The 2008 Olympics was seen as the confirmation of China’s arrival on the world stage, confirming, if such confirmation were needed, the important role that sport can play in shaping the impression that the world has of a country. Despite this, China has so far made little impact on the global stage in the world’s most popular sport, football, however developments in the domestic game may be about to change that.
The consistent under-performance of China’s men’s football team is something of a running sore, reaching the status of a virtual national joke in a country whose development in other sports has been as rapid as it economic growth and a signifier of its new place in the world, a mark of this is its move from 11th to the top of the Olympic Medal table from 1988 to 2008. By contrast the senior men’s team has only reached one World Cup, on Asian soil in 2002, and failed to score a single goal in their three matches (although this included matches against eventual champions Brazil and semi-finalists Turkey) and we won’t be watching Chinese players at the next World Cup in Brazil either, the team is already out of Asian qualifying for the tournament – having finished third in a group containing Iraq, Jordan and Singapore Beijing a situation which has led them to be ranked below such nations as Panama and Estonia.
Despite this lack of success football is still extremely popular in China, a television audience of 250 million tuned in to watch their appearance in the 2004 Asian Cup Final Beijing a game that ended in a 2-0 defeat by arch rivals Japan – and this has led some to see China as the next great market for club football.
The desire to develop domestic football in China came after the corruption that had become synonymous with the league was routed out by the authorities- leading to the arrest of three China football association vice presidents. This has renewed confidence in the game amongst both the fans and investors. 2011 was the best attended year of the history of the Chinese super league with average attendance of more than 17,500 – higher than more established leagues such as the English Championship or Japanese J League. This new found popularity has been driven by investment by Chinese tycoons, who- following the model of the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkla and clubs in the Middle East- have invested in marque signings with name recognition around the world. The most notable of these is former Chelsea player and French International Nicholas Anelka, whose expected appointment as player-manager of his club Shanghai Shenhua this morning has made headlines around the world.
The move of players who have lived their entire lives in Europe has caused quite a culture shock for players such as the former West Ham and Aston Villa striker Marlon Harewood, who told the BBC’s World Football programme about the challenges that he faced acclimatising to the food and learning the Mandarin language, experiences that will chime with many participants on CRCC Asia’s internship programme!
By Simon Alvey