to develop proper pipelines for young talent. Of course, that'll require years and a hands-off approach that the Chinese government rarely exercises when national priorities are at stake. But it’s probably China's best hope of turning around its soccer fortunes.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net