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Why is China So Bad at Soccer?
Unraveling the Downfall of China's No.1 Soccer Dream
Last week, the 19th Asian Games finally kicked off in Hangzhou, China after a short delay due to the aftermath of the pandemic. With Chinese fans and officials awaiting promising results in their home field, one sport hasn’t been a favorite to win over the last couple of years, Soccer. Today we’ll be looking at why one of the largest countries in the world hasn’t been so successful at the world’s most exciting sports event.
China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, embraced soccer with fervor, influenced largely by the passion and ambition of its leader, Xi Jinping. Yet, the dream of conquering the world's most popular sport has proven elusive. What went wrong? The story of China's soccer is complex, blending elements of zealous investment, administrative issues, and unfulfilled potential.
When President Xi Jinping articulated his vision for soccer in China, it wasn't just about fostering a footballing culture; it was about global prestige. With plans to build thousands of soccer schools and fields, and major corporations pouring money into buying football clubs and talents from abroad, it seemed China was setting the stage for soccer success.
Billions and Ambitions
China's massive investments, especially in acquiring stakes in European clubs and luring international stars with astronomical salaries, saw the country rise as a new hub for footballing talent. The Chinese Super League (CSL) became a competitive marketplace, with international players and coaches being drawn to the lucrative opportunities it presented.
In the tapestry of China's ambitious soccer journey, the creation of a grand soccer academy was one of the most tantalizing threads. When Xi Jinping's aspirations for soccer dominance became clear, there was a spotlight on not just purchasing top talents but also nurturing them. The inception of the grand soccer academy was a testament to this long-term vision.
Located in Guangzhou and sprawling over 167 acres, the Evergrande Football School, often touted as the world's largest soccer academy, stood as a beacon of China's soccer dreams. In partnership with the renowned Spanish club Real Madrid, this academy boasted 50 pitches, state-of-the-art facilities, and an ambition to host over 10,000 students. With its Spanish coaches and a curriculum inspired by Europe's best, the academy was not merely a school; it was a symbol of China's aspiration to merge international expertise with local talent.
However, the academy was more than just infrastructure and foreign coaches. The rigorous regimen, often described as a blend of European techniques and Chinese discipline, was designed to produce world-class players. With children as young as nine being scouted and enrolled, the academy aimed at molding them into international soccer stars, embodying China's soccer dreams.
Challenges and Criticisms
Despite its grandeur and vision, the academy faced its share of criticisms. The primary one being its overt focus on quantity over quality. With thousands of children enrolled, personal attention and tailored coaching, often critical in the early phases of athletic development, were concerns raised by many experts. Additionally, while foreign coaches brought in expertise, there were cultural and communication challenges. The blend of European techniques and Chinese ethos, while unique, also faced criticisms for not being adaptable enough to individual needs.
One of the most contentious issues surrounding China's grand soccer academy, and others like it, has been the exorbitant tuition fees. These academies, while architecturally grand and aspirational in their goals, were not accessible to everyone, creating a significant barrier for many talented young players from less privileged backgrounds.
The promise of world-class training, exposure to international coaching methodologies, and state-of-the-art facilities came at a steep price. The Evergrande Football School, for instance, commanded annual tuition fees that ran into thousands of dollars. In a country with stark economic disparities, this meant that a vast majority of potential young talents were immediately sidelined, unable to access what was hailed as the crucible of China's soccer future.
The high tuition fees not only limited access but also brought about a homogenization in the socio-economic backgrounds of the students. This lack of diversity can be detrimental in sports, where experiences from varied backgrounds can enrich team dynamics, foster resilience, and build unique perspectives on and off the field. Historically, some of the world's most exceptional soccer talents have risen from challenging socio-economic conditions, using the sport as a vehicle for upward mobility. By placing such a high financial barrier, China's grand soccer academy inadvertently missed out on a reservoir of potential talent.
Despite all the investments, China's national men’s team has struggled in international competitions. Their rankings and World Cup qualifying campaigns have been lackluster, undermining the nation's ambitions on the world stage.
FIFA Ranking 2023
79.Georgia (Population: 3.7 Million)
80.China (Population: 1.4 Billion)
Rethinking Access and Opportunity
For China to genuinely become a soccer superpower, a reevaluation is necessary. While high-end academies with world-class facilities are essential, they must be balanced with grassroots programs that are accessible and inclusive. The story of soccer, globally, has always been one of passion transcending economic boundaries. As China reflects on its soccer journey, ensuring that dreams are not bound by economic constraints will be crucial.
In football powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, and many European nations, young talent is often scouted from a range of backgrounds, and their training in professional academies is heavily subsidized or even free. These countries recognize that the next big soccer star can come from anywhere, and economic constraints should not be a hindrance.
While there's a palpable sense of disillusionment, China's journey with soccer is not over. Many believe that a comprehensive overhaul, both administratively and culturally, is needed to revive the sport in the country. It remains to be seen if the leadership will once again support soccer with the same vigor or if the dream will be shelved for another era.
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