Body & Sports

Soccer is China's No. 1 spectator sport

Updated: 2011-02-11
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Soccer is regarded as the No. 1 spectator sport in China. Large crowds attend live games and large audiences tune in for televised games for both local Chinese teams and famous foreign ones. By one count 3.5 million of China’s roughly 600 million soccer fans regularly attend soccer matches at local stadiums. Soccer Boy is one of the country's top comics.
 
Soccer is the first sport to find some commercial success. The players are highly paid. Many earn over 1 million yuan ($146,000) a year, a considerable sum in China. At home and in restaurants and tea houses, men spend a lot of time sitting around radios or televisions tuning in to soccer matches. The matches themselves can be quite rowdy.
 
The Chinese claim they invented soccer. One man in the Song dynasty is said to have played the game so well that he was eventually appointed prime minister.
 
China was a participant in the first international soccer game in Asia: a match between China and the Philippines in Manila 1913. The Football Association of the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1924. It joined FIFA in 1934, dropped out in 1958 to protest the fact that Taiwan was allowed to play under the name of China and was only readmitted in the 1990s.
 
 Interest in soccer has reportedly dropped off in recent years due to scandals and poor performances by the national team in international competition.

Chinese National Soccer Team
 
Xu Guoqi, a professor of East Asian Studies at Kalamazoo College, wrote in the Washington Post that all the gold medals won at the Olympics in Beijing meant little to China’s real, hardcore sports fans. “The real metric by which China judges itself against the rest of the world isn’t the discus or the decathlon. It’s not even our record-breaking economic growth or its modern skylines. It’s soccer.”
 
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chinese national team was consistently one of the best in Asia. One brilliant Chinese striker, Li Huitang, was called the “the soccer king of Asia.”
 
The national team has been coached by a succession of foreign coaches: Bobby Houghton (England), Bora Milutinovic (Serbia), Arie Haan (the Netherlands) and Ratomir Dujkovic (Serbia).
 
China was eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup in 2010 when it lost to Iraq 2-1 in June 2008. Iraq looked strong in the game. After the game the Internet lit up with complaints, frustrations and expressions by Chinese of deeply-felt self-doubt. A newspapers in the northeastern city of Changchun ran only a large, bold black headline, “The National Soccer Team Lost Again. We Have nothing to Say.” There was no other text on game in the paper.
 
In June 2008, angry fans turned on the national team during a 1-0 loss to Qatar, a country with about with about a half million people.
 
In February 2010, China scored its first ever win against South Korea and they did in convincing 3-0 fashion in the East Asian championship. In 26 previous matches between the two teams China had never won.

Failure of the Chinese National Soccer Team
 
Xu, the professor at Kalamazoo College, wrote: “When it come to our beloved sport, China is not just the sick man of Asia. It’s the sick man of the world. Our soccer tragedy is epic. In the late 1970s, when China resumed international play, after decades of self-imposed isolation, our national men’s team has made it to the World Cup only once.” The poor performances of the team “have also prompted doubts about Chinese manhood, undermined the country’s vaulted can-do spirit and sparked agonized questions about politics, culture and society—even about what it means to be Chinese.”
 
'On a deeper level, many Chinese — especially Chinese men—are unhappy, deeply frustrated and prone to strong, deep-rooted pangs of helplessness and abandonment. And it’s all soccer’s fault...Millions of Chinese fans link soccer to their national sense of honor. But when your team isn’t very good, that linkage between nationalism and sport can mean tumult and even tragedy.”
 
Xu wrote the success of the women’s team “only makes matters worse for the country’s pouting men. If the Chinese could win and prove their manhood in the 1930s? And why are China’s men less impressive on the field than its women?...Some pundits have pontificated that we’re going through an era of yin, or femininity, and have wondered what’s wrong with our yang.”
 
The poor performance of the national team and match fixing scandals in the Chinese league has turned many Chinese off to soccer and stadiums at games are often nearly empty. Some think that soccer in China will only improve if changes are made in China as a whole: more transparency, the rule of law, less corruption, loosening the Communist Party’s grip on power. Others think the team will only improve if individualism is downplayed and there is return to a Confucian sense of collectivism. 

Antipathy Towards the Chinese National Soccer team
 
Everyone and everything it seem rails on the Chinese national soccer team when they perform poorly: newspapers, television, celebrity sports bloggers and even other athletes and coaches. The Chinese Daily newspapers have featured special boxes for people to insult the team. The team has been so reviled the Central Propaganda Department has issued orders to news organizations to stop criticizing it. According to one Chinese reporter the Propaganda Department “demanded that the press not overly make quips about or sneer at the Chinese men’s soccer team.”
 
According to a widely circulated joke in China printed in the New York Times: “There are only two things stopping the Chinese soccer team from going outside Asia to take part in international games: their left feet and their right feet.”
 
Fans often blame corruption in the state-run Chinese Football Association for the team’s dismal performance and they particularly dislike the association’s leader Xie Yalong, often chanting “Xie Yalong must resign” at games. Sometimes the chants have been so loud Xie has left the stadium. Others blame the high salaries earned by players. Some think the money goes to their heads. Players have been caught with drugs and prostitutes.
 
High expectations are also blamed. One sports commentator told the New York Times, “If they win, we treat them like heroes. If they lose, we say ‘Go to hell.’” Other critics site an emphasis on studying at an early age which stymies new talent from developing, the failure of state sports system in training athletes in sports like soccer which require flair and creativity, combined with team work, and the failure of the state to provide the kind of money and incentives necessary to create good soccer.
 
Some even think hatred towards the national soccer team could trigger a “major revolution.”Xu wrote in the Washington Post, “Without the rule of law, corruption will get involved, and nobody is responsible to anyone. If Chinese continue to be obsessed with soccer, they’ll definitely demand something dramatic, something political or involving rule of law. It will start with sports and then it will move onto something bigger.”

World Cup Soccer and China
 
The World Cup is widely regarded by Chinese as the world's most important sporting event. In one survey, 68 percent of people asked in a Beijing poll said they watched matches in the 1998 World Cup even though a Chinese team was not present and the games were often on in middle of the night.
 
 
China has expressed an interest in hosting the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. More than 700 million Chinese watched the World Cup in 2006.
 
China qualified for its first World Cup in 2002 under the controversial Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic after defeating Qatar, Uzbekistan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. China all but secured its spot when it beat Oman 1-0 in October 2001 in Shenyang. Chinese fans regard this as the pinnacle of Chinese soccer. After beating Qatar 3-0 to formally secure the berth, hundreds of thousand of Chinese fans celebrated in Tiananmen square. An estimated 60,000 Chinese made the trip to South Korea to cheer on the team.
 
China didn’t do so well in the World Cup itself. It didn’t score any goals and lost all three of its games: 4-0 to Brazil, 3-0 to Turkey and 2-0 to Costa Rica. After the loss to Turkey, the General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation said that Asian teams could not compete against the “hard-core professionals” in Europe and Latin America.
 
China didn’t even make it to the qualifying round for the World Cup in 2006. They were edged out by Kuwait in the first round. China is in a qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup with Australia, Iraq and Qatar.

Asian Cup Soccer and China
 
China hosted the Asian Cup soccer tournament in 2004. Key games were played at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. China lost to Japan 3-1 in the finals. Television replays of Japan’s key second goal seemed to show that a Japanese player illegally touched the ball with his hand. It was the first time China had ever made it to the finals of the Asian Cup. It beat Iran in a shoot-out in the semifinals.
Asian Cup Violence in 2004, See Soccer Violence Below.

Soccer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
 
The soccer team was an embarrassment. Fifty-two minutes into the China-Belgium game the Chinese player Tam Wangsing was given a red card after he swung and missed a ball and then buried his foot on the groin of a Belgian player, sending him to the ground writhing in pain. A second red card was issued 12 minutes later when the team captain Zheng Zhi elbowed an opposing player. Afterwards the Internet was full of jokes about the game: “The Chinese just won two red medals”; 'Our soccer team just won the gold medal in martial arts.”
 
The Chinese team lost two of its preliminary matches, managed only a 1-1 tie against New Zealand, and lost 3-0 to Brazil, after which one Chinese player admitted the shortcomings of the team saying, “We play soccer like the Brazilians play Ping-Pong” to which the Brazilian table tennis team took offense.
 
After the loss to Brazil, Chinese fans held a small protest that had to be broken up by police. After the Chinese woman’s soccer team beat Argentina 2-0 the team’s coach suggested that their strikers play for the men’s team.
 
Shandong Lueng wins championship

Club Soccer and China
 
The Chinese Professional Football League was launched in 1994. The demand was such that eventuality two professional soccer leagues were created. The average soccer player earns $60,000 a year, a considerable sum in China. Few teams make any money because ticket prices are low and advertising and television revenues are marginal.
 
Almost every province has at least one team and a wide variety of state-owned and private enterprises sponsor them. The August First team, named after the day of the founding of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), is sponsored by the PLA and is underwritten by Nike.
 
The Wanda Soccer Club from Dalian has traditionally been one of China’s top teams. Dalian fans are famous for their boisterousness and obnoxious behavior. They have been shown on nationally televised matches shouting obscenities involving animal genitalia. In 2002, Chinese B-League team Gansu Tianma in Lanzhou hired the famous English soccer player Paul Gasciogne.
 
Club soccer in China has its share of problems. The pitches are not the best of quality. The integrity of the sport was compromised by the 'Black Whistles” scandals involving corruption among referees. See Below:

Soccer Players and China
 
Chinese soccer player Wen Junwu, a former star player with the now defunct Guangzhou-based Apollo Football Club, was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve for a murder connected to a gambling debt. In June 2007, Wen murdered a man he owed $11,700. Death with a two year reprieve is usually commuted to life in prison.
 
 
In December 2008, national team player Mao Jiangqing was detained for allegedly assaulting a man in a restaurant brawl. He spent a week in jail and was kicked off his team but, according to the Times of London, “the door was left open a recall to the team if the talented 22-year-old play could reform himself.”
 
Players routinely get yellowed carded and red carded for cheap or deliberate fouls.
 
Fan Zhiyi, captain of the national team, played for Dundee in Scotland’s Premier League and played one season with Crystal Place in England’s Premier League before returning to China in 1999. He was voted Asian player of the year in 2001 by the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Football Confederation.
 
Fullback Sun Jihai, another star of the World Cup team, played for Manchester City in the English Premier League. His Chinese team was paid a $2.8 million transfer fee, a record for a Chinese player. His salary was $910,000 a year.
 
Midfielder Li Toe is regarded as one of China’s best defensive players. He was voted China’s player of the year in 2001. He received offers from Ajax in Amsterdam and Southampton in England’s Premier League but turned them down so he could concentrate on preparing for the World Cup in 2002.
 
Midfielder Ma Mingyu played for Perugia in the Series A, Italy's top professional soccer league. Yan Heng played for Eintracht Frankfurt and midfielder Shao Jiyo played for Energie Vottbus in the German Bundesliga.
 
Zheng Zhi, a striker the captain of China’s national team, led Shandong to the Chinese Super League and Chinese FA Cup titles and played for three years Charton in the English Premier League. He has been named China Soccer League player of the year twice. He now plays for the Scottish team Celtic and has a two-year contract to play with that team until 2011.

Foreign Soccer Teams and China
 
The English Premier League now regards China as one its largest international markets, drawing between 100 million and 300 million viewers.
 
David Beckman plugs Pepsi and Adidas. Ronaldinho is the brand ambassador for Lenovo.
 
In pick up games you are more likely to see players wearing jerseys for European clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United, AC Milan and Chelsea than those belonging to Chinese teams.
 
European teams such as Arsenal, A.C. Milan and Sampdoria have played before sold out crowds in China. Chinese fans follow them and teams like Manchester United and Juventus on television. English, Spanish and German league games are shown on CCTV5 and BTV. There is particular interest of European teams that have Chinese players.
 
Barcelona played before full stadiums in a three city tour in China in the summer of 2007. Ronaldinho is one of the biggest pitchmen in China. His image is on everything from Lenovo computers to a Chinese brand of ice cream.
 
The English soccer club Chelsea let the Chinese national soccer team use its state of the art training facilities to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.

Corruption and Bribery in Soccer in China

Corruption, match-fixing and referee-bribing are relatively common in Chinese soccer. Allegations of match-rigging were raised in the fall of 2001, following a 11-2 victory by one team that allowed it move up significantly in the standings; a 6-0 victory with four goals scored in the last eight minutes; and the awarding of a goal to one team by a referee while the opposing team was still taking the field. Later two club owners confessed of their roles in a bribery scheme. 
 
 
The Chinese Soccer Association investigated the matter but took no legal action, claiming it didn’t have enough evidence. After public outrage reached a fever point, it finally acted, suspending several players and slapping the teams involved with heavy fines.
In January 1998, 12 top Chinese clubs admitted in a newspaper survey that they had offered cash bribes to referees, some of whom took he money.
 
Song Weiping, the owner of a professional soccer team that investigated the matter, told the Los Angeles Times, “We knew [Chinese soccer] was dirty. But we didn’t know it was this dirty. It was only after we got into the business that we realized giving money to referees was standard operating procedure. I can say that nine out of ten referees have been offered bribes or accepted bribes. Even the most conservative estimates put the number at 50 percent.”
 
'The going rate for referees is about $7,300 a game,” Song said. a lot of money in China. “At first we refused to do it. But our coach convinced us that if the other team pays up and we don’t, the referee would easily lean in their favor.”

Problems with Chinese Soccer Fans
 
China has a problem with rowdy fans. In the mid 2000s, officials began cracking down on sports fans who yell obscenities at opposing players and referees. One man was banned from matches in Beijing for 12 months. Another was held by police for using the Internet to organize rowdy fans at matches.
 
 
A 20 percent rise in facial paralysis in Beijing in 2006 was blamed on fans stressed out by the World Cup. A doctor quoted by the state media said that the he believed the rise was attributed to tension and exhaustion associated with watching the matches, often televised in the wee hours of the morning. The condition, known as Bells palsy or prosopoplegia, is caused by nerve trauma and is temporary. Most victims recovered in a few weeks or months.
 
One Chinese soccer fan suffered a heart attack after Portugal missed a goal against Angola. He had stayed up three days, drinking heavily and watching World Cup soccer games all night. He survived. His doctor said, “He spent too long continuously watching the games and he drank too much.”
 
In Shanghai, soccer fans were offered free taxi rides home after watching matches during the last World Cup as part of an effort to keep drunk drivers off the roads.

Soccer Violence in China
 
China has problems with hooliganism and fan violence. Fans sometimes pelt fans from rival clubs with plastic bottles. In March 2002, professional games were temporarily banned in the city of Xian after fans set fire to stadium seats and attacked police followed a controversial tied game.
 
In 1985, fans in Beijing rioted after China lost a World Cup qualifier to Hong Kong. In May of that year , heavily-favored China played an important game against Hong Kong before 80,000 fans at the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing. Had China won it stood a good chance of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. But alas it lost. The loss was particularly humiliating in that China was big and anti-imperialist and Hong Kong was a tiny colony made up of Chinese ruled by Britons.
 
Inside the stadium, fans threw bottles and smashed seats. Outside they damaged buildings and burned cars with plates from foreign embassies. Two thousand police were called in; at least 127 people were arrested. But it didn’t stop there. Fans surrounded the residential compounds of the team, singing the Communist Internationale for the world’s suffering masses to rise up. The team made a public apology for blowing the match.
 
In 2002, a riot broke out in the city of Fuzhou when a large screen television was shut off just minutes before the China-Brazil match in the World Cup was about to start. Irate fans there turned over cars and tore down signs. The television was turned off by police because they were trying to disperse a crowd because it was disrupting traffic.
 
Sometimes it is the players not the fans that make trouble. In February 2007, the Chinese Olympic soccer team was involved in mass brawl in a match against the London club Queens Park Rangers. The fight was so serious that the game was abandoned. The Chinese team was accused by government-supported media of shaming the nation. Many ordinary Chinese felt the team was justified in striking back against a provocation from the English side.

Anti-Japanese Soccer Violence in China
 
Anti-Japanese soccer violence was a problem during the Asian Cup soccer tournament in Beijing in 2004. Chinese fans booed the Japanese players and threw garbage, paper cups and plastic bottles at Japanese supporters and shouted things like “May a big sword chop off the Japanese heads!” During the Japanese national anthem Chinese fans hissed and booed despite messages on the scoreboard that read: “Be Civilized Spectators! Show a Civilized Manner!”
 
Outside the stadium before and after the finals, in which Japan beat China 3-1, Chinese supporters burned the Japanese flag and made anti-Japanese speeches and sang old anti-Japanese songs. One group of Chinese surrounded the car of the Japanese ambassador and smashed the car’s windows. Another group scuffled with police and chased the bus with the Japanese team and pelted it with bottles while shouting, 'Kill! Kill! Kill!”
 
In a first round game, between Japan and Thailand, in Chongqing—which had been subjected to fierce Japanese bombing in World War II—two Japanese players were left behind when an angry mob forced the Japanese bus to take off early after a game The angry mob surrounded the bus but didn’t throw anything. Throughout the game Chinese fans booed the Japanese team and threw garbage at Japanese fans. The Japanese government criticized the Chinese government for not doing more to protect Japanese players and fans and reign in the violence.
 
In February 2008, at a game between China and Japan at the East Asian Championships in Chongqing, Chinese spectators robustly booed and jeered the Japanese team and threw bottles and sticks at Japanese supporters when they greeted the team despite public notices to be on good behavior. By contrast Chinese fans stood up and were respectful for the anthem of North Korea. After the game, which China lost, fans threw rubbish at the Chinese team bus.
 

Women's Soccer in China
 
The women’s team is known as the Iron Roses.
 
In the finals of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the Chinese women's soccer team was defeated by the United States 5-4 in a penalty kick shoot-out after 90 scoreless minutes of regulation play at two scoreless overtime periods. The game and tournament itself received quite a bit of publicity in the United States. Over 90,000 people showed up to watch the game live at the Rose Bowl, the largest crowd ever for a women's sporting event, and 40 million U.S. viewers watched it on television.
 
Unable to afford custom-made uniforms, the Chinese team in 1999 wore men's uniforms. They defeated Norway 5-0 in the semifinal. Midlfielder Sun Wen scored two goals. In the finals the United States won after American goal keeper punched away one of the Chinese penalty kicks after wandering far from her line. In Beijing, authorities were worried about anti-American demonstrations. A busload of police was posted at the U.S. Embassy.
 
The Chinese women's soccer team did not get nearly as much support from their homeland as the American team did. Most Chinese soccer fans prefer men's soccer over women's soccer and feel the success of the women's team only makes the men's team seem worse.
 
In the 2003 Women’s World Cup, China exited in the quarterfinals when they were defeated by Canada 1-0. Some regard the game as one of the biggest upsets ever in women’s soccer. Before 2003, Canada had never won a World Cup game. China was ranked forth the world. It was supposed to host the tournament, but it was moved to the United States because of the SARS epidemic.
 
Top players on the national team can earn more than $25,000 a year. Average players earn around $10,000. Many players save as much of their salary as they can to help their brothers attend university or pay for a proper wedding.
 
Players on the women's national team wake up at 7:30am and have two slices of bread with butter and an egg, sometimes with a little beef or vegetables for breakfast. After a morning briefing practice begins at 10:00am and ends around noon, followed by a bath, a quick nap and lunch. After lunch there is another briefing and another practice session from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. Then its dinner and a session with massage therapists. There are many rules and regulations, including no cell phones or computers except for a short period in the evening.
 
China lost 2-1 to the United States at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.
 
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
 
 
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