Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:49 PM CST – China

Society

Soccer Reform

OWN GOAL

The Chinese government has launched nationwide reform of the country’s soccer apparatus to a mixed reaction from the sports world and the public

Elementary school students in Zhejiang Province use soccer balls as part of an exercise routine, March 26, 2015 Photo by CFP

A soccer team from a county-level elementary school in Shandong Province takes a rest after training, March 19, 2015 Photo by ic

Students at a county-level elementary school in Shaanxi Province play in a local league soccer game, April 13, 2014 Photo by Xinhua

While China may not be known as much of a soccer nation, a State-level roadmap for systemic reform of the country’s soccer apparatus – allegedly personally backed by President Xi Jinping – was recently unveiled, with the stated goal of “pushing Chinese soccer teams into the World Cup and the Olympic Games.”

The reform, which fans and those associated with the sport have been advocating for many years, aims to spin the China Football Association (CFA) out from full government administration – a structure that many believe to be the cause of all the major problems in Chinese soccer – while improving professional leagues and promoting the sport among children and young people nationwide.

Overnight, soccer has become a buzzword online and offline, much to the excitement of soccer fans and pundits, many of whom had lost confidence in the country’s soccer apparatus. Many exclaimed that the reform has brought “a new spring” to Chinese soccer, and are already predicting to see the national team make moves on the global stage.

The reform also provides an opportunity for local governments to get closer to the central administration. Immediately after the reform program was announced, regions across the country began building soccer fields, releasing soccer-related publicity campaigns, and holding matches in schools and even kindergartens. Meanwhile, controversy was growing too, with many experts and critics wondering whether the campaign would be just an easy way for local officials to rack up performance statistics, or, at worst, an ill-advised, disastrous waste of funds.

De-administration

In the sports world, there is a general wariness of any reform described as a “nationally sweeping” campaign, a term generally linked to clunky, government-sponsored administration programs. As early as 1992, the Chinese government launched its first reform program to carry out the “de-administration” of soccer, announcing it would “marketize” the sport by setting up a system of professional leagues.

While the reform resulted in a number of new leagues and clubs, and injected fresh blood into the soccer industry, it failed to bring about any improvement in the fortunes of the national team.

In June, 2008, the Chinese national team once again failed to qualify for the World Cup, outraging a great many Chinese fans and experts. Amid an outpouring of venomous criticism, the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) attributed the national team’s poor performance to the “marketized” system, and appealed for Chinese soccer to be placed back under government administration.

This resulted in an outcry among experts and insiders, especially the professional leagues and clubs. “The source of the problem did not lie in marketization, but in ‘half-marketization,’” Yang Zuwu, then manager of Beijing Guo’an Football Club, told the media. “Due to heavy government interference, Chinese soccer was far from self-management and operation,” he added.

Over the years, there have been numerous media reports – and even books – released about official corruption in Chinese soccer, with repeated accusations of wrongdoing. In 2010, Nan Yong, former soccer management director of GASC, and Xie Yalong, former deputy president of CFA (2005-2008), were detained for fixing soccer matches and taking bribes, triggering calls for the purification and streamlining of management in the Chinese soccer system.

Given the mistrust of soccer officials in the industry and among the public, it is understandable that “de-administration” has been made a highlight of the new reform program. The roadmap will see renowned experts and other non-governmental personnel included in the revamped CFA, and will prevent anyone with an official CFA title from taking up a leadership position at any professional league or club.

“Our analysis and research while drawing up the roadmap have told us that a ‘nationally sweeping’ system [purely administered and sponsored by the government] is no longer suitable for Chinese soccer. The reform is not a return to the old path,” Cai Zhenhua, deputy director of GASC, explained to State broadcaster CCTV.

However, for many, the use of the loaded term “nationally sweeping” in the roadmap undermines the government’s stated goal of dialing down administration – while the roadmap does aim for increased marketization, it continues to emphasize that government administration is needed, and demands that the reform take advantage of both.

A Great Leap For Soccer?

A major reason that many people support upgrading soccer development to the State level is that they believe that China’s professional leagues and clubs spend most of their funds on top-level players for quick profit, while ignoring lower-level ones. Meanwhile, few of them have shown any interest in improving the country’s soccer education.

Hebei Province, for example, was once criticized by domestic media for its soccer development campaign, which some compared to the disastrous Great Leap Forward industrial reform campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Local clubs paid top dollar for popular players, driving developing players out of the province or away from the game altogether. Short of money, the clubs, according to media reports, have broken their promise to train young talent and build more soccer facilities.

“I now only have 12 million yuan (US$1.9m) to train young players, which is nowhere near enough. I cannot even find any proper land for a training field,” Lin Weiguo, director of the young player training department of CFA, told NewsChina in 2014.

“Chinese soccer has actually benefited little from government administration since the 1992 reform. The latest roadmap will bring more space for grassroots development of Chinese soccer,” Ma Dexing, a well-known sports journalist based in Beijing, told NewsChina.

“I don’t think [government administration and marketization] are contradictory. Chinese soccer can hardly develop without government support, especially financial assistance,” he added.

As Ma expected, the 2015 reform has indeed placed heavy emphasis on soccer education. The Ministry of Education announced that it will make soccer class mandatory at 6,000 schools nationwide. By 2025, China, according to the roadmap, will be home to around 50,000 “soccer schools” – regular schools with a strong soccer pedigree – with over 50 million students.

 To respond to such a grand plan, many local governments are now dedicating themselves to opening soccer schools, recompiling soccer textbooks, selecting young soccer players and promoting professional leagues in regional elementary, middle and high schools, only to find themselves criticized for what some see as short-sighted, heavy-handed methods.

The criticism came to a peak following news that Zhejiang Province had set up professional leagues in several experimental kindergartens, and that Shandong Province had allegedly planned to suspend college basketball and volleyball leagues to devote more resources to soccer, though the latter denied the claim.

“It seems that the reform has become a way of sucking up to the central government. So, what will [local governments] do if the next [central government] leader loves basketball?” quipped a user on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

Yao Ming, the former basketball star, expressed similar worries during an interview with Xinhua News Agency. “If we develop soccer at the cost of other sports, we might lose both,” he said. “A few mistakes or a couple of detours are excusable in the course of reform, but we should never pursue quick success,” he added.

The Ministry of Education has refuted this accusation. In an online public discussion with netizens, the ministry’s sports and arts director Wang Dengfeng pledged to take the plan step-by-step, and will not make soccer a compulsory part of any entrance examination for higher education.

His words, however, failed to persuade parents whose children are not naturally talented at or fond of soccer. “Even if soccer assessments are [in Wang Dengfeng’s words] ‘just a reference,’ they might influence my son’s final appraisal if other candidates of the same standard are better at soccer,” Hu Haibo, a 38-year-old Beijing resident, told NewsChina.

A die-hard soccer fan, Hu said that he feels very glad that the government cares so much about soccer, but while he looks forward to cheering for the national team in the World Cup one day, he cares more about his son’s freedom to “choose the sport he likes.”

Meanwhile, since a group of Chinese soccer fans rioted on the streets of Beijing after the national team was beaten by Hong Kong in a qualifying match for the 1986 World Cup, soccer in China has always been heavily linked to nationalism – a legacy echoed in the reform roadmap, with the frequent inclusion of terms like “a national dream” and “a strong country of sports.”

“It is quite narrow-minded to set ‘winning matches’ as the objective of reform. The final objective of sport reform should be to popularize it among ordinary people and push it into the free market,” Yan Qiang, a columnist of Financial Times, wrote in a commentary.

“Though the CFA will no longer be related to the government, as stated in the roadmap, they and local governments will have easier access to resources thanks to the State-level reform. If some relevant officials misuse their power or unreasonably allocate resources for the sake of performance or bribery, there will be a ‘Great Leap Forward effect,’” warned a commentary from Xinhua News Agency.

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